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Gustav Mahler

Kindertotenlieder IV

Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen

In Wenn dein Mütterlein we left the parents in great distress: the father, seemingly unable even to look at his wife, reflexively and in vain seeking his daughter's joy-filled face at the door; the mother, endlessly, pointlessly pacing, her footsteps portrayed by a pizzicato bass line. But her steady if directionless footsteps were undermined by the father's singing in alternating 3/2 and 4/4 time. The effect was that of grief-induced disorientation for both of them, and for us.

With Oft denk' ich, however, the mood changes immediately. Possibly, this is due to the fact that this is the only Kindertotenlieder notated in a major key. Significantly, it is E Flat Major, the relative major of the preceding song's C minor. This is yet another way that Mahler forges continuity among the songs, and injects coloration into a cycle that has a relatively narrow tonal range. It should also be pointed out that E Flat Major is a favorite Mahlerian Light key, as seen in Mahler 8th, Part I; Mahler 2nd, Finale; and, most importantly for Mitchell and Russell, at the words Sonne der Liebe in Das Lied's Der Einsame im Herbst – and by now we recognize the word Sonne as not just the sun, but a symbol of Light. I should also point out that Mitchell elaborates on the Oft denk' ich/Einsame connection in his liner notes to Hampson's disc of the piano-version of the Kindertotenlieder, a disc about which I'll have more to say in the conclusion of this series.

From the very first pickup note the song points in a different direction. The orchestral prelude has everything going for it: lush orchestration, grace notes dripping with sophistication, a recognizable lilting "beat" that gives solidity to the rhythmic disorientation of the preceding song. In fact, I can't help but think of a Viennese ballroom when I hear it. But it is not long before we are chilled by the tragedy that has occurred. At the end of the prelude, the pace slows perceptibly and almost stops before the singer enters. it is as if the effort to resume a semblance of normal life – to finally get out of the house – had been made but failed. The singer tries to begin the song in the atmosphere of the prelude, but he can't do it: His first three notes are a minor third, which undermines the major-key prelude instantly. And then we hear the terrible words that erase any thought that the disaster has been overcome: "I often think they have only gone out! Soon they will get back home!" Russell describes this minor third as emphasizing the father's "sad awareness of the delusion" that the children are only on the hills nearby. The father is horribly right, though, for the word that Rückert uses for heights – Höhn; Mahler changed it to Höh'n – also symbolizes Heaven.

Mahler is at his subtle best in this song. Just look at how he manipulates the rhyming pattern bequeathed by Rückert. In the first few lines of this very strophic poem you have the words ausgegangen, gelangen, gang, and bang (gone out, soon, a walk, and afraid). There is also a key rhyming relationship between schön and Höh'n. Look at the verse in German and you'll see how rhyme-filled they are: Oft denk' ich sie sind nur ausgegangen. Bald werden sie wieder nach Hause gelangen. Der Tag ist schön! O, sei nicht bang. Sie machen nur einen weiten gang. BTW, Hampson does something really nice here, pulling back slightly on the word Hause (not Haus; the extra e was Mahler's). In doing so he suggests the father's voice cracking over the key word, but he stops well short of cliche sentimentality. it is as if with this subtle gesture he's expressing the catastrophe that has struck Home and Family. Neither of the other singers I've been listening to, Janet Baker and Norman Foster, do this. But why "subtle best?" Note the contrast between this song and Kindertotenlieder 5. In the next song, you have the rhyme around which the whole song is built, Braus, Saus, and Graus, all of them coming at the start of their respective verses. But in Oft denk' ich the rhymes are insidious, popping up all over and in unexpected places.

Note how Mahler generates an unstoppable momentum toward an optimistic finish in this song, which is the turning point of the cycle. In the first verse the singer breaks off unexpectedly, prematurely, at einem weiten gang. The orchestra carries the tune for several bars. At the end of the second verse, a near repeat of the first one – remember, there are never any literal repeats in Mahler – the singer continues for a couple of more bars, and the orchestra carries less. Both the gang rhymes and the schön rhymes are present, with schön and Höh'n separated by other lyrics. But at the end of the third stanza and the song, two things come together: the orchestra and the singer end at the same place, and the key idea of the song, Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh'n – The day is fine on those heights (that is, in Heaven) – is finally made whole, unseparated by any of the lyrics that were found earlier. This triumphant uniting of these two phrases is Mahler's; Rückert's poem ends with Der Tag ist schön. The ending, moreover, is in a major key – on the tonic, not the dominant – so there is no mistaking the ultimate optimism of the song. And if you've been reading this far, you are probably already aware of another critical aspect of Oft denk' ich, the fact that it is quoted at the end of Mahler's own last completed work, the Ninth, and in a "different, confident and conclusive role," says Russell, quoting another analyst of the song.

Two more developments deserve mention: First, the return of the upward harp arpeggios. We have seen that this is a device that Mahler uses to signify light. In the song before, in which there is no hint of light, there were no arpeggios. But here there are. And where do they come? In all stanzas, right on the phrase containing Der Tag ist schön! This, again, is no coincidence. Second, is it my imagination or is the concept of "alternate orchestras" fading away as the parent makes his tentative move toward resolution, toward becoming whole? After all, readers will know that the next song, which finally brings acceptance, makes use of full orchestral forces playing simultaneously.

Concluding his analysis of Oft denk' ich, Russell notes: "For the absence of overt images of darkness from this song does not mean it lacks its own uneasy shadows; and its anticipatory vision of the 'gladdening light,' while more convinced than the gesture made in that direction at the end of the first song, has not yet resolved the emotional conflict of the cycle. That is why no surprise is felt when, with the opening of the fifth song, the sunshine is engulfed in stormy darkness."

Copyright © Mitch Friedfeld, 2001.

On to Kindertotenlieder V