Das Lied von der Erde


Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde The stage images were composed to reflect the psychological underpinnings and philosophical context of the poems and the music. Elements of western and eastern significance were included to reflect the historical roots of the piece. There are multiple layers and metaphorical connotations in each of these symbols. Following are some interpretations of various symbols used in the scrolls.

The piece opens with The Drinking Song of the Sorrow of the Earth, which introduces the primary theme of the song cycle, probing the fleeting nature of human life, “Dark is life, is death”. The first scroll shows a goblet, set upon a strategic game board. Hovering above is a red rose. In Chinese thought, the rose is an emblem of youth; it is the plant, which can stand for all four seasons.

The scroll for song two, The Lonely One in Autumn, features a lone female figure; a seed pod, barren and empty of seed, and a flame, burning in isolation. Fire, for the Chinese, is one of the five elements, or ‘metamorphoses of being’. It is also associated with a bitter taste. Candles were used as a means of measuring a specific duration of time.

The third song, Of Youth, is a nostalgic reminiscence of an earlier time, describing “friends, beautifully dressed, drinking, chatting.” In this scroll, the nautilus shell, wistful feather, and the recurring seed pod form a vertical arc shape, like “…the bridge of jade arches…” in the poem. The arc also refers to reflections in the poem, both literal and metaphoric. The nautilus shell embodies the Golden Mean spiral, and in concepts of Western sacred geometry, this harmonic principle represents universal love.

Of Beauty, song four, similarly looks backwards in time, as young maidens pick flowers while eyeing young lads romping through the fields. The song ends, however, with an image of the most beautiful lady, “…whose heart still trembles in lament.” In this scroll, an empty frame, draped in red fabric and white pearls, floats in deep space. For the Chinese, red is the color of summer, the life-giving color. Here, red drapery is like “the fabric of their sleeves”. Pearls, in Chinese thought, represent purity and preciousness. The Chinese also say that Tibetan monks have a ‘seduction pearl’, which casts magical qualities: Any woman caught in its rays become desperate for love. In addition, in Chinese symbolism, tears may be called ‘little pearls’.

In the fifth song, the drinking motif returns with defiance: “If life is only a dream, why then trouble and care?” In this scroll, rose petals spill out of a recurring goblet, while the moon lingers in the background. In Chinese symbolism, the moon is associated with the Autumn season, when the Chinese historically depicted the moon as most beautiful. Yet, Autumn is also the season when executions are carried out, as all of nature is dying. In contrast to the Spring season of the poem, and the defiant tone of the character, these autumnal symbols refer to the relevancy of seasons turning, and the inevitable passage of time.

The final Farewell opens with poignant images, the sun departing “with shadows full of coolness…like a silver barque, …on the blue lake of heaven…[when] All longing now wants to dream…” In the final image, amidst the floating “blue lake of heaven”, silver and gold spheres, like the still heart “awaiting its hour”, represent wholeness, infinity and the eternal.

-Sherri Tan