Mahler: Kindertotenlieder

(Songs on the Death of Children)

performed by Anne Sofie von Otter and the Vienna Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez

Rückert’s 428 poems on the death of children became singular, almost manic documents of the psychological endeavor to cope with such loss. In ever new variations Rückert’s poems attempt a poetic resuscitation of the children that is punctuated by anguished outbursts. But above all the poems show a quiet acquiescence to fate and to a peaceful world of solace.

-Karen Painter

In fact, let’s first get something out of the way regarding that. Anyone who’s ever done any listening to or reading of Mahler knows that he faced his fair share of tragedy. Aside from the eight of his siblings that died (one before Mahler was born, four more in infancy after Mahler, and three more later in life: his dear younger brother Ernst died at only 12, and Otto committed suicide at the age of 21).

His own formative years aside, many people are aware that his own daughter Maria died of scarlet fever at only five years old. Many of those same many people attribute the sixth symphony, the Tragische one, to this crushing blow to any parent, and along with it this perhaps offensively-morbidly-titled song cycle.

Let’s correct that assumption, though. The first few songs were written in 1901, the last in 1904, and it was premiered in 1905. The sixth symphony was written in 1903-4 and premiered in 1906. Maria died on 12 July, 1907. The obvious assumption is that these all-too-apropos works by Mahler were reactionary, but they clearly were not. The immediate assumption by many, then, is the poetic, Romantic idea that Mahler was somehow foreseeing his own future, expressing a feeling of impending tragedy or doom. That certainly is an idea that gets people’s attention, and one can understand why people would want to believe it. It just seems so logical. But whatever you decide to believe about fate or superstition or any of the rest of it, Mahler wrote perhaps his most tragic works (at least up to that point in his career) before tragedy struck his own young family.

In reality, the composer had been quite interested in the work of Friedrich Rückert, “a German poet, translator, and professor of Oriental languages,” says Wikipedia. He is the obvious source of Mahler’s eponymous Rückert-Liederwhich the composer wrote concurrently with the work we are currently discussing. Wikipedia says of Mahler’s source text that “The original Kindertotenlieder were a group of 428 poems written by Rückert in 1833–34[2] in an outpouring of grief following the illness (scarlet fever) and death of two of his children.” An uncanny resemblance to later happenings, for sure, and one can perhaps not fault Alma for claiming that her husband tempted fate. The article also quotes Karen Painter in her 2002 book Mahler and his World with the quote that begins the article. Poignantly, Rückert’s poems here, 428 of them, were never intended for an audience, but were published sometime after his death, in what I assume to be a money-making ploy by a greedy family member or associate, or maybe just a well-meaning publisher.

In any case, Mahler certainly would have identified with the topic even before his own daughter passed, as discussed earlier, since he was unfortunately no stranger to death from a young age. In fact, I want to say I read somewhere that he even made the statement (or maybe I just assumed) that he never would have been able to compose such a work after losing his own daughter.

There are five songs to this cycle, totaling around 25 minutes, give or take:

  1. Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n (Now the sun wants to rise as brightly)
  2. Nun seh’ Ich wohl, warum so dunkel Flammen (Now I see well, why with such dark flames)
  3. Wenn dein Mütterlein (When your mama steps in through the door)
  4. Oft denk’ Ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (I often think: they have only just gone out)
  5. In diesem Wetter (In this weather)

The lyrics to each song (German and English) can be found in this section of the Wikipedia article.

The first song seems to hint at the slow movements of either Mahler’s fourth or sixth, the quieter, more pensive moments of those symphonies and for the latter, a respite. It makes prominent use of oboe, horn and bassoon, and feels rustic as a result. These instruments are the only ones we hear before the vocalist begins:

Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n
als sei kein Unglück die Nacht gescheh’n.

(Now the sun wants to rise as brightly
as if nothing terrible had happened during the night.)

Almost immediately, there’s a sort of confusion, to me, in this piece. The subject matter is obviously extremely grave, and the music reflects a darkness, but there are moments of cautious beauty, things that would almost seem peaceful in another context. Mahler’s transparent, pared down, almost chamber-like writing for the orchestra is striking and clear, a perfect accompaniment to our mourning vocalist. The impression of the music is that she’s just become aware of this tragedy, is just starting to process it (“A little star went out in my tent!”) and that only the beginning realization of grief, rather than grief itself, has gripped her. The entire song moves about a few poignantly beautiful figures and patterns that get used throughout the six-ish minutes of this first song, which gets thicker and more turbulent toward the end, but quiets down, with strings and harp to accompany the wish that ends the song (“Greetings to the joyful light of the world.”) The work seems to end without any kind of cadence or finality, our vocalist singing a final F, with bells ringing to end the D minor song.

The second song begins with weeping cellos, more exposed strings than anything in the first song. It’s richer, fuller, and less sparse and lonely-sounding than the first, with the vocalist standing on a far more solid orchestral accompaniment than being equals with the members of the chamber-like background of the first. Parts of this writing remind me of the Urlicht movement of the second symphony. It reaches those kinds of heights, more pleading, more emotive. There’s a broader openness, an expressive despair that’s more outright, more unabashedly pained. This song seems also to end ambiguously, with prominent clarinet and harp, and the effect is that these are not individual songs or separate works, but sections of a heart-wrenching narrative being shared.

The third song is of a father speaking to his daughter, when her mother opens the door (whence the name) and:

and I turn my head
to see at her,
falling on her face
my gaze does not first fall,
but at the place
nearer the doorstep,
there, where your
dear little face would be,
when you with bright joy
step inside,
as you used to, my little daughter


Here again, we have oboe, English horn and bassoon, a mellow, but richly woody texture, perhaps calling to mind the click of a solid door in its frame. There are fewer large leaps in the voice, and a heartbeat from the harp pulses through the work. It’s funereal in the way it gets going, but reaches its own height of grief with the end of the above-quoted stanza. One of the highest peaks of emotion so far, with strings and contrabassoon (?) underpinning the vocalist, comes as she sings:

Oh you, of a father’s cell,
ah, too soon
extinguished light!

and the movement ends in much the manner it began, like a door opening and closing, one of the clearest, final endings of a song so far.

The fourth song is perhaps the most painfully-titled. There’s a part of me that wants to ascribe to each of these songs a specific emotion associated with some stage of grief, but I think that’s just a convenient, nicely-packaged program idea rather than reality. If that were to be the case, however, this is obviously denial:

I often think: they have only just gone out,
and now they will be coming back home.
The day is fine, don’t be dismayed,
They have just gone for a long walk.

So there are similar almost conflicting moments of simple beauty, a hint at a major key, shades of nostalgia and brightness, but instantly and equally bittersweet, as if sorrowful reality returns. Small chirps of woodwinds echoed by strings here and there lend a more symphonic sound to this song, even though it’s the shortest of the bunch.

Yes indeed, they have just gone out,
and now they are making their way home.
Don’t be dismayed, the day is fine,
they have simply made a journey to yonder heights.

There are some truly beautiful moments in this work, and if there’s any repose to be had in such a solemn, dark work, it is the solace in occasionally forgetting, a moment away from reality, and it’s here that we find it, maybe in a short line from horn or a flutter from the flute, the brightest of the five so far, but still (heavily) tinged with loss and melancholy.

The fifth song, if we are to ascribe to it a stage of grief, would be anger. But then again, it is also fitting for the song about the weather to sound unmistakably stormy.

In this weather, in this windy storm,
I would never have sent the children out.
They have been carried off,
I wasn’t able to warn them!

This is the longest and liveliest of the bunch, with the largest, most forcefully orchestral opening. It’s also the lowest-set in for the vocalist. I’m not sure if Anne Sophie Von Otter was struggling to get these words out above the violence of the orchestra in a lower register or if it was intentional, but the end result is a rather appropriate pained, struggling sound, a bit un-pristine. The introduction is also the longest of all five, before the lyrics begin. There are unmistakable accents on words like erkranken and Gedanken  (‘sickened’ and ‘in vain’, respectively) that sound almost foul in the mouth.

One gets the impression that the wheels are coming off: the orchestra reaches terrible heights, with growls from brass and nightmarish plucks from strings, shrieks from woodwinds, and our singer at her wit’s end, it seems.

Icy strings and flute/piccolo follow this terrible outburst, in an almost hauntingly serene yet equally comforting tone as the vocalist sings the final stanza of our five songs:

In this weather, in this gale, in this windy storm,
they rest as if in their mother’s house:
frightened by no storm,
sheltered by the Hand of God.

A flute flutters a beautiful line like what might come out of the final movement of Mahler’s fourth, something heavenly and restful, like a butterfly dancing around a glistening flower, and the vocal line is now in a much more comfortable range, floating effortlessly above the orchestra.

A reference is made in the Wikipedia article that the cellos in the end here sound much like the final movement of Mahler’s third. The quote reads thusly:

Musically, then, this is the last word of the Kindertotenlieder: that death is powerful, yet love is even stronger.

-from here

So shockingly, after all that, we end delicately in D major…. ? There’s celesta and strings, low horn, but I suppose there is the question of how comforted our parent really is. Has he or she come to grips with this loss? One seems to think they might never, but the cycle ends on a brighter note than one would have expected. (Speaking of ‘he’ or ‘she’, it is worthy of mention that the work is also performed by baritones. Hampson sang it with the Vienna Philharmonic under Bernstein’s baton, the first song here. Other famous baritones have performed it as well, but I do prefer the female voice in this cycle. I later found Hampson speaking about the work, and have included that video below.)

And here, I think, is the real mastery in this cycle. While it’s a discussion of a truly terrifying subject (someone online even claimed that Von Otter’s exclusion of the cycle in an earlier Mahler release of hers was because she had young children at the time), within our little half-hour (the length of a Classical era symphony), we do have a journey, no matter how convinced you may or may not be of the end result.

I wonder what it was about these five songs in particular out of the more than 400 that Rückert wrote that struck Mahler as the ones that would be the basis for his work. Even with no knowledge of the background of the work or the text, Mahler’s music is pained, deep, and moving. But like an uncomfortable conversation of a sensitive subject, it gets you thinking, puts you in a place you might not want to be. The ultimate relief at the end of the piece is not how it ends, but that it ends, that most of us can walk away from this 25-minute nightmare and be glad that that’s all it is. Mahler and Rückert could not.

After having introduced one of the darkest, most pained works in Mahler’s oeuvre, we will continue this week by discussing one of his greatest successes. Stay tuned.


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