Music and Words
Since the Middle Ages, Western music has had an intimate relationship with words. The earliest music of this kind was the religious works that accompanied church services – chants. As time goes by, secular songs became popular, and composers began to set melodies to secular poems. These covered a wide variety of themes, and often included ballads as after-meal entertainments for the nobility. In the Renaissance period, instrumental music for dances became popular, but words and music retained an intimate relationship. The madrigals which was a popular genre at that time were the best examples of combining poetry and music.
At the beginning of the 17th century there was a revival of interest in the ancient Greek tragedies, and composers invented the novel musical genre that we call opera. Since then, words and music have moved to a new phase in their partnership. In the next two to three hundred years, composers had tried countless ideas to work on these two artistic elements in music compositions. Such examples included religious ones like the oratorio, cantata and mass, secular works like lieder, and drama and dance elements combined in opera. Some even included a choir in a symphony, or composed a symphony with a programme, bringing symphonic music writing to a new phase.
In the field of symphonies, one of the first composers to use words and music was undoubtedly Beethoven. His Symphony no. 9 in D minor successfully translated the German poet F. Schiller's Ode to Joy into musical notes with voices, which allowed people all over the globe to feel the joy of human fraternity. Another composer who might even be greater in this aspect was Mahler. His love of literature is reflected in several of his symphonies that contain solo and choral voices. Das Lied von der Erde even introduced innovative auditory experiences to the musical world. Oriental elements were an important idea in the creation of this work.
After the Industrial Revolution, Europe was gradually becoming strong and financially secured. The European powers started to develop their commerce in foreign countries, and the first stops were China and Japan in the Far East. During the 19th century, China was a weak country. After some entanglements, foreign countries soon set up their strongholds in China. As for Japan, the newly-emerging US also managed to break Tokugawa shogunate's isolationist foreign policy, which had lasted for over two hundred years. This indirectly fostered the Meiji Restoration. Not only did the Western world obtain huge economic rewards from these regions, but they also imported the rich cultures of these great old countries. The French impressionist paintings were heavily influenced by Japanese printmaking. Paris had organised several world expositions that actively promoted Asian cultures. Mahler had gone to Paris and watched the expo performances and was deeply moved by the Chinese musical performances. Later, he got inspiration from the Chinese poetry collection The Chinese Flute, published in translation by the German writer H. Bethge in 1907, and composed Das Lied von der Erde.
In the summer of 1907, Mahler had just experienced one of his life's lowest points: due to his disagreement with the senior management, he was forced to quit the post of director of the Vienna Court Opera, which he had held for years; his beloved elder daughter died of an illness; and he himself was diagnosed with heart disease and could die any time. Under the triple blows, Mahler found these Chinese poems had a profound affect on him as he realised the impermanence, misery and brevity of life. He interpreted its meaning with a Western philosophy perspective, and set the poems into six songs with orchestra in the summer of 1908 and 1909. Some of them were the poetry of great poets like Li Bai, Meng Haoran and Wang Wei. The composition features an alto and a tenor, accompanied by a large orchestra. The renowned American conductor Leonard Bernstein even hailed this musical work as Mahler's “greatest symphony”.