While there has long been some doubt surrounding the exact chronology for the Kindertotenlieders, it is now understood that, in June 1904, Mahler added two lieders to the three others he had composed during the summer of 1901. In terms of the composition for these three lieder (Nun will die Sonn ‘so hell aufgehn, Wenn dein Mutterlein and Oft denk’ ich), it is useful to refer back to the Chronology for the Fifth Symphony for which three of the movements were composed during that same summer of 1901. During this time, most of Mahler’s work took on a funeral or painful tone.
When he played the three Kindertotenlieder to Natalie Bauer-Lechner for the first time, he exclaimed: “I felt sorry for myself having had to write these songs, and for the world which will one day have to listen to them”. Theodor Reik describes the creative process behind the Kindertotenlieder in the following way. According to him, the idea of marriage had been on Mahler’s mind for a year and had awakened some of the worries previously experienced by his parents. According to Reik, it is impossible that Mahler ignored the fact that one of Rückert’s dead children was called Ernst. So, when composing the Kindertotenlieder, he imagined his father, and put himself in the mindset of a man who had lost a son called Ernst.
Three years later, in the summer of 1904, Mahler completed the cycle, the reasons for which are very clear: he was appointed honorary president of the Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler by Schönberg and Zemlinsky and Mahler promised they would be the first to hear the performance. Since that of the Fifth was too costly and had, in any case, already been promised to Cologne, only one option remained: a Lieder concert, interest for which would be all the greater as most had been composed with orchestral accompaniment yet never been performed. As a result, he then decided to add two new Lieder to the cycle started in 1901, the poems for which had probably already been chosen, in particular the last one which gave him the serene and peaceful conclusion he sought.
In Mahler’s memoirs, his wife, Alma, who arrived in Maiernigg sometime later after the birth of her daughter Anna, expressed a lack of understanding in his choice of texts: “I could understand setting such frightful words to music if one had no children, or hadn’t lost one, but otherwise? What I could not understand was bewailing the deaths of children who were in the best of health and spirits … hardly one hour after having kissed and fondled them. I exclaimed at the time: For Heaven’s sake, don’t tempt Providence!”
However, Alma also wrote that the summer of 1904 was exceptionally restful and harmonious, and that Mahler had never been “more human and communicative.” He even spent long hours playing with his eldest daughter, little Putzi, with whom he had developed a strange and powerful bond. He kept making new faces, inventing strange stories just for her, and telling her fairy tales.
The Kindertotenlieder were created in January 1905, in Vienna, during a concert, the programme for which was made up mostly of first performances: the five Kindertotenlieder, the four Rückert Lieders from 1901, the four Wunderhorn Lieders from 1892 to 1898 and the two Lieder borrowed from the same poetic collection and composed in 1899 and 1901. Given the intimate nature of these pieces, Mahler insisted that the evening take place in the small concert hall in Musikverein. The occasion brought together three of the best singers from the Opera, plus three men; this fact deserves is worthy of special attention because we have become accustomed to almost always entrusting some of these Lieder to female vocalists. They were the tenor, Fritz Schrödter, and the baritones, Anton Moser, and Friedrich Weidemann. The latter would become Mahler’s favourite interpreter for a long time to come, at least for the Kindertotenlieder. The small orchestra was made up of musicians chosen from the Wiener Philharmoniker. The public was admitted to the dress rehearsal which took place on 28th January 1905 at 2:30 PM as all the tickets for the concert had been sold out in advance. The audience’s reaction was very favourable. The next day, the official concert began at 7:30 PM. Long before the actual starting time, the small room was packed, and many people had to be turned away. The attentiveness and respectful attitude of the public proved that the battle had been won. Mahler requested applause between each group of melodies. The tension in the room kept increasing until the end of the performance. Whether partial or impartial, all the contemporary onlookers had to admit that the evening’s performance had been “the only real triumph of the entire Vereinigung concert series”. “Mahler’s Lieder touched everyone,” wrote Paul Stefan. We exulted with him, were sad with him, childlike, cheerful, pensive. One revelled in his skill and mastery of the small form, the beautiful realisation of beautiful poems.
It was in 1872, six years after the death of Friedrich Rückert, that the collection of Kindertotenlieder was published for the first time. It was a small volume of 408 pages with a canvas cover and gilded in fine gold. It included 166 poems, less than half of the 423 elegies written following the death of the poet’s two children.
Friedrich Rückert had five children. The two youngest were Luise (born 25th June 1830) and Ernst (born 4th January 1829). Both contracted scarlet fever in 1833, the day after Christmas. Luise died on New Year’s Eve. Ernst fell ill a few days later and died on 18th January. Fortunately, the poet’s other children survived the disease. But their father remained grief-stricken for a long time after. For the rest of his life, he kept a pastel portrait of his two youngest children close by. This had been painted in the autumn of 1833, a few months before their death.
During his lifetime Mahler always opted for a baritone (Friedrich Weidemann in Vienna and Graz; in the absence of Weidemann, who had fallen ill, Gerhard Zalsman in Amsterdam; Johannes Messchaert in Berlin, with piano). However, this was not the case in New York; on 26th January 1910 he hired the German tenor, Ludwig Wüllner. On this occasion, it was a former actor and famous performer rather than a singer, and it is likely that Mahler was more interested in his artistic personality than his range. However, he never hired a woman to interpret this cycle. However, several female singers performed this cycle during Mahler’s lifetime, notably the Dutch contralto, Tilly Koehnen, and the soprano Anna von Mildenburg.
The poet’s despair is eloquently echoed in the stripped-down counterpoints and gloomy canons, the oppressive instrumental imitations, the insistent intervals and the sighs of a second major and minor, then, further on in the piece, in the chromatic rise of the melody, a process which Mahler never usually used. The only real contrast with this desperate starkness is the passionate violin overtones in the last interlude (bar 59 onwards). Elsewhere in this Lied, there is a nagging but restrained sweetness and a deliberate monochromatic sonority; the voice remains in the middle register, as if the afflicted father did not even find the strength to revolt.
Several details of the orchestration are particularly striking: the melodic use of the horn and the general predominance of wind instruments, not forgetting the knell-like horn octaves; finally the voice stand-in by the pianissimo cellos, in a high-pitched register, and the glockenspiel notes. For some observers, the latter is evocative of the death bell. For others, it is the first hint of the eternal light that will shine on the end of the cycle.
Reinhard Gerlach analysed the effects of the tonal suspension of the intro in detail. The instability of the opening reveals an extremely rare influence for Mahler, that
of the Tristanesque . However, the ascending melody is closely related to that of and the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, two pieces where, on the contrary, the most peaceful diatonism reigned. Never, perhaps, had Mahler strayed so far from his usual language. The same author also underlines the role of silences in this Lied, allusive and foreboding silences which create a “symbolic” and metaphorical” style of music.
The first ascending motif is the real leitmotif, or rather refrain, of the whole piece and the appogiature at the end is never resolved satisfactorily. The , this unfulfilled slowness of the whole Lied, is in fact born from an unstable and questioning atmosphere and is maintained by the constant harmonic ambiguity of delays and suspensive dominant sequences. Through the use of augmentations, decreases and variations, the same ascending pattern provides much of the melodic substance. Mahler ends the piece with an inconclusive rhythm that maintains the anxious and questioning atmosphere throughout the Lied.
Reinhard Gerlach analysed the effects of the introduction’s tonal suspension in some detail. The instability of the opening reveals an extremely rare influence for Mahler, that of the Tristanesque . However, the ascending melody is closely related to that of and the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, two pieces where, on the contrary, the most peaceful diatonism reigned. Never, perhaps, had Mahler strayed so far from his usual language. The same author also underlines the role of silences in this Lied, allusive and foreboding silences which create a “symbolic” and metaphorical” style of music.
This Lied is the first of the cycle where the consoling element has the upper hand. The peaceful conclusion of is anticipated here by the last verse, in which the poet announces that he will find his children on this radiant “hill” which is none other than paradise. With the richness of its sounds, the entire orchestral accompaniment creates a contrasting effect to what came before. However, other elements maintain a worrying atmosphere, in particular the bass string syncopations of the ninth chords which are, on two occasions, the culmination of the motif itself, each time with an accentuating crescendo-decrescendo indication which is accentuated second time round. At the end of each stanza, the rhythmic anxiety resumes with the motif from the instrumental introduction. In the second, the parallel sixths are given to two clarinets instead of two horns. In the third, the sixths are replaced by a dactylic motif, played by the high-pitched notes of the clarinets. Thus, Mahler creates an effect of progression until the final rhythm.
Before the human voice, a 17 bar prelude portrays the storm without a single fortissimo, but with instruments that haven’t been used since the start of the cycle, such as the piccolo, the bass clarinet, the contrabassoon, not forgetting the two additional horns, the timpani, the drum and the tam-tam (the latter only starts just before the last stanza). The resignation and impenetrable grief are no longer evident at the beginning of this last song. This time it is a violent despair and uncontrollable anguish which explodes, echoing the unleashing of the forces of nature. The march theme evokes those of earlier symphonies and, as always with Mahler, is linked to the concept of inevitability and fate. The quick and stubborn eighth notes express the father’s obsessive worry. As their wandering nature becomes stronger, they transform themselves into increasingly wide melodic intervals, thus ensuring the transition to the “Lullaby” which serves as the Finale for the cycle.
Hope and peace will reign over this conclusion, which brings back memories of the and foreshadows the mystical tenderness of the ’s final coda. The coda is one of those magical and masterful conclusions in which everything gently and peacefully fizzles out. It is an important step towards a unique moment of luminous stillness that will turn out to be the codas for the Ninth Symphony and the . After the voice has died down, the horn resumes the melodic part and the cellos, for the first time unmuted, add a new expressive countermelody which continues until the perfect cadence. This is followed by seven instrumental measures during which the accompanying motif gradually fades out into stillness and silence.
The Klagende Lied is a subject that belongs to a universe dear to Mahler and Romantics in general: The Middle Ages, with its flamboyant Gothic, disturbing legends, dreamlike forests and enchanted castles. Analysis of the original poem.
A young queen declares that whoever finds the red flower in the forest will win her hand; two brothers, a nice one and a nasty one, go in search of the flower, the nice one finds it, puts it on his hat and then stretches out under a willow tree for a nap; in the meantime, the nasty brother arrives and kills him with one strike of a sword; the nice brother is soon buried under the leaves and flowers of the tree.
Sometime later, a wandering musician picks up one of the bones that is glistening under the leaves; he turns it into a flute and as he brings it to his lips, it sings the lament of the dead brother ( [The Sorrowful Song]); the minstrel takes the road and heads towards the city.
The royal castle is enraptured by the Queen’s wedding: in the anteroom, the minstrel plays his magic flute; the guilty king seizes the instrument and blows into it; the flute repeats its incriminating song; the queen falls unconscious, the guests flee and the castle walls crumble.