Gustav Mahler was born in 1860, the son of an innkeeper in the Bohemian town of Iglase (now Jolhava). He was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one of fourteen children. From childhood he was fascinated by folklore, and the sights and sounds of the countryside. At the age of 15 he became a student at the Vienna Conservatoire, winning piano and composition prizes.
Initially he found employment in provincial Austrian and German opera houses, and eventually moved to Budapest. It was as a conductor that Mahler was establishing his reputation, especially after he conducted the first performance of his 2nd Symphony in Berlin in 1895. He subsequently reached the pinnacle of that part of his career as conductor and director of the Vienna State Opera. This was a stormy period for his fragile temperament and health to cope with. He conducted in America, and made just one visit to London, in 1892.
Two earlier song cycles preceded Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a wayfaring lad): Das Klagende Lied (The songs of lament) and Lieder und Gesänge (Art songs and Folk songs). Both of these appeared fully orchestrated. The Songs of a wayfarer appeared in the early 1880s with piano accompaniment, but were not orchestrated until about 1893. Mahler uses a very large orchestra, but one which is used with great economy and harmonic clarity rather than weight.
In his First Symphony of 1889 Mahler makes use of the opening theme of the second song. He also quotes from the fourth song – one of the most beautiful moments in all Mahler.
The words are Mahler’s own, and tell of a young man’s rejection by his beloved. Reading through the score, one is immediately struck by how Mahler is ultra-sensitive to his words. This is exemplified by rapid changes in tempo, speed directions and dynamics, of which there are a combined total of 51 in the first 43 bars of the first song! Added to this, Mahler makes good use of “progressive tonality”.
- Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (On my love’s wedding day)The first song tells of the lad’s grief at being rejected: In my darkened room I shall weep for my beloved. Blue flowers do not wither: Sweet bird, sing of the lovely world: But now, no singing, and flowering is at an end. I go to bed with my sorrow.
- Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld (Through the field I made my way)In the second song we find the lad setting off across the dewy meadow, talking to the birds and falling in love with his pastoral world: The merry finch spoke to me – “Good morning, isn’t it a fine bright world; how I love the world” The bluebells say good morning with their bells – Ding-dong: I love the world! Heigh-ho! The whole world sparkles in the sunshine, everything, both sound and colour. Flowers and birds both large and small. Good day! Hi, isn’t it a lovely world? Now perhaps my joy will return. But no; for me nothing can ever bloom again.
- Ich hab’ ein glühend messer (There is a glowing dagger)In the third song the lad sings of a red-hot dagger piercing his breast: into his very soul and cutting into his every joy. A dagger which is never calm, never still, neither by day nor night. When asleep, when awake and looking up, he sees two blue eyes. O woe! The golden corn which brushes past him as he walks through the fields reminds him of her golden hair. And Oh! Oh! Her silvery laughter! I could lie on my bier and never open my eyes again.
- Die zwei blauen Augen (Your sweet eyes)In the fourth and final song, the lad’s memory of those two blue eyes makes him wander from the home that is so dear to him, so full of grief and sorrow is he. He goes out into the night and crosses the gloomy heath, finding rest under a linden tree. On awakening he finds the tree has showered its white blossom over him, and he feels all is well again. Life will be good again! Love and sorrow, and world and dream!