About the program
Both Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde are about living in harmony, an overwhelming joie de vivre, exhilarating dance versus resignation, bitterness, sadness and eternal farewell. One could hardly imagine a more contrasting programme.
The 21-year-old Mendelssohn condensed the experiences from his second journey to Italy into this youthful work, the Italian symphony. In the autumn of 1830, he wrote an enthusiastic letter from Venice to his loved ones, saying that Italy is the place to find “supreme joy in life.” By the time he reached Rome he had already become preoccupied with thoughts of a symphony to encapsulate his travelling experiences. He composed the work later; in 1832 the Royal Philharmonic Society invited Mendelssohn to write a new symphony. That is when he hastily composed his Symphony in A major, and he conducted the world premiere in London in 1833. Besides enjoying the genial Italian lifestyle, contemplation and the Saltarello, the frenetic south Italian dance which inspired the finale, in the slow movement he commemorated two key figures of his life. One of them was his teacher, Zelter, the other his patron, Goethe, who he had lost in 1832.
Mahler’s six-movement symphony for two voices and orchestra, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), only premiered after the composer’s death, in 1911. The composer had a superstitious dread of writing a Ninth symphony, which is why he followed his Eighth not with a number but with a name. In 1907, Mahler read Hans Bethge’s book of poetry, Die chinesische Flöte, which had been inspired by Chinese poets and led him to set six of its poems to music. The contemporary critic, Paul Bekker, spoke of Mahler’s “late style”, which was “full of austere fantasy, like the late style of every great artist, and full of presentiments of the future.”