Das irdische Leben
has a form typical of many folk-song traditions in which a sequence of actions leads to an inevitable, and usually unwelcome conclusion. In this case a mother is trying to comfort her starving child. Three times she attempts to quieten him—‘tomorrow we will harvest/thresh/bake’—but by the end it is too late to save him. Mahler sets the two voices against an eerie E flat minor moto perpetuo which suggests the grinding of the mills of fate. The child’s repeated cries of ‘Gib mir Brot’ span the widest possible intervals, first an octave then a tenth, like the gaping mouth of a fledgling in the nest, while the mother’s attempts at reassurance, lower in pitch, betray both anxiety and impotence. In the long interlude before the final couplet the music almost comes to a halt, its uneasy stasis telling us the outcome even before it is spelled out to us.
from notes by Roger Vignoles © 2008