The Piece
The Project
All content of this site is copyright ©2005 by J.C. Lozos
The Piece

Gustav Mahler composed Das Lied von der Erde in the summer of 1908; the sketched short score was completed on 1 September of that year, and the orchestration followed throughout the winter months. The idea to integrate song and symphony had been present from his First Symphony onward; Das Lied is the crowning achievement of that integration.
Das Lied von der Erde was the first piece Mahler composed at his summer home in Toblach (AKA Dobbiaco, in South Tyrol, Italy). Despite the isolated and idyllic beauty of the location, it was still an uneasy place for Mahler to be. His entire reason for relocating was that his previous summer home, Maiernigg am Wšrthersee (Austria), had picked up too much emotional baggage the previous year. The summer of 1907 is often compared to the three hammer blows in Mahler's Sixth Symphony: first Mahler was pressured into resigning his position as head of the Vienna State Opera, then his older daughter Maria (age 6) died a slow death of scarlet fever and diptheria, and finally Gustav himself was diagnosed with a congenital and incurable heart defect.
And thus the mood in Toblach was predominantly one of resignation. Not entirely so, however. While Mahler knew his death was looming much sooner than later, he wasn't ready for it to be immediate. Mahler was superstitious about "The Curse of the Ninth Symphony," the fact that so many of the greatest composers and Mahler's own influences (Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner) had died immediately after or during the composition of their Ninth Symphonies. Das Lied von der Erde was Mahler's ninth symphonic work, but he dodged the issue by giving it its current title and the subtitle "A Symphony." The music deals with issues of death and loneliness, but the departure at the end of the work is still hopeful and beautiful, not the despair of one expecting death in the next five minutes. Such darker resignation comes in later works, such as the piece actually titled "Ninth Symphony," which was Mahler's final completed symphonic work after all.
The texts in Das Lied come from Hans Bethge's compilation of ancient Chinese poetry, Die Chinesische Flšoete. A friend gave Mahler a copy of this book after his diagnosis in 1907, and this new reading material both calmed and inspired the composer. The texts are not true to the original in many ways: the German translation actually came from a French translation of the original Chinese. Even if the translations had been exact, though, Mahler surely would have made changes of his own to personalize the texts to his music.
The music of each movement is very different from the other five, yet still an undeniable whole. Mahler uses a huge orchestra, though seldom is the entire ensemble playing at once. He masterfully combines individual colors from the orchestral palette to create scenes ranging from a tavern to a tableau of classic Chinese imagery to an impression of his own secluded landscape in spring. The use of alto and tenor as vocal soloists, voices which have similar range but entirely different tone quality, enhances the depth of Mahler's color choices.
Gustav Mahler never heard Das Lied von der Erde. Its premiere was presented by Bruno Walter and the MŸuenchner Philharmoniker in 1912, the year after Mahler's death. Mahler's method was to write a piece, rehearse it, edit it, and then have it performed. Thus, Das Lied von der Erde is an unedited look into Mahler's musical mind.

There exist a large number of recordings of this work. My single favorite is Bernard Haitink's recording with the Royal Concertgebouw. There exist several recordings under Bruno Walter's baton, all of which are wonderful as well, and of particular interest since Walter led the premiere.


The Project

I'm not precisely sure what made me think to illustrate Das Lied von der Erde. I have loved the piece since I first heard it, and it is one I have studied more extensively. I don't know where it came from, but one day I just sat down and decided to do this and started with the first page of "Der Einsame im Herbst." I'm very glad the idea hit me. It has been a very rewarding project. It has allowed me to go deeper into Mahler's music and its connection to the poetry, to get to know the work in a new way by creating something new from it. While the piece has always made me cry by the end, it has even more emotional impact on me now than before I started this project.
In a sense separate from the music, this project has also been a huge experiment in artistic technique. Each movement uses a different style and set of media, all of which are in some way different from my "usual" style for doodles and comics and such. I feel that this stretching and venturing forward has made me a much better artist even in the span of a few months. For those who are curious: "Trinklied" is prismacolor markers, india ink, and regular pen; "Einsame" is watercolor and involved almost no planning before each page/panel; "Jugend" is colored pencils on tan cardstock (the paper for all of the other movements is plain white bristol); "Schoenheit" is prismacolor markers and gold ink; "Trunkene" is just prismacolor markers; and "Abschied" is watercolor underpainting with details in colored pencil and some transparent vellum glued on top.
All translations on this site are my own.
I started this project in early May of 2005 and completed it in mid October. I barely worked on it during June and the first half of July due to travelling in Europe (though I did work on some sketches for "Von der Schoenheit" while in Toblach!). Therefore, this constitutes roughly four months of work, around the same amount of time it took Mahler to complete the short score for the piece. I am already seriously considering illustrating more of Mahler's lieder.

"Der Abschied" is a full half of the length of Mahler's piece, and illustrating this final movement took by far the most hours on my part. The imagery in the text and the contemplativeness of the music are clearly the closest to Mahler's state of mind and location at the time of composition. Thus, I put special consideration into this movement.
All of the scenery in my take on "Der Abschied" is actual imagery of Toblach. Though Mahler never explicitly said that this movement portrays the landscape there (as he said the Third Symphony is the exact capture of the landscape of Steinbach am Attersee), it is clear to me after visiting Toblach and listening to the piece there that he did intend a connection. Some of the lines from the poem are so precise to the location (for example, Mahler's composing hut/sanctuary is nestled between fir trees) that one has to wonder how it is not specifically intended to be Toblach! Each page of my illustration is therefore accurate to specific views in Toblach. I based this around contemporary photos (many of which are my own), period photos, and concrete memories of what it was like to be there and wander down the paths Mahler took every day.
Naturally, the solid figure in this chapter is Mahler himself. His gray walking suit has been described by several sources, and he did walk with a cane as one of his legs was weaker than the other. Mahler was very short (5'3"), and I made a point to draw him proportionally compared to the height of the composing hut. On page 9, the notes on the page of music lying next to Mahler in the grass are the actual notes of the instrumental interlude that page represents.
I took a little liberty with the text to include the three spectral figures in the chapter. I consider this is totally within artistic liberty, since Mahler was notorious for changing texts to his own devices. The original mentions only one friend coming to say farewell, but I figured that if Mahler were awaiting contact with someone from the other side, it would be these three equally. The first is his brother Ernst, one year younger than Gustav. Of all the Mahler siblings, Gustav was closest to Ernst, and was devastated at his death at the age of 13. There exist no photographs of Ernst, so I based his appearance on photos of the other Mahler children and of Gustav at around that age. The second figure is Mahler's mother Marie, whom Mahler described as "gentleness itself," and who died when Gustav was 29, leaving him in charge of his siblings. The final figure is his older daughter Maria, whose death haunted him up until his own.
The cursive text in this chapter is based on Mahler's handwriting. I had to clean it up quite a bit, though, since by the time Das Lied was composed, Mahler's handwriting was practically illegible. The blocky text on the title page for this movement is in the style of the text on Mahler's gravestone.