About this work
These five songs were published together with "Revelge" and "Der Tambourg'sell" as Seven Last Songs, and were not intended as a cycle. This is illustrated by the lack of connection between the songs and by the different combinations of instruments. Although often performed together, there is no particular order. Mahler conceived all but one of these songs for orchestral accompaniment; he wrote "Liebst du um Schönheit" for piano accompaniment. Unlike Mahler's earlier "Wunderhorn" songs, these songs are, with one exception, completely in the lyrical lied style. The folk song element of Mahler's earlier songs is entirely absent.
"Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder," scored for single winds, horn, harp, and strings without basses, is a somewhat ephemeral setting of a maiden's presumed modesty. The flowing accompaniment and the ingenuous vocal line create the light mood and the playful orchestral ending reflects the maiden's feigned innocence.
"Ich atmet' einen linden Duft" uses in addition to the winds, three horns, harp, celesta, violins, and violas. It is a delicate and evocative setting of a summertime scene. The vocal line moves in lyrical duet with various woodwind solos over an undulating string accompaniment. Unfortunately the play on the words "Lind" (delicate) and "Linde" (lime-tree), which is the point of the poem, is lost in translation. The arpeggios of the celesta illustrate the piquancy of the lime-tree's scent in the introduction and coda.
"Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" is surely Mahler's finest song. The first of Mahler's compositions based on a "world-weary" theme (Das Lied von der Erde being the largest example), this song is rich in lush, late-Romantic harmonies and beautiful melodic lines. The mournful violin solo between the second and third verses is reminiscent of parts of the Kindertotenlieder composed at about the same time. In spite of this and other moments of anguish, the song is generally imbued with a mood of quiet acceptance and resignation. The scoring consists of double woodwinds without flutes and with English horn, two horns, harp, and full strings.
The one song that is not a lyrical lied is "Um Mitternacht." The epic and philosophical text of this song is reflected in the rather austere, hymn-like setting for full winds, brass, timpani, harp, and piano. As the singer contemplates human destiny, the orchestra accompanies with broadly moving contrapuntal lines. A grand brass chorale underlines the casting of mankind's fate into God's hands for the climactic ending. Less a song, and more a symphonic ode, "Um Mitternacht" seems almost too big for a solo vocal setting. The last verse in particular is reminiscent of Mahler's great choral/orchestral symphonies.
In a completely different vein is "Liebst du um Schönheit." Originally conceived with only piano accompaniment, this is an intimate and beautiful love song composed by Mahler specifically for his wife, Alma. The vocal line is simple, yet highly expressive, and the accompaniment is subtle and unobtrusive. The standard orchestration by Max Puttmann is appropriately simple, if not entirely characteristic.