Alma Mahler
Alma Mahler

Some time ago I took a straw poll among some friends asking them which one of the Rückert Lieder by Mahler was their favourite, only to confirm my guess... Certainly, their preferred song was by far Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, which I know is the absolute favourite song of some of you. But the Rückert Lieder that stole my heart is another one and the post title gives you a hint... I know that Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen is an extraordinary song beyond comparison, but I can't help it, I love Liebst du um Schönheit.

In March 1901, Gustav Mahler was recovering in a health resort from a serious health problem that he had suffered some weeks ago. During those days he selected several poems by Friedrich Rückert that eventually became two song cycles: the Kindertotenlieder and Fünf Lieder nach Gedichten von Friedrich Rückert (Five songs based on poems by Friedrich Rückert). During that year's summer, Mahler wrote four of the five Rückert Lieder, with piano accompaniment; in 1905 he made the version with orchestral accompaniment and he premiered and published them. And what about the fifth song? Which one was it and why was not known?

The fifth song was precisely Liebst du um Schönheit, and it was not premiered or published because it was for Alma, and just for her. Gustav and Alma got married in March 1902; in August 1902, while on vacation, he wrote that song and hid it among the scores she was practising so as to surprise her. The dedication made very clear that it was a private matter: "ein Privatissimum an Dich". The poem's message is clear as well: do not love me for my physical attractiveness, or for my money, or for my youth (specially for youth, Gustav was nineteen years older than Alma), love me because I love you. It's often said that Mahler chose the poems for his songs because he saw himself in them; it seems quite clear in here but in fact, when he chose this poem he hadn't met Alma yet... Things do not always fit as we would like them to.

Whatever the case may be, Liebst du um Schönheit is a beautiful song in its simplicity. Long time ago we talked about songs that ressemble miniatures, we have to look closely at them because its beauty is mostly in the details. In my opinion, Liebst du um Schönheit is a great example of a miniature. Its structure is strophic, slightly varied and full of nuance; pay attention, for instance, to the word Frühling (spring) in the second stanza, indicated piano (soft) at the score and accompanied by an arpeggiato chord. Or the allargando (widen) at the beginning of the fourth stanza. And, above all, please note the two last words immer, immerdar (evermore), that must be sung both piano and dolce (sweet), in a song whose general indication of character is con tenerezza (with tenderness). The voice remains as if suspended... forever?

When I listed this song in my ten happiest songs described it as "shy happiness" and I added, "Because shy people also seduce". I think it's a very seductive song, perhaps as much as the irresistible Cäcilie is (though in a very different style). Another thing Liebst du um Schönheit has in common with the Strauss's song is a certain ambiguity... you might be thinking that Liebst du um Schönheit is somehow a sad song. For me it's not, but I can hear a touch of sadness in some performances. The one I've chosen, Thomas Hampson accompanied by Wolfram Rieger, sounds quite as I expect the song does, a moving and deeply emotional love declaration.

The piano version is the only version that Mahler did himself. In 1910, a few months before Mahler died, a new edition of the Rückert Lieder with orchestral accompaniment including the five songs was published, but the version of Liebst du um Schönheit was not written by the composer. Did he know about the new edition? I hope so, because it wasn't specified that the orchestration was by Max Puttmann. In fact, this was not known until more than sixty years later.

Liebst du um Schönheit

Liebst du um Schönheit,
O nicht mich liebe!
Liebe die Sonne,
Sie trägt ein gold'nes Haar!

Liebst du um Jugend,
O nicht mich liebe!
Liebe den Frühling,
Der jung ist jedes Jahr!

Liebst du um Schätze,
O nicht mich liebe.
Liebe die Meerfrau,
Sie hat viel Perlen klar.

Liebst du um Liebe,
O ja, mich liebe!
Liebe mich immer,
Dich lieb' ich immerdar.

If you love for beauty,
Oh, do not love me!
Love the sun,
She has golden hair!

If you love for youth,
Oh, do not love me!
Love the spring;
It is young every year!

If you love for treasure,
Oh, do not love me!
Love the mermaid;
She has many clear pearls!

If you love for love,
Oh yes, do love me!
Love me ever,
I'll love you evermore!

(translation by David Kenneth Smith)

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