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I am lost to the world – an appreciation of Mahler’s song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen 

by Patrick Waller 

I am lost to the world with which I have wasted so much time. It may well believe that I am dead.

I don’t care if the world thinks me dead for I really am dead to it.
Away from the rat race I am at peace, alone in my heaven, my love and my song.

(My personal paraphrased understanding - see below for German text)

To accompany these presumably aspirational sentiments, in the summer of 1901, shortly before he first met Alma, Mahler wrote sixty-five bars of simple but heartrendingly beautiful music - a work which transfixes me like no other. This article provides a brief appreciation, discusses some of the available recordings and links to useful resources I have come across.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen was the third of five Mahler settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). They are not a cycle and nor were they published during Mahler’s lifetime. Initially it was published as number five of seven songs - two Des Knaben Wunderhorn settings were included - before a separate edition of the five appeared. You may therefore see it numbered as 3 or 5 but performers have varied the order or picked only a selection. Quite often on record Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen has been placed last amongst the group and rightly so – who would want to listen to Um Mitternacht straight afterwards? 

A piano score is available to download from the internet. Mahler orchestrated the song and conducted the first performance in 1905, accompanying baritone Friedrich Weidemann. The music is set for low voice and firmly in mezzo/baritone territory. Mahler’s magical orchestration is notable for the prominence of cor anglais and harp, creating a mood similar to the Adagietto of the roughly contemporaneous Fifth symphony and looking forward to the Der Abschied of Das Lied von der Erde.

Jeanette Greenfield’s The Return of Cultural Treasures alludes to the fate of the autograph score which Mahler gave to his friend Guido Adler. In 1941 Adler’s daughter tried to exchange it for a safe passage from Austria but perished at the hands of the Nazis, and the score was then thought to be lost until 2000.

There is a choral arrangement by Clytus Gottwald which is not at all to my taste. This has been recorded several times and there are other recorded transcriptions for cello and orchestra, oboe and strings, and for the piano alone. I have only heard the latter, as arranged and played by Frédéric Meinders (see review) but the loss is considerable – much more than in some of Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert songs.

In performing this work the challenges surely rest entirely in representing its sentiments rather than in matters of technique. The primary emotion is not sadness, rather an ecstatic quality is required. The singer must sound as though he or she really is lost to the world and not going to return in time for a cup of tea. The right atmosphere needs to pervade the whole song - the world is already lost at the beginning, not during the course of it. Molto lento e ritenuto is the marking and I believe the tempo should be set as slow as possible. Anything under about six and half minutes seems too fast to convey the necessary feeling of timelessness. I do not see how this song can be effectively programmed except at the end of a concert or as a final encore. When listening to a recording of this work I never put anything else on afterwards, nor do I just pop out and mow the lawns - it is usually about midnight.

A discography of the Rückert Lieder shows that there have been at least 120 recordings of this song issued. At the time of writing, twenty-six of these are available for streaming in the Naxos Music Library. These can all be downloaded from Classicsonline, generally at a cost of £1.19 or £1.59 depending on whether or not the original disc is still at full price. Some of these recordings are available to download more cheaply - 79 pence seems the norm - from AmazonUK a site that has over 50 versions available at the time of writing.

To deal with some freebies first, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen can be heard - and sometimes seen - performed by several artists on YouTube. Margaret Price is certainly well worth hearing although there is no information about the orchestra and conductor. Also impressive is Jessye Norman performing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta in about 1989. Katarina Karnéus is the other singer who can be seen performing the work although she is unremarkable. Sound and stills are available for several other artists notably Magdalena Kožená, Waltraud Meier and Kathleen Ferrier - presumably the 1952 recording with Bruno Walter.

The very first recording, made by Sarah Charles-Cahier in 1930 is available for streaming in the Naxos Music Library as is the next, Kerstin Thorborg accompanied by Bruno Walter in 1936. Charles-Cahier makes a decent fist of it but the latter is much more interesting at a tempo that doesn’t seem to have been constrained by the length of a 78 side. One of the first males to record the work, Alfred Poell in 1951 has far too deep a voice for my taste. Siegfried Lorenz from the early 1980s on Berlin Classics is far preferable and one of few males to rival Fischer-Dieskau (see below). Some recent recordings that can also be heard in the Naxos library are by Mitsuko Shirai for Capriccio, Christianne Stotijn for Onyx and Ann Murray for Avie. The first two left me completely cold and Murray’s version is much the best of them.

I have ten recorded versions of the work in my collection but most of them don’t really cut the emotional mustard and bear repeated listening. I wouldn't be without the Ferrier Decca disc for Das Lied von der Erde but her rendition of this song is rather earthbound. Irmgard Seefried has a high reputation although her live performance from 1967 available on an EMI DVD seems routine. Christa Ludwig recorded the work several times but her recording for DG with Karajan suffers an unnatural balance which favours the orchestra. Katarina Karnéus and Alice Coote both recorded the song on their debut discs for EMI and should have waited. Coote’s performance of the Brahms Alto Rhapsody at the first night of the Proms 2009 suggests to me that she might now be ready to return to it.

I can live with piano versions when the pianist is as good as Daniel Barenboim but generally I would opt for an orchestral version. Barenboim accompanied Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1978 and he is certainly my preferred male singer. In this recording he captured the magic even more strongly than in 1963 when he was accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Karl Böhm.

For reasons not easy to explain I generally prefer a female voice. Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson’s Wigmore Hall 1998 recording accompanied by Roger Vignoles comes near the top of my pile but Janet Baker really was in a league of her own in this work. My top recommendation is her 1969 recording with the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Barbirolli which is downloadable from AmazonUK for only 69 pence! On disc, this is available singly in the Great Recordings of the Century series (see review) or as part of an EMI Icon set devoted to Janet Baker (see review). Both also contain her similar but slightly less well-recorded 1967 performance with the Hallé Orchestra. Baker and Barbirolli create and sustain an atmospheric intensity that, in my experience, is completely unrivalled. For all the options discussed above, this could be the only recording you’ll ever need.

Excuse me but I feel a need to get lost from the world coming on …
Patrick C Waller

Full German Text:
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!

(Friedrich Rückert, 1788-1866)
Links to reviews on MusicWeb International:

Kerstin Thorborg (1936)
Kathleen Ferrier (1952): Decca Regis
Christa Ludwig (1957)
Maureen Forrester (1958)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1963)
Christa Ludwig (1964)
Janet Baker (1967)
Janet Baker (1967 & 1969) GROC
Janet Baker (1967 & 1969) Icon Set
Marilyn Horne (1978)
Christa Ludwig (1978)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1978)
Frederica van Stade (1978)
Thomas Hampson (1990)
Andreas Schmidt (1991)
Christa Ludwig (1993)
Katarina Karnéus (1998)
Accentus Chamber Choir (arr. Gottwald, 2001)
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart (arr. Gottwald, 2003)
KammerChor Saarbrücken (arr. Gottwald, 2005)
Christianne Stotijn (2006)
Karla Bytnarová (2007)
Frédéric Meinders (piano transcription, 2008)

Tony Duggan on Mahler’s Song Cycles



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