Alma Mahler ‘Five Songs for Voice and Piano’: Light Lieder

Good day dearest readers, welcome back (or if this is your first visit – welcome!) to Day 9 of my Female Fortnight Challenge! We have a very exciting journey to go on today and it involves a woman who I know a great deal about as I am currently researching her family for my dissertation. Yes, today is on Alma Mahler! And I’m going to be focusing on her Five Songs for Voice and Piano which was published in 1911. So sit back, relax and enjoy this wonderful work!

Alma Mahler was born in Vienna 1879 to a landscape painter and his wife. Alma played the piano in her childhood and she first attempted composing at age nine. In 1895 she began lessons with Josef Labor and then with Alexander von Zemlinsky in 1900. In 1902, Alma married Gustav Mahler in 1902 and with him she had two daughters. When they wed there were terms, which were that Alma must abandon her own interest in composition, whilst Gustav pursued his. Although artistically stifled, Alma took this in her stride and supported her husband and his music career. In 1907, Maria Anna (the first-born child) died of scarlet fever, which left Alma severely depressed. Due to this she had an affair with young architect Walter Gropius. After Gustav found out about the affair, the marriage became even more turbulent. As a way of trying to fix the marriage, Gustav began taking more interest in Alma’s music, and he began urging her to get her songs published. This did ‘fix’ the marriage somewhat, however Gustav Mahler then died in 1911 due to heart complications.

After Gustav’s death, Alma had a few love affairs before marrying Walter Gropius in 1915. They had one daughter together – Manon Gropius (who died aged 18 from polio). She then became pregnant again and had a son named Martin, although it was unsure as to who the father was. This was due to her affair with Franz Werfel being exploited at the time. By 1920, Alma and Walter had divorced and felt the consequences after Martin had died from a premature birth. Franz and Alma married in 1929, at which time Alma changed her named to “Alma Mahler-Werfel”. After fleeing Austria due to their Jewish roots, the pair travelled around a lot of Europe before settling across the pond in New York City and then Los Angeles. Werfel died in 1945 due to a heart attack. Alma Mahler-Werfel was seen as somewhat cultural icon in the USA until her death in NYC, 1965.

In terms of her artistic output, Alma did not offer that much, however the songs that have been published are still popular today, with there being over 40 different recordings. There are three main published sets of songs composed by Alma, but it is unsure whether she kept composing after the last publication (she, very annoyingly, never dated her manuscripts). Though originally for piano and voice, there have been orchestral arrangements created.

The set of Five Songs for Voice and Piano I shall be looking into today are the ones published around 1911. This means that this is the set that Gustav Mahler helped and encouraged her with. This set was composed between 1899 and 1910. The five different movements are all based on poems by different famous poets (I will give the translated versions with each song I discuss). The five poets and movements are as follows:

I. Die stille Stadt (The Quiet Town) – Dehmel

II. In meines Vaters Garten (In my Father’s Garden) – Hartleben

III. Laue Sommernacht (Mild Summer’s Night) – Bierbaum

IV. Bei dir ist es traut (With You it is Pleasant) – Rilke

V. Ich wandle unter Blumen (I Stroll Among Flowers) – Heine

For this blog I found a fantastic version with soprano voice and piano which I will be referring to (and linking at the bottom of this blog). Each poem is very evocative and the way Alma sets this within a musical setting is very clever. With every song I will show you the English translation of the words – although the recording is, of course, sung in German.

I. Die stille Stadt (The Quiet Town

English Translation:

A town lies in the valley;

A pallid day fades.

It will not be long now

Before neither moon nor stars

But only night will be seen in the heavens.

From all the mountains

Fog presses down upon the town;

No roof may be discerned, no yard nor house,

No sound penetrates through the smoke,

Barely even a tower or a bridge.

But as the traveller became filled with dread

A little light shone out,

And through smoke and fog

A song praise began,

Sung by children.

This first song is depicting ‘The Quiet Town’ and the mysterious opening and quite prominent minor tonality sets the scene for this. The tempo is fairly slow, and the voice uses a lot of chromatic movement to depict the fog coming down on the houses. The tempo in the accompaniment seems to pick up a little due to the use of semiquavers. There is then a section which is incredibly passionate, which leads to a quiet end for the voice. The piano carries on, playing a nice refrain section, leading onto a resolve. Although an atonal bar precedes this which then leads to the final resolve of the song.

II. In meines Vaters Garten (In my Father’s Garden)

English Translation:

In my father’s garden

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

In my father’s garden

Stands a shady apple tree

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Stands a shady apple tree.

 

Three blonde King’s daughters

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

Three beautiful maidens

Slept under the apple tree.

 

The youngest of the three

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

The youngest of the three

Blinked and hardly woke.

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Blinked and hardly woke.

 

The second cleared her hair from her eyes

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

And saw the red morning’s hem

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Clearly through the twilight air!

My Beloved joins in the strife

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

My beloved joins in the strife out there.

 

Kiss for me as victor his garments hem.

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

 

The third spoke and spoke so soft:

“I kiss the beloved’s garment hem.”

In my father’s garden

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

In my father’s garden

Stands a sunny apple tree

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Stands a sunny apple tree.

The second song in the set is based around the poem “In my Father’s Garden” and it depicts an apple tree, three beautiful maidens and the one common thread: love. This song starts in 6/8 time, which gives it a bouncy feel. It is faster in tempo than the previous song. There is a lot of scalic movement within this song and the fluctuations between major and minor are very prominent in certain sections. This song is also the longest in the set. There are two main pauses, which then leads into the second half of the song (from the second maiden). There is a shift in tempo and the melody becomes angular. There is a lot of repetition in this song, which reiterates the main lines “Blossom, my heart, blossom!” and “Sweet dream, sweet dream!”. After a sequence of key changes we get to an ‘Agitato’ section, which is based on a descending chromatic figure. There is a cyclic feel in this movement with all the key changes. The song ends with just the piano, which resolves back to the tonic key.

III. Laue Sommernacht (Mild Summer’s Night)

English Translation:

Balmy summer night, in Heaven

There are no stars, in the wide forests

We searched ourselves deep in darkness,

And we found ourselves.

Found ourselves in the wide forests

In the night, saviours of the stars,

Held ourselves in wonder in each other’s arms

In the dark night.

Was not our whole life

Just a groping, just a seeking,

Then in its darkness

Love, fell your light.

The third song in the set begins with an upward-climbing motif. The voice and piano move together a lot at the beginning. Again, Mahler has utilised chromaticism to gain an effect within the text. The idea of finding yourself is definitely a theme within this song. The minor tonality also gives it a certain sadness, which is very charming. This song is incredibly short, and ends with “Love, fell your light” with the piano then playing a small interlude before not resolving (leaving you wanting more!).

IV. Bei dir ist es traut (With You it is Pleasant)

English Translation:

I am at ease with you,

Faint clocks strike as from olden days,

Come, tell your love to me,

But not too loud!

Somewhere a gate moves

Outside in the drifting blossoms,

Evening listens in at the window panes,

Let us stay quiet,

So no one knows of us!

The fourth song in this cycle is about the voice declaring how pleasant it is spending time with you. It begins with a light motif in common time. The voice bases the main theme on the note A. This song is perhaps the most simple of the group, but I think that is the whole point! The voice is telling us about how easy it is to be with you, so that doesn’t need complicated music, it needs simple melodies that are pleasant to hear. I find this movement ever so charming and beautiful, it is perhaps my favourite of the set! The song ends with an ascending sequence to the tonic chord.

 V. Ich wandle unter Blumen (I Stroll Among Flowers)

English Translation:

I wander among the flowers

And blossom myself along with them;

I wander as if in a dream

And sway with every step.

Oh hold me tightly, my beloved!

Or, drunk with love,

I will collapse at your feet;

and the garden is full of people!

The fifth and final song within this set is evocative of the voice going through a field of flowers. This song has very little range, it is based around the middle of the voice’s register. The tempo then changes and a recitative-like section begins. The ending is a shimmer of hope from the piano, ending on a tonic chord.

This set of songs is absolutely wonderful and it is such a shame that Alma did not pursue more of a career in composition. Her light touch and ability to set words to music in an effective and evocative way is something special to treasure indeed. I do hope you have enjoyed today’s instalment! It is Day 10 tomorrow and we are heading onto the final stretch of the challenge (booooo), so make sure you come back to see what it could be!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recording:

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