“My first work in which I can see myself as Mahler, a tale for chorus, soloists and orchestra: Das Klagende Lied! I regard this as my op. 1” – wrote Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) about Das Klagende Lied. There is no question that this composition marks the beginning of a career rather than a mere study for future things. Looking back from a distance of 125 years, and knowing Mahler's later works, we can immediately recognise Mahler's individual style in almost every bar. It contains everything, the compositional ambitions, mood and atmosphere that makes Mahler's music incomparable. In the history of music, there have been a number of examples of eighteen years old armed with the full arsenal of Pallas Athene, but Mahler's achievement is remarkable none the less.
Mahler began work in March 1878, but the work had a long birth and several forced interruptions. First he had to assemble the text which meant research through a variety of sources. In particular, the story called “the singing bone” from Ludwig Bechstein's collection of German fairy stories deserves mention, but Mahler also knew the Grimm brothers variations of this same tale. Mahler fundamentally transformed the text and its content can be summarised thus: a wandering minstrel finds a bone in the forest and carves a recorder from it for himself. When he blows into it, the bone assumes a human voice: it names the man who murdered him. It turns out that the murderer is none other than the victim's own brother who will shortly be crowned king. The queen had decreed that she would marry anyone who brings her a very special red rose that opens in secret in the forest. A pair of brothers set off seeking the rose. The brother with the gentler soul found the rose and pinned it on his hat. He then he fell asleep at the foot of a tree. His brother found him and killed him in his sleep. Through this wicked deed, the other brother won the Queen's hand in marriage. The nuptials are underway when the song of the wandering minstrel disturbs the celebration: he performs the tragedy from the deep forest. Merriment collapses into mourning and the walls of the palace collapse.
It is no accident that this wild romantic story fascinated Mahler. A great many artists were drawn to these kinds of stories during these years. Two decades later, Schoenberg used a similar tale as the basis for his epic song cycle Gurre-Lieder.
Mahler's attraction to legends and folk story elements can be observed from the very beginning of his career: his first (although unrealised) musical plan was a fairytale opera, with the title Rübezahl but later, he produced a number of masterpieces inspired by his love of the “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” collection.
Mahler employs immense apparatus for the Klagende Lied: besides the three vocal soloists, he asks for a mixed choir and a large orchestra, in addition to a “distant” band which comprises of woodwind, drums, percussion instruments and harp. It is clear that even as a very young composer, Mahler was keenly interested in exploiting musical spatial effects. Considering he had no experience in handling an orchestra, Mahler's orchestration was remarkably accomplished. His only practise ground was the rather humdrum Bad Hall orchestra from Upper Austria. He utilises the leitmotif techniques in the Klagende Lied boldly and with flexibility, techniques deriving from Berlioz and perfected in Wagner. He also fully exploits the possibilities for musical allusions in recurring textual elements. The style of the work, which naturally owes much to Wagner's musical language, is entirely independant. The characteristically Mahlerian melodies, various folk songs and other motific fragments are paired with some marvellous orchestration.
After a lengthy forced break from composition (teaching and theatre conducting), Mahler wrote on November 1st 1880: “I have finally finished my fairystory work – it really was a painful birth since I have been working on it for over a year. My next plan: to do my utmost to get it performed.” This was undoubtedly ambitious for a mere twenty year old young man, who lived in extremely humble circumstances and who was utterly unknown. Mahler applied for the Vienna Beethoven prize, which would have solved his financial problems for at least a year, but the jury ultimately decided that Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) was a more deserving case. It is interesting to note that Brahms and Goldmark were members of the jury. Less well known is that in 1883, Mahler tried to persuade Liszt to help arrange a performance but Liszt brushed it aside, saying that the text wasn't good enough which rather disappointed Mahler since he had seriously considered devoting himself to poetry.
Mahler returned to the composition in 1898 in Vienna, where he sensed there was a chance for publication. He fundamentally rewrote the score, condensed the three sections into two and slighly thinned out the orchestration. An example of this work will suffice: instead of the original six harps, the later version is satisfied with just two.
Its was finally premiered on February 17th 1901 at a concert in the Musikverein entitled “Concert of Five Hundred.” Mahler, who at that time was the powerful director of the Vienna Opera, contracted the finest singers available: the Singakademie, the Schubert Assocation and of course, the Philharmonic Orchestra. The soloists were also superb. He finally realised a youthful ambition that had been postponed for two decades. Mahler himself never heard the original three part version which was premiered in 1935 by the Brünn Radio.
The three sections are the following: I. Forest Tale II. The Wandering Minstrel III. Wedding Feast