Rückert-Lieder (Songs after Rückert) is a collection of five Lieder (songs) for voice and orchestra or piano by Gustav Mahler (1850 – 1911) based on poems written by Friedrich Rückert. Written at a time of great joy for the composer, they are lyrical, graceful songs with beautiful melodies to match elegant, concise lyrics.
They were not intended as a set – though four were premiered together in January 1905 – but they are usually published and performed that way. They are not always sung in the same order, artists often choose their own – this is the order in which Dame Sarah Connolly and Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform them in on Friday 28 April 2023:
1) Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder – ‘Do not look at my songs’
This song, the shortest of the group, tells of the bashful poet who seeks to hide his handicraft from his beloved. Bees, the poet points out, are also protective of their work in the hive, but he promises that “when the rich honeycombs are brought out to the light of day then you shall taste them before anyone else”.
This song was first sketched out on June 14, 1901, and the poem was one of Mahler’s favourites. He identified very much with its message and once admitted he wished he had written the poem. It is contained within a carefree, lilting melody – and you can hear the swarming of the bees in the second verse!
2) Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft – ‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’
This is probably the first of the ‘Rückert-Lieder’ to be sketched, bearing the date June 9, 1901, and is the singer’s serene meditation on enduring love as she breathes in the sweet scent from a sprig of lime-tree flowers.
Mahler described it to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner as “the way one feels in the presence of a beloved being of whom one is completely sure without a single word needing to be spoken”.
There is a minimal use of instruments in this song: the violins offer a soothing lullaby, but the lower strings are not used and the winds get much of the limelight in the solo passages. A flourish on the celeste opens and closes the song.
3) Um Mitternacht – ‘At Midnight’
The mood changes and the strings are rested for ‘Um Mitternacht’, a sombre nocturnal contemplation of life’s uncertainties supported by the wind and brass instruments, the harp and a solemn timpani pulse, while the oboe d’amore sings a night bird’s heartfelt refrain.
Some music scholars have suggested Mahler’s anxiety over his state of health is expressed through the instruments’ low notes, the throbbing heartbeat and the slow but relentless descent of some passages.
In the final verse the poet’s hopes are restored and an affirmation of confidence in God’s guardianship – Lord! over death and life / You keep watch at midnight! – is heralded by an upward sweep on the harp and reinforced through a stirring blaze of brass.
4) Liebst du um Schönheit – ‘If you love for beauty’
This beautiful song is the latecomer to the ‘Rückert-Lieder’. It was intended simply as a love song for piano and voice dedicated to Alma Mahler and composed in August 1902 during the summer holiday Gustav was able to share with her for the first time. It was only orchestrated in 1910, the year before Mahler’s death, by a certain Max Puttmann at the bidding of his Leipzig publisher employer C.F.Kahnt.
5) Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – ‘I am lost to the world’
This was the last of the four ‘Rückert-Lieder’ Mahler composed that first summer, the sketch being dated August 16. It expresses a sense of resignation/contentment in withdrawal from the world and its worries – and a simultaneous yearning for a more profound peace that seems so unattainable.
“It’s myself,” Mahler confided to Natalie. “It’s the feeling that fills us right up to our lips but does not pass them”.
The orchestration is virtually chamber music with opportunities for brief solo displays, and within the languorous harmonies there are references to Mahler’s recent and current large-scale works, in particular a wistful four-note rising phrase that occurs in the third movement of the ‘Symphony no.4’, which would receive its first performance that November, and in the Adagietto of his holiday work-in-progress, the ‘Symphony no.5’.
Don’t miss Dame Sarah Connolly and Royal Northern Sinfonia performing Rückert-Lieder live at Sage Gateshead on Friday 28 April 2023 at 7.30pm. The concert will also be broadcast live and available to catch-up on demand until midnight on Wednesday 3 May. Find out more and book tickets.