One of the first times I listened to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, (“Song of the Earth”) was around November 1975 and I was a junior in college. The song from it that I’ve chosen today is called “A Lonely on in Autumn,” but I’ve also included a more upbeat song, “Of Youth,” below with a description of when I first heard this work.
Between 1908-1909, Mahler wrote this six-movement symphony for voices around a selection of seven Chinese poems from a collection that was published around the time period. Having been through a three major life events–being fired as director of an opera, the death of his daughter, and his diagnosis of a heart defect–the poems spoke to him about the beauty and transient nature of life.
Some of the orchestral work reminds me a bit of Mahler’s First Symphony and Songs of a Wayfarer. And writers have noted that these pieces, coming at the end of Mahler’s life, are a perfect melding of his skills of a composer of both symphonic and vocal music.
The poems also reflect Mahler’s fascination with death, which comes through in the titles of four of the six songs: “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow,” “The Solitary in Autumn,” “The Drunkard in Spring,” and “The Farewell.” He does include happier sounding songs, “Of Youth” and “Of Beauty.” “Of Beauty” paints a vivid picture of young girls picking flowers by the water’s edge. It has a haunting feeling to it. “Of Youth” is more upbeat and has this memorable line: “Friends, handsomely clad, drink and chatter.”
The last song, “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), narrates the poets saying good bye to this life and friends and making ready to die. The music varies from very sparse single instrument-harp, celste, mandolin-accompanying the solo contralto voice, to lush, post-impressionistic swells full of Germanic Romanticism. It would be a bit over the top, were it not for the serene ending, which accompanies the words that depict the cyclic nature of life:
My heart is serene and awaits its final hour.
The well-loved earth everywhere
Blooms in spring and grows green anew.
Everywhere and always the horizon glimmers in blue…
Download MP3s or buy CD of Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
A Christmas Pudding
by Kurt Nemes
In November of 1975, Thom Klem announced that his plum pudding was ready to steam. A few months before, Thom, an afficianado of just about everything–art, music, food, literature and film–decided to make a plum pudding, and what an elaborate and chthonian mixture he had produced! He then arranged to hold a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at the house of David T*, who had once lived in my dorm and who still hung out with our artsy-campy clique. The dinner would take place on a Saturday, two weekends before Thanksgiving.
Thom invited me to go with him the day of the dinner to help him prepare the pudding. David would be away and Thom wanted some company. I agreed and then he told me I had to go early in the morning. When I asked why, he said that he had to steam the pudding for over six hours. I was incredulous. How could it take so long. “That’s what the recipe says. It’s a really dense mass and steam cooks it while keeping it moist.”
The Friday before the dinner, we had a drunken rave up. I don’t remember anything about the party, probably because I drank to excess, but there had to be one because I recall having a hangover when I went with Thom the next morning to start preparing the pudding. Though it started out a bit rough, it turned out to be quite a pleasant day. It was the first of a number of occasions in I acted like a kind of apprentice while Thom taught me how to cook.
On our way to David’s house, Thom said we had to stop off at the liquor store. He said he had to buy a bottle of stout. “What for?” I asked. “You mix it in before steaming the pudding.” I had never had stout before, but I seem to remember having read about it in a story in James Joyce’s The Dubliners. The name conjured up for me men sitting in a smoky room, before a fire on a cold, rainy autumn evening talking about politics.
When we got to the house, David was stuffing the turkey. He was going out for the day, and told us to put it in later in the afternoon. We set about getting the pudding ready.
In addition to specifying the stout, Thom’s Larousse Gastronomique said to moisten the pudding with four eggs. He stirred this dark, heady-smelling mixture around and then tipped it out into a round bowl. In England, he said, they have special pudding basins with tight fitting lids. Thom improvised a cover using a saucepan lid which he sealed tight by wrapping a tea towel around its perimeter. He then placed the basin in a big covered pot partially filled with boiling water.
We sat down and spent the afternoon drinking the rest of the stout, listening to music and discussing everything under the sun. We listened to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” Every so often, Thom would go over, check the pudding and add a little more water to the pot. Later we put the turkey in the oven and the smell of roasting fowl started to waft through the house. It was a cold November afternoon, and the moisture from the pudding steamed up the window and made us feel all warm and cozy.
Eventually, people started to arrive-Cynthia, Mark, Michael, Linda, Liz and her boyfriend, recently returned from France, John. They started preparing various dishes–sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry relish, salads and such. The wine started flowing, people started to listen to their favorite music.
By the time we ate, everyone was in a pretty mellow mood. Near the end of the meal, Thom and I went to the kitchen to turn out the pudding and make the hard sauce. For this he combined butter, sugar and rum, which he whipped together. He heated a bit of whiskey, carried the pudding to the dining room, poured the whiskey over the dessert, and I lit it on fire. Eerie blue flames leapt about in the darkened room and everyone clapped as he set it on the table. Each mouthful exploded in a holographic picture of the entirety of British culture. Yes, a good time was had by all and to this day, every plum pudding and Christmas fruitcake reminds me of that wonderful ritual that Thom created for us that day.
Here’s a more uplifting song from “Das Lied,” entitled “Von der Jungend” (Of Youth). The words are here and remind me of that youthful Thanksgiving in 1975.