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.