Alma Mahler: Five Songs for Voice and Piano

Context

Composed between 1899-1910 and published around the year 1911, Alma Mahler’s Five Songs for Voice and Piano have stood the test of time. Each of the five songs are based on a poem that Mahler liked:

 

  1. Die stille Stadt (The Quiet Town) – Dehmel
  2. In meines Vaters Garten (In my Father’s Garden) – Hartleben
  3. III. Laue Sommernacht (Mild Summer’s Night) – Bierbaum
  4. Bei dir ist es traut (With You it is Pleasant) – Rilke
  5. Ich wandle unter Blumen (I Stroll Among Flowers) – Heine

 

I. Die stille Stadt (‘The Quiet Town’

English Translation:

A town lies in the valley;

A pallid day fades.

It will not be long now

Before neither moon nor stars

But only night will be seen in the heavens.

From all the mountains

Fog presses down upon the town;

No roof may be discerned, no yard nor house,

No sound penetrates through the smoke,

Barely even a tower or a bridge.

But as the traveller became filled with dread

A little light shone out,

And through smoke and fog

A song praise began,

Sung by children.

This first song is depicting ‘The Quiet Town’, and the mysterious opening and prominent minor tonality sets the scene for this. The tempo is fairly slow, and the voice uses a lot of chromatic movement to depict the fog coming down onto the houses. The tempo in the accompaniment seems to pick up due to the use of semiquavers. 

There is then a section which is incredibly passionate and led by the movement of the voice, which leads to a quiet end. The piano carries on, playing a refrain section leading onto a resolve. Although an atonal bar unpins the harmony built up towards this end, this is only fleeting as the final resolution sings out from the piano. 

 

II. In meines Vaters Garten (‘In my Father’s Garden’)

English Translation:

In my father’s garden

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

In my father’s garden

Stands a shady apple tree

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Stands a shady apple tree.

 

Three blonde King’s daughters

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

Three beautiful maidens

Slept under the apple tree.

 

The youngest of the three

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

The youngest of the three

Blinked and hardly woke.

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Blinked and hardly woke.

 

The second cleared her hair from her eyes

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

And saw the red morning’s hem

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Clearly through the twilight air!

My Beloved joins in the strife

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

My beloved joins in the strife out there.

 

Kiss for me as victor his garments hem.

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

 

The third spoke and spoke so soft:

“I kiss the beloved’s garment hem.”

In my father’s garden

Blossom, my heart, blossom forth!

In my father’s garden

Stands a sunny apple tree

Sweet dream, sweet dream!

Stands a sunny apple tree.

The second song is based around the poem “In my Father’s Garden” and it depicts an apple tree, three beautiful maidens and the one common thread – love. Set in a bouncy 6/8 time signature, the song has a core sense of rhythm to it, and is faster than the previous song.

There is a lot of scalic movement within this song and the fluctuations between major and minor are very prominent in certain sections. This song is also the longest in the set. There are two main pauses, which then leads into the second half of the song (from the second maiden). There is a shift in tempo and the melody becomes angular. There is a lot of repetition throughout which reiterates the main lines “Blossom, my heart, blossom!” and “Sweet dream, sweet dream!”. 

After a sequence of key changes we get to an ‘Agitato’ section, which is based on a descending chromatic figure. There is a cyclic feel in this movement with all the key changes. The song ends with just the piano, which resolves back to the tonic key.

 

III. Laue Sommernacht (‘Mild Summer’s Night’)

English Translation:

Balmy summer night, in Heaven

There are no stars, in the wide forests

We searched ourselves deep in darkness,

And we found ourselves.

Found ourselves in the wide forests

In the night, saviours of the stars,

Held ourselves in wonder in each other’s arms

In the dark night.

Was not our whole life

Just a groping, just a seeking,

Then in its darkness

Love, fell your light.

The third song begins with an ascending motif. The voice and piano move together a lot at the beginning. Again, Mahler has utilized chromaticism to gain an effect within the text. The idea of finding yourself is definitely a theme within this song. The minor tonality also gives it a certain sadness, which is very charming. This song is incredibly short, and ends with “Love, fell your light” with the piano then playing a small interlude before purposefully not resolving, leaving the listener, and perhaps the singer, wanting more.

 

IV. Bei dir ist es traut (‘With You it is Pleasant’)

English Translation:

I am at ease with you,

Faint clocks strike as from olden days,

Come, tell your love to me,

But not too loud!

Somewhere a gate moves

Outside in the drifting blossoms,

Evening listens in at the window panes,

Let us stay quiet,

So no one knows of us!

The fourth song in the cycle is about the voice declaring how pleasant it is spending time with you. It begins with a light motif in common time. The voice bases the main theme on the note A. 

The voice is telling us about how easy it is to be with you, so that doesn’t need complicated music, it begs for simple melodies that are pleasant to hear. The song ends with an ascending sequence to the tonic chord.

 

V. Ich wandle unter Blumen (‘I Stroll Among Flowers’)

English Translation:

I wander among the flowers

And blossom myself along with them;

I wander as if in a dream

And sway with every step.

Oh hold me tightly, my beloved!

Or, drunk with love,

I will collapse at your feet;

and the garden is full of people!

The fifth and final song within this set is evocative of the voice going through a field of flowers. This song has very little range, it is based around the middle of the voice’s register. The tempo then changes and a recitative-like section begins. The ending is a shimmer of hope from the piano, ending on a tonic chord.

 

Happy Reading!

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