MacMillan created The Song of the Earth soon after Romeo and Juliet, his first three-act ballet. He had long been hoping to choreograph a work to Mahler’s symphonic song cycle, but the Royal Opera House board had rejected his proposal in 1959. When he tried again, after the huge success of Romeo and Juliet, he was told that Mahler was a composer whose music was unsuitable for ballet.

MacMillan offered his idea to the Stuttgart Ballet instead. His old friend John Cranko, director of the company since 1961, had extended an open invitation for him to visit Stuttgart and choreograph whatever he wanted. Cranko agreed to The Song of the Earth as part of a triple bill with MacMillan’s Danses Concertantes and a new work, Opus 1, by Cranko himself. He gave MacMillan first choice of the dancers he wanted to cast.

Since Das Lied von der Erde would be sung in German, the Stuttgart audience would understand the words of the poems Mahler had set to music and see their visual connections in the choreography. The text of the songs is taken from Chinese poems of the eighth century T’ang dynasty, freely translated into German. They are bitter-sweet reflections on human joys, concluding with a farewell to the world: Mahler added four lines to the final verses, ending with the repeated word ‘Ewig’ – ‘Forever’.

MacMillan described the theme of his ballet succinctly: ‘A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.’ The central couple are part of a group of young people who are blissfully unaware of their own mortality. Among them is a man with a colourless half-mask over his face: he is Der Ewige – the Eternal One. In the English translation he is the Messenger of Death, which lends him a more sinister aspect. MacMillan liked to cast a slight young dancer in the role, apparently no more menacing than his companions, except that he knows what they choose to ignore. (Some interpreters, however, perform the Messenger as though he were Death itself.)

The Messenger shadows the leading man at the start of the ballet, and takes part in the men’s horseplay. He will be present, however briefly, by the end of every song. (MacMillan added him in the fourth song in 1990.) The leading woman appears in the contemplative second song, Autumn Solitude, in which the words reveal her loneliness, her fear of death and her longing for a companion. She is the MacMillan ‘outsider’, sensing that she does not belong to the light-hearted group who amuse themselves during the songs that follow. She finds a lover in a long pas de deux, only to lose him to death. In her final solo, she has to reach an acceptance of her loss, the return of her isolation and the inevitability of death. As she resigns herself to a fate beyond her control, the Messenger returns with the man, who is now wearing a white half-mask symbolising death. All three link hands and step forward together in slow motion, as if into eternity. The curtain falls on their still-pacing figures.

MacMillan’s choreography for The Song of the Earth was different from anything he had devised before. It was his long-considered response to Mahler’s music and the images in the translated Chinese poetry. He introduced orientalisms amid the balletic pointework, asking the dancers to slide flat-footedly, tilt their torsos and bend their arms at the elbows and wrists as if adjusting long flowing sleeves or picking flowers. In the song Of Youth, which describes a porcelain pavilion reflected in a pool, the women kneel demurely as if by water, then later adopt upside-down positions.

Curving calligraphic shapes for the women are contrasted with weightier moves for the roistering men and stark lines and angles in the Farewell pas de deux. MacMillan may have been influenced by Antony Tudor’s expressionist choreography in Dark Elegies, to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and by Martha Graham’s modernism. Graham’s work had been seen in London when her company visited in 1954 and 1963, but the Stuttgart dancers on whom Song of the Earth was created had no experience of her technique: for them, MacMillan’s inventions were totally unfamiliar. German dance critics likened the choreography for Das Lied to Viennese Jugendstil or art nouveau, the period in which Mahler was composing his music.

By the time of the premiere, the designs had nothing to do with decorative art nouveau. Georgiadis’s original costumes had been made in chiffon, with floating sleeves. He and MacMillan scrapped them after the dress rehearsal and asked the Stuttgart wardrobe staff to dye simple tunics, T-shirts and tights in bluey-green and purple shades. Der Ewige was in dark grey with a flesh-coloured half-mask. The ballet was given against a plain cyclorama, its colour changing through blues to pale green-yellow.

Royal Opera House board members who had objected to a ballet to Mahler’s music gave in after critics who had seen Das Lied in Stuttgart wrote glowing reviews, urging the Royal Ballet to acquire it. The Royal Ballet first performed it in May 1966, with Marcia Haydée as a guest, Donald MacLeary as the man and Anthony Dowell as the Messenger of Death. Georgiadis changed the colour scheme to monochrome: the cyclorama varies from grey to black, the cast are dressed in shades of grey, the leading woman in white, the Messenger in black. The Stuttgart Ballet retains the original designs and has been performing Das Lied von der Erde, along with MacMillan’s Requiem, in a programme celebrating what would have been the choreographer’s 80th birthday.