Joseph Swensen was born in Hoboken, New Jersey and grew up in Harlem, New York City. He currently holds the post of Conductor Emeritus of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, where he was Principal Conductor from 1996-2005. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, in Spain, and Artistic Partner of the Northwest Sinfonietta, in the United States. He has served as Principal Guest Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris from 2009-2012 and has held positions at the Malmö Opera (2008-2011), Lahti Symphony, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Swensen is the Starling Professor of Music, violin, at Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music. He has also been awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Andrew’s University, Scotland, and was invited to give a TEDx Talk with the title “Habitats for Music and the Sound of Math,” about music education and the developing brain, at the New York Institute of Technology. Joseph and Victoria Swensen are the founders of Habitat4Music, a non-profit organisation devoted to establishing participatory music education programs for children in underserved areas world-wide.
Gustav Mahler composed Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) between 1908 and 1909. The work is a composition for two voices and orchestra, which was described as a symphony when it was published. The piece is comprised of six songs for two singers who alternate singing the movements. Sadly, Mahler did not live to hear the first performance, which took place six months after his death. The premiere was given by his former assistant, Bruno Walter, in Munich on November 20, 1911. Walter chose two American singers as the soloists, William Miller and Charles Cahier, and he presided over the premiere of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, in Vienna the following June.
Early in 1907, Gustav Mahler was given a volume of verses translated by Hans Bethge, Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute) derived from Chinese folk stories. In July, his daughter Maria died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, and he learnt that he was suffering from a severe heart condition. The melancholy verses of the German translations spoke to Mahler with singular urgency and he began to sketch the verses into songs. The work pulled him out of despondency and the following summer, as he worked on Das Lied he wrote to Bruno Walter, “If I am to find my way back to myself, I have got to accept the horrors of loneliness, since you do not know what has gone on and is going on within me. It is, assuredly, no hypochondriac fear of death, as you suppose. I have long known that I have got to die… Without trying to explain or describe something for which there probably are no words, I simply say that with a single fell stroke I have lost any calm and peace of mind I ever achieved. I stand vis-à-vie de rien, and now, at the end of my life, have to begin to learn to walk and stand.”
It was clear to Mahler that he was not composing an ordinary song cycle but something grander and more cohesive, “a symphony in songs.” In the end, he went as far as annotating the score “a symphony for tenor and contralto (or baritone) and orchestra.” Thus, Das Lied von der Erde is not among Mahler’s numbered symphonies. It would have been his true ninth, but because Beethoven and Bruckner had famously died after composing their ninths, he was superstitious. He thought that by not assigning a number to the symphony after the eighth he might cheat the gods, and when he finished the symphony, which he proclaimed to be the ninth, he triumphantly told Alma that it was of course “really the tenth,” and that the danger was past. Nonetheless, the gods were not deceived by Mahler’s bookkeeping, and death claimed him as he set to work on his tenth.
Alixandra Porembski, English Language Annotator