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Gustav Mahler

Kindertotenlieder II

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.]"

There are similarities and contrasts galore compared with the preceding song and with other Mahlerwerk. First, the titles and first verses start with a "Now" phrase, as if the parent has been forced to face the awful truth. Melodically, the song is related to Nun will, starting out with a fragment that is identical to the preceding song's last phrase. This phrase can also be found at the very start of the Mahler 5th Adagietto and is in the Rückert song, Ich bin der Welt. The difference here – and as we all know, Mahler never repeats himself exactly – is in the bottom part of the fourth-note chord: while in the Adagietto it is resolved, in Nun seh it is not, giving it a sinister cast. Russell points out that this device, repeating a fragment early in a successor song that was found late in the preceding song, is "a consistent technique of the cycle as a whole, contributing to its musical continuity." The alternate orchestras are there, and Mahler again makes use of a duet between voice and horn.

About midway through the song, Mahler places a touch so subtle that I was grateful to have it pointed out (by all the authors I've consulted, which I have to say makes me feel fairly unobservant). It has to do with the cycle's first instance of percussion, two bars of kettledrum right at the start of the phrase Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen (You wanted with your shining to say to me….). What's so special about this? The kettledrum is in pianissimo. In the three orchestral recordings I have, you can barely hear it in Hampson/Bernstein and Baker/Barbirolli, but both of them need fiddling with the knobs to get there; I have to say I can't hear it in Foster/Horenstein at all, but what do you expect for a recording made in 1955? it is like Benjamin Zander says of a similar instance on his Mahler 9th lecture disc: I think you would miss it if it weren't there. That phrase is exactly where a brief modulation to D Major occurs, right on the word Leuchten (shining). We won't see D Major again until the very end of Kindertotenlieder 5 and the cycle as a whole.

But there are contrasts, too. Whereas Nun will was structured as four rhyming couplets, or strophes, Nun seh' ich Wohl is more of a "through-composed" (durchkomponiert) piece along the lines of Der Abschied. Mitchell makes a lot of this concept and its significance in the creation of Das Lied. Nun seh', in fact, is by far the most through-composed song of the entire cycle. And most characteristically, whereas Nun will was solidly rooted in one key (yes, with a couple of brief modulations), there is instability – changes in key, tempo, and time signature; the works – throughout Nun seh'.

That part above about the similarity between the start of this song and a piece of the first song is important, because the music of the phrase in the first song that is repeated here came precisely at Freudenlicht der Welt: "(Hail to the) gladdening light of the world!" This, of course, is no coincidence ("coincidence" in Mahler? Never!). For the poem Nun seh' ich wohl" is particularly rich in Light references, which Mahler emphasizes by particular musical devices. I have to quote Russell in its entirety here (omitting bar information; the brackets are mine, the parentheses his): "First the singer's opening statement Nun seh' ich wohl [Now I can see] is sung to this motif (though with the appoggiatura, thus some of the harmonic tension, removed); it is heard then in its purest form at the exclamatory O Augen! O Augen [O eyes!]; it reappears at der Strahl [the ray]; underlies Ihr wolltet mir [mit eurem Leuchten sagen][You wanted with your shining to say to me], "in which Ihr refers to the eyes, and the following Wir möchten nah dir bleiben gerne ["We would dearly like to stay near you"; (no overt Light reference here, but it sets up the rhyme three lines later with Sterne, Star)]; is intimated at the entry to the words Sieh' uns nur an [Look at us well]; and occurs again strongly at Was dir nur Augen sind [What are only eyes to you], where the dissonance on Augen recalls that on Augen earlier. It is then heard three times more in the summarizing orchestral postlude." Upward harp arpeggios (slow ones), a device Russell also associates with Light in Mahler, are heard in all of these phrases. No, there are no coincidences in Mahler!

Now what about these dunkle Flammen, these dark flames? Flames aren't dark. Russell wonders whether the eyes of Rückert's daughter, Luise, were dark (but why just Luise and not Ernst; the song's poetry could refer to either or both of them). But he speculates that there might have been a biblical reference at work – "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face" – "For the poet tells us he now sees for the first time a mystic truth which the 'blinding mists of fate' formerly prevented him from seeing: that the light in his child's eyes was no longer of this earth, but on its way back to the source of all light." This fits in perfectly with Mahler's fascination with the pan-psychic philosophy of Gustav Theodor Fechner, who posited that the universe has a consciousness and that we remain immortally present in it in a higher spiritual form; hence the last line that must have attracted Mahler so much: "What are only eyes to you in these days In future nights will be but stars to you." Mahler's device to illustrate this is a dying-out pianissimo C minor chord. Russell: "As a conclusion to a song so permeated with imagery of light and dark, eyes and seeing, the fading of the last chord is like a fading of light and of sight. We recall that the last sound heard at the end of the first song, the fading chime of the glockenspiel, carried a similar symbolism."

Copyright © Mitch Friedfeld, 2001.

On to Kindertotenlieder III