Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the Path to Eternity

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, on 27th & 28th July 2020

Following Mahler on the Path to Eternity

April Fredrick, Soprano (ESO Affiliate Artist)

Kenneth Woods, Conductor

English Symphony Orchestra

 

Programme

Wagner (arr. Woods)  Siegfried Idyll
Humperdinck (arr. Woods)  Der Kleine Sandmann
Mahler (arr. Woods)  Das Irdische Leben
Schubert (arr Woods)  Die Forelle
Schubert (arr. Woods)  Der Tod und das Mädchen
Mahler (arr. Stein)  Das Himmlische Leben

Available from 1930 BST 16th October 2020

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Audio Recording: Phil Rowlands / Video Recording: Tim Burton

In 1892, Gustav Mahler completed a song based on a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) called Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life). It appears at first glance to be a modest work, mostly gentle, tender and playful in character, describing a child’s view of Heaven as a land of plenty, and place of serene happiness. It is a work that seems simple, but Mahler understood that The Heavenly Life was actually one of his most profound and multi-layered compositions, and he eventually decided that it should serve as the finale of his next symphony.

Between 1892 and 1896, Mahler worked on his Third Symphony, the work which still holds pride of place as the longest symphony ever written by a major composer. Throughout this work, he threaded dozens of references to The Heavenly Life, preparing the way for the song to appear at the end of this epic journey. But it was not to be – after composing the Third’s huge Adagio, Mahler realised that, at 100 minutes, the Third Symphony was complete, and The Heavenly Life was destined to find its home in the Fourth Symphony, which he could complete four years later. Thus, this modest song was to be the focal point of Mahler’s creative life for nearly nine years.

What are the many themes in the poem which so inspired Mahler? This moving programme takes the listener on a journey that is both musical and spiritual, exploring both the composers and the ideas that influenced Mahler.

About the Music

The programme opens with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a tone poem which is essentially a cradle song, written as a birthday gift to his wife Cosima just after the birth of their son, Siegfried. It is the most intimate and touching evocation of the miracle of birth, the bond between parent and baby, and of those precious but often fraught early days of life in all music.

Englebert Humperdinck was a notable conductor and assistant to Richard Wagner, and his opera based on the Brothers’ Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel has long been the most beloved of children’s operas. In the second scene of Act Two, Hansel and Gretel find themselves alone and terrified in the forest as night falls. The mysterious sleep fairy, The Little Sandman, appears and tells them they have nothing to fear, and as their eyelids droop, the two children sing their Evening Prayer, trusting that in the morning, all will be okay.

Schubert’s song, Die Forelle (The Trout), is a scene described through the eyes of a young girl who watches a playful trout in a stream and the fisherman who is trying to catch it. Unable to get the clever fish to take the bait, the fisherman muddies the waters so the fish no longer sees the danger, and soon the fish is caught. It captures the underlying unease of our relationship with food, and serves as a metaphor for other forms of deception by those who would manipulate the innocent. This adaptation combines Schubert’s song with the set of variations he wrote on it in his famous ‘Trout’ Quintet.

If the essence of the Heavenly Life is the experience of an endless bounty of food and music, what then is the essence of The Earthly Life? Mahler’s song of that title, Das irdische Leben, is a nightmarish mirror image of his playful portrait of heaven. A child calls out to her mother “Mother, I am starving! Give me bread or I will die.” The mother tells her, “Wait just a while, we are planting the corn the garden and then there will be food.” Again the child begs “Give me bread or I will die,” and the mother replies with greater urgency “hold on, soon we will reap, and then there will be bread.” Finally the child begs again in even more desperate tones and the mother assures her that “the bread is in the oven, it will be ready in a minute,” but when the bread comes out of the oven, it is too late.

Schubert’s song, Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), asks a question that may well find an answer in Mahler’s The Heavenly Life. A young girl spies the figure of death. “Pass me by,” she begs, “I am only young. Please leave me be.” Death answers:

Give your hand, you beautiful and delicate figure!
I am a friend and do not come to hurt you
Be of good cheer!
I am not wild,
You shall sleep softly in my arms!

Does death speak the truth? Does this encounter promise salvation or horror

Mahler’s song tells us:

We revel in heavenly pleasures,
So we shun all that is earthly,
No worldly turmoil
Is heard in Heaven,
Everyone lives in sweetest peace;
We lead an angelic existence,
And yet we are perfectly happy,
We dance and leap,
We skip and sing,
Saint Peter in Heaven looks on.

Mahler, himself an agnostic Jewish-Catholic-Pantheist, believed that the essence of the heavenly life is that any view of Heaven must be that of a child. That, freed of the horrors and cares of The Earthly Life, we can all achieve a state of childlike bliss.

About the Arrangements

Erwin Stein made his now-famous arrangement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony for flute (doubling piccolo), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), harmonium, piano, percussion and solo strings in 1921. It was intended for the Society for Private Musical Performances run by Arnold Schönberg in Vienna. To complement Stein’s arrangement of Das Himmlische Leben, the ESO’s Artistic Director and Conductor Kenneth Woods, who also serves as Artistic Director of Colorado MahlerFest, has made new arrangements of all the other works on this programme for the same forces.