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Mahler from the Rükert Lieder – Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world)

By April 28, 2019March 17th, 2023No Comments

“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, one of Mahler’s so-called Rückert lieder, is Mahler’s finest song.  I have been told that the word “Weltschmerz” or “world pain” is used much more by non-Germans than by Germans.  However, I think that the sense of having to withdraw from an ever too painful world is a feeling that all have shared at one time or another.  The first of Mahler’s compositions based on a “world-weary” theme (Das Lied von der Erde being the largest example), this song is rich in lush, late-Romantic harmonies and beautiful melodic lines. The song is generally imbued with a mood of quiet acceptance and resignation. The scoring consists of double woodwinds without flutes and with English horn, two horns, harp, and full strings.

This is one of my favorite Lieder, if not my most favorite. Everyone sings it, but most of them should not. They cannot do it justice. Here, I have given Irmgard Seefried in her prime. She is marvelous. See if you can detect where, at around 4 minutes, she almost loses control.

Kathleen Ferrier’s type of voice is one that doesn’t enter the world very often. When she made this recording, she was very ill. The recording is breathtaking.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

Kathleen Ferrier.  Please note that Kathleen Ferrier made this recording when she was very close to dying of breast cancer.

Irmgard Seefried.  Please note that at about 4:09, Miss Seefried almost loses control.  You will also notice that Seefried sings in a different key than Ferrier.

Irmgard Seefried

Irmgard Seefried (October 9, 1919 – November 24,1988) was a distinguished German soprano who sang opera, sacred music, and lieder.

Maria Theresia Irmgard Seefried was born in Köngetried, near Mindelheim, Bavaria, Germany, the daughter of educated Austrian-born parents. She studied at Augsburg University before making her debut in Aachen as the priestess in Verdi’s Aida in 1940. She began to sing leading parts in 1942 by singing the part of Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz in 1942, and the next year she made her debut at Vienna State Opera by singing Eva in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg conducted by Karl Böhm. From then on, she remained with the ensemble of the Vienna State Opera until her retirement in 1976.

She sang at the Salzburg Festival every year from 1946 to 1964 (except 1955, 1961 and 1962) in operas, concerts and recitals.

One of the outstanding singers to emerge immediately after the Second World War, she was noted for her Mozart and Richard Strauss roles. She left many recordings of oratorio and sacred music by Bach, Mozart, Haydn (including at least four different renditions of the Archangel Gabriel in Die Schöpfung), Brahms, Fauré, Beethoven, Dvořák, Verdi, and Stravinsky.

After retirement, she taught students at Vienna Music Academy and Salzburg Mozarteum. She died at age 69 in Vienna in 1988.

Kathleen Ferrier

Kathleen Ferrier was born on April 22, 1912, in a Lancashire village in the north of England. Despite the limited financial means of the household, her mother insisted that Kathleen should have a proper education. Very early on, she became fascinated by the piano. Although a very bright student, she seemed to go on to university, but unfortunately, funds were lacking and she had to leave school at the age of 14 to start work as a telephone operator. As a pianist she participated in the many local festivals and won numerous prizes. Very soon, she accompanied her singing friends. In 1935 Ferrier married and the couple moved to Carlisle. It was her husband who challenged her to enter the Carlisle Festival for singing. After winning both the piano and singing prizes there in 1937, she decided to work as a professional singer, learning by appearing wherever she was asked. She studied with J.E. Hutchinson, who built her repertoire (songs by Purcell, Bach’s B minor Mass and Passions according to Saint John and Saint Matthew, excerpts from cantatas, Italian arias, oratorios by Handel and Elgars’ The Dream of Gerontius). She continued her studies with Roy Henderson, a former baritone and dedicated teacher who also introduced her to German songs. Within a short time Kathleen Ferrier became one of the world’s leading concert artists. She enjoyed tremendous success in Mahler’s orchestral songs, in songs by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann as well as in oratorios. She worked with all the celebrated conductors of the time like Monteux, Enescu, Karajan, Van Beinum, Erich Kleiber, Busch and Schuricht, to name but a few. The artist also reintroduced many previously neglected British songs to her audiences. She told in interviews that working with her mentor and fatherly friend Bruno Walter was probably of the greatest importance to her. Glyndebourne Festival saw her as Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eudridice (sung in English), her only two operatic roles. In 1951, a first operation interrupted her touring and, two years later, death of breast cancer put an early end to her too brief career.

The Rükert Lieder

The German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), linguist and Orientalist, was one of Gustav Mahler’s favorite poets, and he set a number of his poems to music, including the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Mahler composed four of the five Rückert Liederin 1901, initially with piano accompaniment, but immediately orchestrated them. He was in his fifth year as musical director of the Vienna Hofoper, a prestigious post he accepted even though it meant converting to Roman Catholicism to allay the anti-Semitism rife in Austria. In 1899 he took on the added position of conductor of the Philharmonic concerts but in 1901 had to relinquish this duty as a result of a serious illness and his inability to get along with the orchestra. These setbacks, however, did not prevent him from experiencing a burst of creativity during the summer, when – in addition to four of the Rückert Lieder – he also completed the Symphony No. 4, started on No. 5 and composed three of the Kindertotenlieder. Mahler composed a fifth Rückert Lied, “Liebst du um Schönheit?” (Do you love for beauty?) a short while later, but never orchestrated it.

Mahler’s Rückert Lieder do not form a cycle and there is no conventional order in which they are to be sung. Each song is distinct from the others in subject matter, structure and orchestration. Although the musical form is strongly conditioned by the poetic structure, Mahler uses different ways to vary the traditional strophic organization.

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (Look not into my songs) warns the listener not to be too inquisitive about the process of artistic creativity since only the finished work matters. The analogy made with the work of bees in the second stanza provides Mahler with the basis for his musical tone painting. A brief introduction establishes a perpetual motion with a subtle buzzing produced by muted strings without double bass, single woodwinds and a horn.

Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (I breathed a gentle fragrance) musically evokes the delicate fragrance of the lime tree which the poet associates with his beloved. The orchestration is extremely delicate, often one instrument at a time, even dropping out momentarily when the poet first senses the fragrance. The continuous even motion in the strings suggests the quiet wafting of the scent through the air.  The settings of the two stanzas share musical material, but are not strophic.

The poetic theme of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I have been lost to the world), one of Mahler’s most beautiful and moving songs evokes the peace achieved through the poet’s withdrawal from the turmoil of the world into his heaven, his life, and his song. The comparatively long introduction is used as both an interlude and a counterpoint with the singer. It features that orchestral symbol of isolation, and often desolation, the English horn, with an arch-shaped melody that moves upward from a simple two notes, to three, and then more rapidly to the line’s melodic peak, followed by a descent that completes the arch.  The voice then repeats the melody, in a dialogue with the English horn.  Mahler sets the song’s three stanzas irregularly by repeating the interlude after the third line of the first stanza with only the shortest break between the last line and the first line of the second stanza. The second stanza presents a passionate contrast as the poet declares himself dead to the world.  The final stanza begins with the song’s main theme but continues with new musical material leading to the climax, the poet’s song. The English horn concludes the song echoing the final line of the voice.

Um Mitternacht” (At midnight) recounts the poet’s battle with darkness (in both its literal and figurative sense) until he finally gives up his search and commends himself into the hands of God. Three central instrumental motives are introduced in the opening bars and form the foundation for much of the song: a three-note dotted figure in the clarinets; a rising and falling dotted figure in the flute and an even descending scale in the horns, mirrored by an ascending scale in the voice.  While the poem has five regular six-line stanzas (the first and last line of each are “Um Mitternacht”), Mahler sets each of them to different music. In musical imitation of the poet’s persistent striving, he sets each stanza with new music. The final stanza, the transcendent moment in which he finds his answer through surrender to the “Lord of death and life,” concludes with triumphant brass fanfares, harp glissandi and a resounding plagal (“church”) cadence.

The most traditional of the songs, “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty), was the last composed and was left unorchestrated by Mahler, but an orchestration by Max Puttmann, who worked for Mahler’s publisher, is frequently performed. Of the five, it is the most strophic in form, with the four stanzas presented in pairs, separated by a short orchestral interlude. The first three stanzas are closely related one another,  while the fourth begins as if it were simply to repeat the pattern, but then underscores the message of the song by stressing and expanding the melody on the words “Liebe” (love) and “immer” (always).  Clara Schumann set this poem to music as well.