Life, death, nature captured in song

The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra rehearses Tuesday at Gaillard Auditorium. The orchestra will perform Gustav Mahler's 'Das Lied von der Erde' ('The Song of the Earth') tonight.

What do Chinese poetry, post- Romantic tonality and obsessions with death and nature have in common? Gustav Mahler.

"The firmament is eternally blue, and the Earth will long stand fast and blossom in spring. But you, O Man, for how long do you live?"

That's an English translation of the German translation of the opening of a Chinese poem by Li Tai-Po, which Mahler used in the first movement of his "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth"), a song cycle for two voices and large orchestra.

Mahler, known best for his big symphonies, was not doing anything particularly new when he combined voice and orchestra. He did that the first time with his Second Symphony. What is a symphony after all? A large work involving a lot of musicians.

In fact, many scholars argue that "Das Lied von der Erde" really was Mahler's ninth symphony. He was a superstitious man, afraid he'd die immediately after completing the landmark ninth. After all, that's what happened to Beethoven and Shubert and Bruckner, right? So Mahler postponed the inevitable by calling his ninth a song cycle. Nevermind that he went on to live another three years, compose another symphony and draft a 10th another symphony and draft a 10th (which is really his 11th).

"Das Lied von der Erde" belongs to his late period, when symphonies were often through-composed and made lush with augmented intervals and complex modulations. Melodies unwound like thick thread from a spinning wheel. It is no surprise that Mahler found inspiration in a set of six Chinese poems. Folk influences often found their way into his music. The same man who wrote enormous, melodramatic symphonies composed a series of charming songs called "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), settings of folk poetry.

As at teenager, Mahler attended the Vienna Conservatory, studied piano and harmony, and interacted with leading musicians of the day, including Anton Bruckner.

Mahler was born Jewish but converted to Catholicism, mostly so he could be eligible to assume directorship of the Vienna Opera, a prestigious imperial post. He gained fame as a conductor and remained at the helm of the Vienna Opera for 10 years before traveling to the United States to work at the Metropolitan Opera and then lead the New York Philharmonic.

He wrote "Das Lied" while in America. And his (official) Ninth Symphony.

Then he got really sick with heart disease.

Then he died, with the word "Mozart" on his lips.

"Das Lied von der Erde," scored for tenor, mezzo-soprano (or baritone) and orchestra, debuted after Mahler's death by the famous conductor and Mahler champion Bruno Walter. These are six mystical songs about life and death that employ a pentatonic scale for a vaguely exotic effect. The tension accumulates as the tonality descends from A minor to C minor until, in the final movement, the mortal soul becomes one with the good green Earth.

"The dear Earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green again! Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue! Forever... forever..."