OK, I’m no expert at analyzing music, so I’ll start off with something I’m already VERY familiar with. “Liebst du um Schoenheit” by Gustav Mahler is one of his most moving lied. In my opinion, it is his most poetic piece – the music complements the lyrics perfectly. The poetry is relatively simple: A woman sings to her lover about her own ideals of love, that it is not based on aesthetics, but on the idea of love itself.
The opening measures for the piano are on a descending scale. This suggests that the lover has posed a question to the singer, as if the piano and singer are the two lovers engaged in a petty argument. The woman replies to the piano introduction, “If you love for beauty, oh do not love me! Love the sun, adorned by golden hair!” The first part of the phrase, “Liebst du um …” does not sound like it belongs to any key, the notes just float around. It’s as if the woman is in thought, “Well, what do I believe my ideals of love are? What should I tell him?” It is on the word, “Schoenheit” or “beauty,” that the key is solidified in a major key. From performing this song, I know that Mahler constantly alternates key signatures … anything with a duple meter is fair game for him! It’s tough on the singer, but I think that Mahler was more interested in mimicking spoken lines rather than keeping musical continuity. It results in a nice, intimate effect.
The second phrase is almost melodically identical to the first. “If you love for youth, oh do not love me! Love the spring, it is young every year!” There are variations in the piano accompaniment, however. Instead of settling in major as in the first phrase, the key modulates to minor on the word “Jugend,” or “youth.” To me this suggests that the woman singing is older and wiser. She understands that youth is slipping away, she values it, and yet understands the knowledge it has given her of love.
There is a short piano interlude – a playful tune – as if the lover doesn’t really understand the singer’s complaint. She continues, “If you love for treasures, oh do not love me! Love the mermaid, she has many shimmering pearls!” This phrase is, again, like the previous two, with the piano accompaniment nearly identical to the first phrase.
Finally there is the realization of the poem, “If you love for love, oh yes, then love me! Love me always, I love you forever, forever!” Here is where Mahler’s genius really shines. Tonic has never really been established for the entire lieder; Mahler modulates between different keys and hasn’t officially settled on any particular key. Finally, on this phrase, on the word “Liebe,” he settles into Eb Major. At last the listener’s ear is relieved of all that tension. It reflects the woman who has finally convinced her lover that they belong together, if not for all of the things he may value (beauty, youth, riches), then for the sake of love itself.