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Gustav Mahler

Kindertotenlieder III

Wenn dein Mütterlein

Of all the Kindertotenlieder that Mahler set, he reshaped Wenn dein Mütterlein the most. He begins with the second stanza of the poem, omitting the last three lines; then continues with the first half of the first stanza, and ends the song with the three lines formerly omitted from the end of the second stanza. The result, most critics believe, is a masterpiece of a song that is a vast improvement over Rückert's poem. It also bears mentioning that this song more than any of the other Kindertotenlieder, is a male's song – the mother plays a prominent role as a subject. This is in no way to argue that the cycle "belongs" to either a male or female vocalist; that is a matter purely of personal preference.

Wenn dein Mütterlein – When thy Mother dear – is the only song specifically about Rückert's daughter. In fact, as we have seen, it is the only song that is about one specific child; the others are about both children or either child. The song states its intentions with the very first line (even if you don't speak German, say these words to yourself, with a heavy step): Wenn dein Mütterlein / Tritt zur Tür herein. Note the simple but effective rhyming of Mütterlein and herein; we'll see an even more effective rhyming at the end of the song. The action of the mother – walking – Mahler portrays by pizzicato bass notes and a steady tread. She appears at the door, and the father sings. But when he does, we are faced again with the awful truth. Most of us know what this first verse is about: When the mother enters the room, the father looks not at her, but where his daughter's face would have been, bright with joy. Starting on a low G, the parent sings two identical upward lines, coming back down to rest on D. The next two identical lines start on middle G and proceed down, coming to a devastating halt on the same D. This upward and downward motion conveys the parent's listless, restless (rest-less!) pacing across their now silent room. But there's much more. Mahler constantly changes time signatures so that the feeling of aimlessness is even more pronounced. In the seventy bars of music there are over twenty changes of time (Henry-Louis de La Grange for sure counted them, but I just can't find the notation). Russell calls this song the most symmetrical in the whole cycle: Not only is it strophic, but "In each stanza an orchestral introduction in 4/4 time is followed by a vocal section in which 3/2 time alternates with 4/4 time." But combined with the steady tread of the cellos, the effect of the alternation is downright disorienting.

There is much to ponder. First of all, after the preceding song's through-composition, we have returned to a symmetrical structure; it is a straightforward ABAB. This is the only song of the cycle that does not use a major-minor modulation. The coloration and variation is achieved by other means, notably the time changes. And do you notice something missing? The song totally dispenses with violins! The low strings and violas (yes, sometimes playing in their high register) do all the string playing, which darkens the mood considerably. it is the "alternate orchestra" again. Mahler once more forges a continuity of the cycle by recalling early in this song a passage that occurred close to the end of the previous one. In overview, several writers have perceived in Mahler's use of spare counterpoint a Bachic influence, and Mahler was in fact studying Bach at this time.

Russell notes how Wenn dein Mütterlein is connected both musically and literarily to the first two Kindertotenlieder:

"…images of eyes and seeing which recall the second song; the image of a radiant child's face in wenn du freudenhelle, which recalls both the sun described as hell in the first song and the radiance of a child's eyes which is the pervasive image of the second song; the image of the candle shedding its beams in der Kerze Schimmer, which evokes associations with the Lämplein in the first song, and images of Flammen, Strahl, and Leuchten in the second song; and most strikingly, the climactic image of the song in its last words, zu schnell erlosch'ner Freudenschein, which evokes a complex of images formerly encountered: the Freudenlicht der Welt of the first song, conflated with the word scheinet used there of the sun, the Leuchten of the child's eyes in the second song, and of course the associated image of the extinguishing of light which came in the first song in Ein Lämplein verlosch."

One other touch bears special emphasis, and it has to do again with the low G's. As I stated above, I think this is a man's song, and not just because the singer is talking about the mother. Hampson and Foster really make those low G's come from the depths. Not only do these G's start the singer's lines, they are present in the phrases that end the verses as well. And what words do they end them on? The first stanza ends on the words mein Töchterlein. The second stanza also ends on a low-G phrase, but on the words erlosch'ner freudenschein, which means "the gladdening light too quickly extinguished." In other words, the low G's express "My dear daughter,…the gladdening light too quickly extinguished." The word Freudenschein is stretched out over two bars, then repeated, in a melisma that takes a long time to resolve. But Mahler is not finished. He ends the song on the dominant, not the tonic, an unusual step for him which Russell sees as implying that the grief has not been accepted – and as Henry-Louis de La Grange describes "as if the father's grief had deprived him of the strength for even a final sigh." No wonder some singers have a hard time getting through this cycle. An instrumental postlude leads you to believe that the song is starting again, but the pizzicato bass slows down and breaks off, "as if the footsteps of the mother had halted," Russell says.

The ending of the song on the dominant, Russell continues, "is a way of implying that the grief given vent in the song remains unresolved, that the reality of the father's loss has not yet been accepted. That inability to accept loss is precisely the theme of the next song – which however not only takes us out of a world of candle-lit darkness into a world of sunny daylight, but also points positively toward relief." But not without a turn for the worse along the way.

Copyright © Mitch Friedfeld, 2001.

On to Kindertotenlieder IV