Friday, July 22, 2011

Sunday Classics: Mahler's "military" songs -- (1) He said, she said


Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau blusters through Mahler's "Trost im Unglück" ("Comfort in Misfortune") with the Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Zender, April 1979.
Mahler's unique power as a composer lies in his ability to catch the essence of the sounds of man and nature, and to transmute it into purely musical terms. From his early childhood, he was fascinated by the sounds that environed him: bird songs, bugle calls, tattoos, marches and, especially, dances and airs. It is said that when Mahler was only four or five years old he could already play more than a hundred peasant songs and dances on an accordion. . . .
-- from Jack Diether's liner note for the Ludwig-Berry-Bernstein recording of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs

by Ken

You'll notice that I haven't labeled this post a Sunday Classics "preview." Originally I expected to. As I promised in last week's post on Mahler's Sixth Symphony (which I hope you'll look at if you haven't already; it's one that I think accomplished surprisingly well what it set out to), I suggested that this week we would catch up with two of Mahler's greatest songs, "Revelge" ("Reveille") and "Der Tamboursg'sell" ("The Drummer Boy"), from his settings of poems from Achim von Arnim's and Clemens Brentano's three-volume anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn). That's still the plan, and I'm going to stick with the idea that occurred to me to "preview" those epic songs with some of the other "military" Wunderhorn settings. But --

We can't "just listen" to those other songs. I don't plan to chatter a lot tonight, but some basic issues that apply to Sunday's material really need to be addressed in connection with tonight's and tomorrow night's programs. And I couldn't think of a better way to start than with the paragraph up top filched from Jack Diether's liner note for the original Columbia LP issue of the glorious 1967-69 recording of the Wunderhorn songs by Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry, and Leonard Bernstein.

Even though I've touted that recording for ages as one of the all-time great recordings, I hadn't looked at Jack's liner note in ages, but I wasn't surprised to find gold there. In last week's Mahler Sixth post, drawing heavily on Jack's booklet note for the Leinsdorf-Boston-RCA recording, I described him as "a gentle and wise human being and an acute and astute listener who earned the fierce admiration of music lovers discovering Mahler's music because he dealt so credibly with the experience of it." And when we put that paragraph up top together with the one that follows it in the original note, which I'm saving for tomorrow night, we'll have as good a description and summation of Mahler's art and particular genius as I can imagine in two paragraphs. (A slew of self-proclaimed Mahler experts have written whole books without getting this close to the essence.)

In the space Columbia allotted him for the Wunderhorn songs Jack unfortunately couldn't say much about the individual pieces, but his bare-bones descriptions are more useful than most writers' dissertations, so in the click-through I'm going to ask him to introduce tonight's two songs, "Trost im Unglück" ("Comfort in Misfortune") and "Lied des Verfolgten im Turm" ("Song of the Prisoner in the Tower") -- the first decidedly comical, the second at least not tragic, as compared with the military songs we're going to hear tomorrow and Sunday.


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