“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (Gustav Mahler) – Interpretation Guide
15. February 2021
Translation, pronunciation tips and interpretation guide on Gustav Mahler’s art song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, I have become lost to the world Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben, who I used to ruin so much time with, Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen, It has heard nothing from me for such a long time, Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben! It may as well think I have died! Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen I do not care at all Ob sie mich für gestorben hält. If it takes me for dead. Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen, I cannot even contradict it Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt. For I have really died to the world Ich bin gestorben im Weltgetümmel I have died in the world's turmoil Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet. And rest in a quiet realm. Ich leb allein in meinem Himmel, I live alone in my heaven, In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied. In my love, in my song.
What a very German song! It seems to be melancholy and world-weary – but do not let yourself be deceived…
The poem was written by Friedrich Rückert and is part of the cycle “Liebesfrühling” (love spring) which he wrote for his later wife.
The text does not have a balladic plot or bold metaphors but talks about the lyrical narrator who seems to live on an island of inner peace.
Gustav Mahler set this text to music in 1901. It is not the only song based on poems by Friedrich Rückert that Mahler composed. Yet, they do not build a cycle (like for example the “Kindertotenlieder”) but were written randomly between 1899 and 1903.
It is typical for Mahler that he composed all Rückert songs with piano accompaniment at first and orchestrated them later.
My own thoughts
When I heard this song for the first time, I mistook it for being desperate and depressed. I was in my early twenties, hungry for life and could not understand that one would one day become weary of all that I thought was life.
In the course of the last twenty years, however, I have gained a more and more deep understanding of what the narrator means. 2020 has thrown us back unto ourselves with plenty of time to reflect our lives and many of us have discovered that so many distractions of the outside world are just that: distractions that bring us away from who we really are. It has revealed to some of us that we have become what society, family, tradition expected us to become (or what we thought was expected from us); shown the false idols we have run after, trying to snatch a piece of their self-awarded glamour and influence.
Before starting to write this article I was convinced that now I understood the text in every detail: the decision to consciously turning away from the outside turmoil and retreat into an inner world of peace, not as an act of protest but as a logic quiet step on the path to self-development towards our true nature seem no longer unreasonable.
However, during the process of analyzing the poem anew for this article, I found various stumbling blocks for interpretation, the use of certain words puzzling me.
Let’s break it down line by line and you will see what I mean:
“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”
I have become lost to the world.
The most important thing with this song is to sing it legato, avoiding to interrupt the song line with consonants. Don’t worry, it’s easier than it seems… 😉
The meaning of the idiom “abhanden kommen” is a lot more complex than just “to lose”. It bears one the one hand a level of neglect on the looser’s side, on the other hand there is a willingness (if not an intention) on the side of the lost object “become lost”. Applied to this poem, we may have reason to suspect that the world had neglected the narrator and he or she and willingly withdrew from it.
The stanza starts with a difficult sound for non-German singers, the “ch”. I won’t go into detail here, if you want to learn more about the different ch-sounds in German read this blog post.
In order to hold the legato line, make sure that you prolong the vowels and voiced consonants (n, w, m) and speak the plosives (b, g, k, t) at the last possible time.
Make sure that despite their length, open vowels are pronounced openly: “ich bin”, “gekommen”
“Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben”
Which I used to ruin so much time with.
One would have expected the narrator to say „Zeit verbracht“, i.e. spend time. The English word spend makes the positive aspect even more clear. Another possibility of word use might have been “Zeit vergeudet”, i.e. waste time.
Yet, here we have “verdorben” which is a far stronger expression and shows us that the narrator does not regret his decision to retreat from the world.
The T followed by a D in “mit der” can be a bit tricky at first. Make sure to pronounce both consonants as clearly as NECESSARY but do not interrupt the legato line.
If you pronounce the R in “der” and “ver(dorben) or not is up to you. If you do, make it a very tender one-flap R. (Find more on the different pronunciations of R in this blog post). The recordings I have attached below show both versions, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau pronouncing the R and Mrs. von Otter leaving it off.
The first S in “sonst” is voiced but here, following the CH in “ich” this is nearly impossible without having too large a break between the two words (Remember: we do not want to interrupt the legato). For that reason, it is ok to make the S unvoiced here.
(Feeling a bit nervous that I really wrote that, though. Some diction coaches might skin me alive for that statement…
Make sure to hold your support throughout the whole (descending) phrase; the “verdorben” tends to become flat otherwise.
“Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen”
It has heard nothing from me for such a long time.
This sounds a bit wistful, as if the narrator had a guilty conscience for “going underground”. Considering Mahler’s musical setting and the dwelling on “lange”, it seems as if they realized for the first time how long the time that the world hasn’t heard from them really was.
The S in “sie and “so” are both voiced and here they must be pronounced that way!
A short note on the NG in “lange”: G is not pronounced. Make it sound like NG in “longing”.
Resist the temptation to make a break after “lange”, the focus of this sentence lies on “vernommen”. Sing the whole phrase on one breath.
“Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben”
It may well believe that I have died.
Mahler’s melody gives us the impression that the narrator speaks out the thought of “gestorben” unconsciously at first, startles a bit (dwelling on the O), becomes sad (descending line) and then realizes that their social death it is of no consequence for neither them nor the world.
A whole world lies in this (open) O! Savour it without haste.
Again, the S in “sie” and “sei” are voiced.
The sound you should pay attention to in this phrase is the T in “gestorben”. Make it a clear T, not like the D in “verdorben”.
Also, the leap to “-orben” is easier when you use the T as a kind of springboard and speak it slightly before the piano G sharp.
“Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen”
I do not care at all
Now, the narrator seeks to clarify that it is of no concern to them what the world thinks. We are zooming in from the world’s view to the narrator’s view.
Mahler’s instruction (“A bit more fluid but without haste”) underlines the narrator’s urgency to proof that the world’s interpretation of their absence is of no importance.
The consonant cluster in “nichts daran” may be a challenge and unfortunately I cannot give you a shortcut here: every sound must be clearly audible even if your tongue has to dance a tarantella 😉
Although this phrase’s stress lies in parts on the word “nichts”, do not dwell on it for too long but sing on to “gelegen”.
“Ob sie mich für gestorben hält”
If it takes me for dead
A quick reminder – in case you have not guessed it already – that the S in “sie” is voiced.
Although the O in “gestorben” is the longest note in this phrase, I would recommend not to overdo it. This is not a passionate Puccini aria but an introverted (love) song.
Pronounce the T in “gestorben” as articulate as in the phrase above.
“Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen”
I can hardly contradict it
While reflecting, the narrator realizies (and admits) that they did withdraw from the world on purpose. We are witnessing the development of some inner awareness.
In this phrase we have three CHs (“ich”, “auch”, “nichts”) with two different sounds which could be a bit challenging. If you want to learn more on “ich and ach” click here.
Make the S of “sagen” voiced; you will have to make a little stop after “nichts” in order to set the voiced S. Do not be tempted to connect the words to “nichtsagen”: it would sound as “nicht sagen” which has a slightly different meaning.
At the same time, “sagen” should not be overstressed as the focus of this phrase lies on “dagegen”.
“Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt”
For I have really died to the world.
I think “wirklich” might be a challenge to pronounce: first, both I are open and second, every consonant must be clearly audible although the tongue is darting forward and backword from R to K, from L to CH and forward again to B (“bin”).
As above, the T of “gestorben” must be clearly articulated.
It is up to you if you pronounce the R of “der”; I think it is easier to do so with a one-flap R but choose the version that’s more convenient for you.
“Ich bin gestorben im Weltgetümmel”
I have died in the world’s turmoil.
Throughout the poem, Rückert uses the word “world” instead of “earth”, thus making a contrast between people and everything man-made on one side and nature on the other side. Imagine being in a large crowd of people, seeing them hustling and bustling, feeling their emotions that flood you like waves. Realizing their expectations how you should be in order to fit into their idea of normality. You would slowly drown in this sea of distraction, expectation and overwhelm which is what happened to the narrator.
But why does the poet say “died in turmoil” instead of something like “I am dead to turmoil”? Did he want to stress both aspects, the narrator’s overwhelm as well as their decision to withdraw from society?
I don’t know.
You are invited to form your own opinion…
Again “gestorben”, nothing new to say here (just in case you forgot: pronounce the T clearly).
The Ü in “Weltgetümmel” is open and needs attention because of the note’s length.
In this phrase you can literally bath in the voiced consonants N, W and M. Use them to your advantage.
“Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet”
And I rest in a quiet realm.
This is the climax of the poem (the last two lines are a conclusion) and yet it is the quietest part of it which makes it more of a reverse climax.
The whole poem retreats step by step from the outside to the inside world. Now we get to know where the narrator not only resides but rests: in a quiet realm deep down inside themselves.
In the U (“ruh”) we can feel the quietness and peacefulness of this place as a great contrast to the “Weltgetümmel” before. Take the rolled (but not overdone) R as a springboard to the B flat of “Ruh”.
Make advantageous use of the N and M in “in einem” and ensure that the T of “stillen” is clearly audible (you may use this as a springboard for the octave leap as well) but without destroying the dream-like meldoy.
Hold your intonation during the descending line of this phrase by keeping up the support.
“Ich leb allein in meinem Himmel”
I live alone in my heaven.
The narrator has created his own paradise (heaven) he has chosen to live in. This retreat is neither motivated by anger, nor fear or resignation. Nor is it a flight into an illusional world. The narrator is neither a victim nor does he bear a grudge against the world or is disappointed. They simply made the decision to turn away from what they have recognized as being not right for them (the outside world) and to choose a lifestyle that lets them lead their life just as they please, not trying to fulfil anyone’s expectations.
To me, this is the essence of freedom and peace.
Mahler’s instructions describe this passage as “intimate” and “without intensification”, placing the focus on complete introspection.
“Allein” in German has two meanings: “alone” and “solely”. It is not clear in this context which version Rückert means; in my opinion it is very likely that both are valid.
Here again we have many voiced consonants (L, N, M). Savour them, especially as there is no need to change your jaw position in building them (except for the B).
“In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied”
In my love, in my song
“Lieben” in German is first and foremost a verb not a noun (which would be “Liebe”), thus, “das Lieben” describes love as an action. At first sight, it does not seem to be of importance but on second thought it must bear some significance. Otherwise Rückert could have easily said “in meiner Liebe”.
To me, “in meiner Liebe” sounds more passive than “in meinem Lieben” but this is only my opinion and you should feel and interpret for yourself. After all, this is what makes art songs interesting.
The melody of the first “in meinem Lieben” repeats (in modulation) the one of “in meinem Himmel”. When it is sung again in a descending line, starting pianissimo, it is a continuation of the piano’s or orchestra’s melody.
Pay attention to the glottal onset of “in”, especially when the G sharp is challenging for you. Support well and start the “in” very tenderly and pianissimo, almost sighing it.
The sequence of descriptions for this place (Himmel – Lieben – Lied) shows again the zooming in from the outside world to the inner core. Here is the place where the narrator can “sing his own song” meaning live his individuality without being forced to fulfil society’s expectations.
During the postlude you have the opportunity to contemplate the newly-found world you talked about and hold your tension until way after the final fermata. If there is a song you must not hurry through, it is this one. It teaches us as singers to stay with utmost concentration in the present moment which is only possible when we have taken care of the best possible preparation.
I have added two of my favourite recordings of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”.
One is with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:
The other is with Anne Sofie von Otter: