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Gustav Mahler



Gustav Mahler

I decided to write this article about the Kindertotenlieder after hearing several Mahler-List members say they rarely listen to this cycle. While thinking of the Kindertotenlieder may be painful – and why even risk invoking the jinx; after all, it struck Mahler himself – it is my belief that these people are missing a crucial part of Mahler's output that is as awe-inspiring as his symphonies and the other songs. This effort also grows out of my reading of Peter Russell's Light in Battle with Darkness: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, of which I've already written once ( Most of the material in this series will be from Russell; Henry-Louis de La Grange epic biography of Mahler; and Donald Mitchell's analysis of the Kindertotenlieder (in his own analysis of Mahler, Volume III of which is titled Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death). I am far from a musician. I am an enthusiast, and this series will reflect that – it is simply an effort to get my thoughts together on what is to me a very complex subject, and possibly get some people to revisit a cycle that might be more optimistic and inspiring than is usually thought. I've been listening to five different Kindertotenlieder's during all this: Thomas Hampson with orchestra (Bernstein/Vienna; DG 431682-2) and piano (with Wolfram Rieger; EMI Classics 56443-2); Norman Foster/Horenstein (Bamberg; VoxBox CDX2-5509); Baker/Barbirolli (Halle; EMI GROC 66996-2); and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, with Daniel Barenboim at the piano (EMI CDC767657-2).

As with much of Mahler, what we don't know is as fascinating as what we do know. For instance, in what order did he write the individual songs of the Kindertotenlieder? He wrote three of them in the summer of 1901, and the other two in 1904. Henry-Louis de La Grange believes that 1, 3, and 4 were written in 1901, 2 and 5 in 1904; Mitchell says 1, 2, and 5, then 3 and 4; and Russell opts for 1, 4, and 5, then 2 and 3. Of these, Henry-Louis de La Grange is the most categorical. He bases his conclusion on the work of Christopher O. Lewis, who says that Mahler corrected the orchestral drafts of 2 and 5 much more heavily than the others, because for these songs there are no intermediate stages of composition; pressed for time, therefore, Mahler must have generated the orchestral scores directly from the drafts. Henry-Louis de La Grange also notes that the color and format of the paper for 2 and 5 are identical, which argues for their being composed together. So there you have it. Even as late as 1904, with Mahler at the pinnacle of Austrian musical life, there is much we still don't know for sure.

What about Mahler's selection of the poems? Rückert wrote 425 Kindertotenlieder; a later edition added an extra 18. Mahler chose five. Russell, who argues that Mahler was almost as skilled in literature as he was in music, says that Mahler unerringly picked out those Kindertotenlieder that deal with the theme of light, which is explicit in 1 through 4 and unmistakable in 5 (it is worth pointing out that only 36 of the 425 Kindertotenlieder deal with the subject of light, and Kindertotenlieder's 1 through 4 come from this subset). This is also the main argument that Russell uses to refute those critics – especially in the German-speaking community – who say that Mahler was not skilled in literature. That's a subject that can't be addressed at length here. Suffice to say that Mahler took a very active hand in reshaping Rückert's poems to his own ends. In Russell's words, "In the furnace of Mahler's genius a tremendous alchemy has taken place, transmuting baser metals to gold."

What motivated Mahler to set such gloomy subject matter? And how was he able to do it? He wrote to Guido Adler: "I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more." Others, however, point to Mahler's near-death experience of Feb. 24, 1901, when a hemorrhoidal abscess in his abdomen caused him to collapse and he was discovered lying in a pool of blood. In the course of two operations and a prolonged convalescence, he inevitably thought of his mortality, his childhood, and the many deaths of siblings that he had witnessed (8 out of 14 had died). As his favorite brother, Ernst, was one of them, Mahler was drawn by the fact that Ernst was also the name of Rückert's son who had died. All of this seems very convincing. However, it is worth pointing out that none of the Kindertotenlieder set by Mahler concern the death of only the male child. Songs 1 and 2 refer to either or both children. Song 3 is about the daughter. Songs 4 and 5 are about both children.

So we are left with five songs none of which refer exclusively to the male child, the memory of whom is supposed to be the key to the cycle's creation. it is yet another paradox that makes Mahler so fascinating.

It is also worth noting that the Kindertotenlieder are unique in Mahler's output in that there is no nature imagery nor any of the Wunderhorn "tricks" such as military motifs. The cycle is a product of extreme introspection. Russell: "In all of Mahler's five poems there is not a leaf, a flower or a bird to be found; their imagery is entirely inorganic."

Musically, there are a number of things that bear notice. The orchestra in the Kindertotenlieder is a small one, being only strings and winds, with the exception of two horns (and some brief but telling instances of kettledrum and gong). No cymbal clashes, rute, or hammers. That suits the somber mood perfectly. Russell points out how Mahler changes the texture from song to song, using strings here and woodwind there, and then uses the two concurrently in the final, crowning song to emphasize the point. This use of "alternate orchestras" was one of the key developments in Mahler's progression to Das Lied, and it is not out of place to recall that Mitchell entitled his section on the Rückerts and the Kindertotenlieder, "Preparing for Das Lied." Most authors I've read agree that it is with the Kindertotenlieder that Mahler, for all intents and purposes, created a new orchestral form, the chamber orchestra. Another thing I've noticed is that the piano version of Kindertotenlieder is not as effective as it is in the Wunderhorn songs or even in Das Lied; the orchestration is just too subtle to be accurately conveyed by a single instrument.

This "alternate orchestra" approach is one way that Mahler varies the coloration in a cycle that does not show much movement in key. As opposed to several other Mahlerwerk, the Kindertotenlieder do not jump around from key to key. They start in D minor and get only as far as E Flat Major, ending in D Major. Mahler did this to convey the listlessness of the grief-stricken parent. Aside from a fleeting modulation into D Major in the first song, that initial D minor does not resolve into the major until the final, subdued, triumph at the end of Kindertotenlieder 5. But even that resolution holds a twist that is best saved until we look at In diesem Wetter! itself.

I find it useful to approach the Kindertotenlieder simply by reading the titles and the first few lines of verse. Look at what you have here (even if you don't read German – and I don't, except for a nodding acquaintance with some things – it is useful to grind out those syllables if only to get a sense of meter and rhyme).

Nun will die Sonn' so Hell aufgeh'n

1. Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n. "Now the sun is about to rise as brightly [as if no misfortune had happened in the night]." This Das Lied-like statement of resigned acceptance, almost an optimism, in the face of death is one of the several moments in the cycle that listeners should bear in mind when considering whether the Kindertotenlieder are morbid or not. I've already quoted part of Russell's analysis of this song, which you can see in the link above.
2. Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen. "Now I can see why such dark flames [you flashed at me at many a moment, O eyes! as if into a single look to concentrate your whole power]." Why are the flames dark? Because, Russell speculates, Rückert for the first time perceived "that the light in his child's eyes was no longer of this earth, but on its way back to the eternal source of all light."
3. Wenn dein Mütterlein. "When thy dear mother [comes in through the door and I turn my head and look towards her, my glance falls first not on her face but on that place nearer the threshold, there, where your dear little face would be]." This poem was the one that Mahler reshaped most. Mahler uses the idea of the mother's walking into the room to make a song that portrays the mother's listless walking, disoriented through grief.
4. Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen. "I often think they have only gone out! [Soon they will get back home!]" I find these two simple lines, which Mahler used exactly as written by Rückert, just devastating. But Mahler, too, has his own literary contribution to make, which we will see when looking at this song. This is the only song in the cycle that is notated in a major key. Its association with Mahler 9th is well known.
5. In diesem Wetter! First verse: "In this weather, [in this raging; I would never have sent the children out]." it is important here to realize that Mahler is portraying not simply a storm, like Beethoven in his Pastoral, but a psychological storm, one that is brought off stunningly and resolves into a lullaby that concludes both the song and the cycle. Climax: "Von keinem Sturm erschrecket, Von Gottes Hand bedecket; Sie ruh'n, sie ruh'n, wie in der Mutter Haus, wie in der Mutter Haus." "Frightened by no storm, covered by Gods' hand, They rest as in their mother's house." This little verse, IMO one of the most euphonic and poignant phrases in all of Mahler's songs, brings to a perfect climax the final song and the cycle as a whole. And the thing that really clinches it are the extra words and accompanying music beginning with "They rest," which was Mahler's addition to Rückert's excellent raw material. I'll have some more to say about it in the last installment.

We've been through an emotional wringer and haven't discussed even a single note of music yet.


  1. Nun will die Sonn' so Hell aufgeh'n
  2. Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
  3. Wenn dein Mütterlein
  4. Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen
  5. In diesem Wetter!

Copyright © Mitch Friedfeld, 2001.

On to Kindertotenlieder I