GUSTAV MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (Kalište) near the Moravian border of Bohemia on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He began writing the poems that became the basis of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) in December 1883 and completed the music, for voice and piano, by January 1885. No performance of this version is known, though there was surely at least a private reading. Mahler apparently never orchestrated the cycle until there were prospects of an orchestral performance. Then he worked out at least two complete versions, in the early 1890s, before he allowed the work to be performed. The premiere took place in Berlin, under the composer’s direction, on March 16, 1896; the singer was Anton Sistermans. The orchestral accompaniment is scored for three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, glockenspiel, bells, harp, and strings.

In 1883 the twenty-three-year-old Mahler was an impatient, occasionally insubordinate second conductor at the opera house in Kassel. Not for the last time in his distinguished career as opera conductor, he became infatuated with one of the sopranos on the company roster. To what degree his love was returned is not entirely clear; certainly, Mahler spent many anguished hours in doubt, passing his fears along in letters to one of his best friends, Friedrich Löhr. He was always supremely discreet about his amours, however, and never once mentioned the lady’s name in writing. We only know who she was because Löhr, to whom Mahler had unburdened his heart when they were spending holidays together, used it in writing back to him. She was one Johanna Richter, a new member of the company, about two years younger than the composer.

Johanna Emma Richter never had a career of more than mediocre success. She was offered a contract with the Kassel opera after appearing as a guest artist there in spring 1883. She left after four years and, throughout her singing career, rarely stayed longer than that in any one place. She finally retired from the stage about 1906, and earned her living thereafter giving singing lessons and recitals. She lived at least until 1943 (when she was in Danzig, or, as it is called today, Gdansk), but there is no indication that she ever married, nor do we have any way of knowing whether she herself was aware of her role in inspiring Mahler’s earliest masterpiece.

In August 1884, soon after returning from his vacation with Löhr, Mahler wrote to his friend, “I have seen her again, and she is as enigmatic as ever! All I can say is: God help me!” By the beginning of 1885 things were no clearer as far as Mahler was concerned. He spent New Year’s Eve with her, “almost without saying a word.” Whatever emotional relationship existed between them, Mahler found it opaque and impossible to understand. He wrote again to Löhr:

My signposts: I have written a cycle of songs, six of them so far, all dedicated to her. She does not know them. What can they tell her but what she knows. I shall send with this [letter] the concluding song, although the inadequate words cannot render even a small part.—The idea of the songs as a whole is that a wayfaring man, who has been stricken by fate, now sets forth into the world, traveling wherever his road may lead him.

Probably the “song” Mahler sent his friend was the text alone. He spent much of the next year composing four of the six poems for voice with piano accompaniment, though he evidently thought of that as merely a draft, not a completed composition.

Mahler did not, it seems, begin orchestrating the cycle until after he had finished the First Symphony, and probably the Second and a good part of the Third as well. He was thus no orchestral neophyte when he finally undertook the “Wayfarer” songs. The First Symphony contains a number of passages that quote material from the song cycle, but it now appears as if the Symphony was the place where they were first treated in any kind of orchestral guise. Early in the 1890s he completed a version of the songs in full score, but he held onto it in order to polish and refine the orchestral colors—and that was exactly what he did, probably during 1894 and 1895.

I have referred to the Songs of a Wayfarer as Mahler’s earliest masterpiece. But from the extended chronology of its composition and elaboration, it is clear that the final, masterful version we know today is not an “early” work at all, but rather more a “middle” work. Why the delay? There is no easy answer to this question. Donald Mitchell suggests—purely as a working hypothesis—that Mahler consciously put off finishing the “Wayfarer” songs, even in a sense “suppressed” them, because of the fact that he was using the same material in his First Symphony, for fear that he would be reproached as a “song-symphonist”—a charge that was, indeed, leveled at him in any case. Be that as it may, we can now hear the Symphony as a symphony and the song cycle as a song cycle, appreciating the qualities of each and the changes Mahler wrought in the material that they share.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is a deeply affecting contribution to that very German tradition—going back in music to Schubert’s Winterreise and in literature still farther—that the young man who is unlucky in love must wander the wide world, finding in all the brightest and freshest of natural beauties reminders of his lost sweetheart and of his misery, which periodically bursts beyond the bounds of control, finally to achieve some kind of consolation in rest or oblivion or death. —© Steven Ledbetter