Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

The last day of the winter break has arrived, in the form of a bank holiday Monday in lieu of New Year’s Day which this year happened on a Saturday. It has also started snowing again. I’m determined to get all the rest and recuperation I can get before starting back at work so instead of posting anything strenuous I thought I’d put up this wonderful piece of music.

This is the third and undoubtedly the most famous song in Gustav Mahler‘s cycle of five Rückert Lieder, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. Perhaps the best known version of this is the marvellous recording mezzo Dame Janet Baker made in the 1960s with Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, which I listen to over and over again. It is also to be heard in a version with piano rather than orchestral accompaniment, and sometimes with male rather than female vocalist. I firmly prefer the orchestral setting, however.

The German text of this poem reads

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

As always with poetry, it’s not easy to translate, but a reasonable English version is

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

Although I only did one year of German at school, I think “I have become a stranger to the world” is a better version of the first line; it scans better, at least. Nevertheless, the gist of it is that the poet is celebrating his escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Because it’s about solitude  people tend to assume that it’s a sad song. I don’t think of it like that at all. I’m sure artists, musicians, poets, and even – dare I say it – scientists, all experience times when they’re so focussed on what they’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. Solitude is then not to do with loneliness or sadness, but with self-fulfilment.

This is what Mahler’s music seems to me to convey anyway. For me it’s one of the most joyful pieces of music he ever wrote, although, as is inevitable with Mahler, whenever there’s radiance you know that darkness is never far away. He seems to know exactly how to trigger the deepest emotional response, by introducing those shadowy undercurrents. Gets me every time.

This performance, which I chanced upon on Youtube,  has  a strong local connection. I don’t know where the performance took place, but the conductor is Carlo Rizzi who was conductor of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera until 2007, and the mezzo soprano vocalist is Katarina Karnéus, who won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1995 and  performed in Mahler’s Third Symphony in Cardiff last year. There’s just a chance, therefore, that this recording was made in St David’s Hall. Wherever it was, I think this is a lovely performance,  to see as well as hear.

If there is a more beautiful piece of music than this, I’d really love to hear it.




19 Responses to “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”

  1. As a German native I think I am lost to the world is indeed a pretty accurate description. It is, as you rightly point out, about a retreat from the world, not an alienation. It is not about not understanding the world anymore or not feeling connected, it is about not wanting to have anything to do with it. Getting lost to it, so it cannot find you anymore. The typical “nerd” thing isn’t it? Nerds are often accused to be socially inept, when they just want some peace and quite to do what they want to do, which often requires thinking, which often requires the world and other people to be shut out, because you cannot hear yourself think in the chatter of the world.

    • AoxomoxoA Says:

      As a german native i am not happy with the translation ” I am lost to the world”. Rückert said “abhanden gekommen” and not “verlohren”. There is a fine difference between these two phrases. “Verlohren” is something you want to keep, something you will search to get it back but “abhanden gekommen” is just not there any more, might have been robbed or just forgotten.
      I would try to translate as:
      “I am vanished from the world” but this would be a form of active doing or “i am not part of this world anymore” ?

  2. Anthony Collini Says:

    That music is truly beautiful and it reminded me of Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. Although the whole Requiem is amazing, take a listen to Denn Alles Fleisch. The version I have is with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

    You asked if there was a more beautiful piece of music. My favourite song is a song named “Abendlied” by Josef Rheinberger. There are a few versions on youtube. If you like beautiful music, listen to that.

    • telescoper Says:

      Although I took to Mahler immediately I have to confess I still find Brahms a struggle, even the German Requiem which people keep telling me is great. I’ve never heard of the other piece you mention. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: I’m the other way round re Brahms and Mahler (not ‘Brahms and Liszt’ – perhaps the only musical joke a German wouldn’t understand). I respect Mahler very much but seldom care to listen. Try Brahms’ 4th symphony or the (two) piano concertos?

    • telescoper Says:

      As it happens, there’s a concert at St David’s Hall coming up on Friday 28th January (broadcast live on Radio 3) that features Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, interestingly coupled with a piece by John Adams called Harmonielehre.

  3. Yep, that’s definitely St David’s Hall. Lovely recording, thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    John Barbirolli transformed the Halle from a regular English provincial orchestra to world class. My godmother was leader of the 2nd violins, and I met him once or twice when I was very young indeed.

  5. Raquel Monica Gonçalves Says:

    one year after that post of you, I saw this another one on facebook…I prefere that performance because of the lovely Claudio Abbado..

    and…my favourite peace of music is “Four last songs” by Richard Strauss….if heaven does exists, I wish it was a place I could sing this music…I wait for it before I die…
    the first one:

    happy new year (2012!!)

  6. Why not try Fischer-Dieskau (German) or Kathleen Ferrier (British)? These are my favourite versions of the song…

  7. I find the Alto Rhapsody of Brahms to be up there is great music. Janet Baker being oneof my favorite singers.

  8. Daria Sch Says:

    It’s better when Fischer Dieskau sings, but that’s only because I hate sopranos and mezzosopranos and altos, ah I hate women opera singers…

  9. Lee Lovallo Says:

    The music, irrespective of the performers, is transcendantly beautiful.

  10. Oberon Onmura Says:

    I agree that the Janet Baker/Barbiroli performance outshines them all. This performance doesn’t compare, frankly. A bit sleepy. And the singer doesn’t have an effective low range. It’s a difficult piece to sing, technically and emotionally.

    I have a different take on the poem. To me, it is about resignation, exhaustion with the demands of life, and finally finding peace with the news to leave it all behind.

  11. Noel Rice Says:

    Expanding on Shostakovich’s statement that ‘if he had one hour left to live he’d spend it listening to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde’, I’d say a good way to spend the last few hours in this vale of tears would be that plus the Ruckert lieder, Brahms Requiem, Im Abendrot and Winterreise.

  12. Tom Martin Says:

    Mahler can’t help but make you pay attention and listen and realize how special this song is.

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