“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Is that what Mahler achieved in “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), and is it possible that a 20th century western composer could find himself in 8th century eastern poetry? The latter question may be easier to answer.
It seems that Mahler’s journey through German folk poetry like “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” or “Youth’s Magic Horn” eventually lead him to “Die Chinesische Flöte” (“The Chinese Flute”), Tang dynasty poems translated into German. Mahler may have found the world in these ancient Chinese poems, but he also found that they affirmed his growing sense of mortality.
Of the 6 movements from “Das Lied von der Erde,” 4 of them are based on poems written by one of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai. These poems have a cynical and profound quality that one can imagine Mahler responding to. Wouldn’t it be interesting to be a fly on the wall as Mahler and Li Bai meet to crack open a cold one and engage in heady conversation.
Li Bai, Mahler, Tang dynasty, The Song of the Earth