In Autumn 2017, English National Ballet performed Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth for the first time ever. This work is indisputably a masterpiece. The story of love, loss and inescapable death told through MacMillan’s beautiful, sparse choreography and Mahler’s epic song cycle will stay with you for days, if not years, after.
So with our national tour just around the corner, we thought it was time to fill you in on some of the tales that surround Song of the Earth.
If at first you don’t succeed…
In 1959, six years before it first saw the light of day, MacMillan took a trip to the Royal Opera House and asked whether he might use Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in a new commission for the Royal Ballet. He was turned away on the grounds that the work wasn’t suitable for ballet. But thankfully for future generations, John Cranko, Director of the Stuttgart Ballet was much more enthusiastic and in 1965, he commissioned it instead. Naturally, it was a huge success and the Royal Ballet took the piece into its repertory six months later.
From tragedy comes triumph
The symphony it’s set to has a rather tragic back story, being composed after one of the worst periods of Mahler’s life. In summer 1907, anti-semitism and political wrangling forced him to resign as Director of Vienna Court Opera, his daughter Maria died, and Mahler himself was diagnosed with a terminal heart defect.
T’angs for the inspiration
The lyrics to Song of the Earth are translated from 8th century Chinese poems. Mahler was sent a book of T’ang dynasty poems the year after he found out he was dying and as their subject was life’s sadness and transience, he was inspired to set them to music.
Ballet for angry young men?
Song of the Earth reflects the influence of postwar theatre and the ‘angry young men movement’ on MacMillan’s work. He was a particular fan of John Osborne and enjoyed delving into darker territory. As MacMillan himself said in an interview 25 years later: “I prefer to explore the human psyche…to make people sometimes feel uncomfortable in the theatre. I have always been drawn to real people and what they feel.”
No such thing as cursed?
After the summer he’d had, Mahler became obsessed with the “curse of the ninth” – no major composer since Beethoven had managed to complete more than nine symphonies, and Mahler had already written eight before Das Lied von der Erde… Cunningly, he decided not to number it but subtitle it ‘A Symphony for Tenor, Alto and Large Orchestra’. But his next symphony was numbered his ninth and the curse appears to have won out – it was the last one he completed before his death.