One of the persistent fallacies about Mahler tells how he was moved to compose the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) following his older daughter’s death after a serious illness. Although Mahler’s (as other composers’) music does contain autobiographical elements, the Kindertotenlieder were written during the summers of 1901 and 1904, years before the distressing death of his daughter Maria (known as ‘Putzi’). The resulting popular hypothesis that Mahler had prophetic powers is not serious.
Mahler wrote the Kindertotenlieder – as well as Symphony No. 6 which he himself referred to as ‘The Tragic’ – at a time when almost all of the elements of his life were at their peak: The Vienna Hofoper (Court Opera) was in its heyday with productions of Pique Dame, Tristan, Louise and Falstaff (to name but a few), he had a wealth of inspirations for his compositions, his first successes as a composer were on the horizon, his recent marriage was – from his point of view at least – in good order and the two children were experiencing a happy father – at least during the summer months by Lake Worthersee. The fact that Mahler chose this particular moment to write his most tragic and hopeless music was even at the time difficult to understand, and caused Alma, for instance, to invent a series of interpretations ‘of a biographical manner’ (Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler. Der fremde Vertraute, Vienna 2003).
Unlike the composer Mahler, the poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) did base the Kindertotenlieder on his own experiences: The death of two of his children (Luise on 31 December 1833 and Ernst on 16 January 1834) induced Rückert to write an extensive cycle of more than 400 poems which were published posthumously in 1872. Mahler selected five of the poems to set to music. Unlike in other song compositions, he altered only very little of the poems – mainly to repeat words. As with the majority of his songs, Mahler initially composed a piano version which he then orchestrated. Both versions were published in 1905 by the Leipzig-based publisher C. F. Kahnt. The world premiere took place on 29 January 1905 at the Vienna Musikverein, conducted by Mahler and sung by Friedrich Weidemann.
1. Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n (Once more the sun would gild the morn, composed in 1901): This song has a strikingly linear structure. It opens with sparse, desolate, bleak lines of ‘rhythmless’ constant notes. More rounded ‘harmonies’ only begin to join in gradually. This not only produces an atmosphere of emptiness and grief (‘melancholy’ according to Mahler), but is also reminiscent of very early music (historicism of the time) and the simplicity of some of the then-contemporary art (Secession, Toorop, Japan).
2. Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen (Ah, now I know why oft I caught you gazing, composed in 1904): The characteristic three-note anacrusis is necessitated by the text of the poem (‘Nun seh’ ich’), but can be found in several of Mahler’s works and is one of his ‘favourite phrases’ (Eggebrecht) – such as in the well-known Adagietto from Symphony No. 5. The prominent role of the harp is also reminiscent of this piece which received its world premiere at the same time (Cologne 1904).
3. Wenn dein Mutterlein (When thy mother dear, composed in 1901): The third song is characterised by melodies reminiscent of children’s songs and stereotypical chanted counting rhymes which try in vain to ‘bring back’ the dead child. The melodies are embedded in a linear accompaniment that harks back to the first song, but with movement twice as fast as the voice part.
4. Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (I think oft’, they’ve only gone a journey, composed in 1901): Chromatics and abrupt key changes characterise this meditation in which a personal song is linked to resigned acceptance. Rhythm changes with significant pauses allow for quiet sighs, silence, composed speechlessness, as well as reflection and a search for consolation.
5. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus (In such a tempest, on such a day, composed in 1904): This is the only song to open with a Mahler-style march, which recalls the key (D minor) and melodic style of the first movement of Symphony No. 3 (song bar 9, symphony bar 136). But this tempestuousness is not sustained – it flows into a ‘lullaby of endless tenderness’ (Fischer): ‘langsam, wie ein Wiegenlied’ (‘as slowly as a lullaby’, bar 101), the father sings a song for the eternal rest of his child.
In the Kindertotenlieder as a whole, Mahler achieved a rather indescribable balance between extreme expressiveness and a moderated, well-balanced total restraint, which is directed inwards with a conquering power and does not lessen or romanticise the grieving process, but makes the listener hear and feel the acceptance of the inevitable.
Reinhold Kubik, Autumn 2008