There is no such problem of course in the first seven songs in this selection, which were all written for piano – although each in its way requires playing with one’s orchestral ears switched on. They come from the Lieder und Gesänge of 1892, a volume that included nine early settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the massive collection of German folk-poetry gathered by the poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens von Brentano, which was to prove such a seminal influence in the development of Mahler’s sound-world. It also included five separate songs to other texts, but it is clear even from these that Mahler was already leaning towards an alfresco, folkloric context for his music. This is most obvious in the Ländler-like Hans und Grete (2) (the earliest of Mahler’s songs that he felt worthy of publication, it originally appeared as Maitanz im Grünen) but is also audible in the chirruping lark and humming bees of Frühlingsmorgen (1), a song that seems always on the verge of breaking into a full-blooded dance, but finally gives up, out of consideration for the sleeping sweetheart.
The collection also included two songs from Don Juan by Tirsis de Molina which both suggest incidental music. Phantasie (3), the one recorded here, instructs the pianist to imitate the sound of a harp. Its plangent melody and verbal repetitions such as ‘Im Herzen! Im Herzen!’ also suggest a folksong, and though the text may be Spanish in origin, the character of deep melancholy and personal identification – there is no doubt that the singer’s own heart has been caught like many others in the fishergirl’s net – was one that Mahler was to exploit with increasing success throughout his composing career. It finds its most familiar expression in the many Knaben Wunderhorn songs in which, as in Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz (5), a young soldier finds himself on the way to the scaffold or the firing-squad for an unidentified crime. Here his crime is desertion, or at least going absent without leave, and the muffled drums and tight military rhythms that represent his captivity are in eloquent contrast to the freedom inherent in the alphorn, whose nostalgic call had caused him to desert his post in the first place. (Mahler directs the introduction to be played Wie eine Schalmei – ‘like a shawm’.)
A similar, grief-stricken tread pervades Nicht Wiedersehen! (6), which describes the situation, common to many folksong traditions, where a lover returns from a journey to find his sweetheart has died in his absence. Here again the mature Mahler is foreshadowed, in the poignant major-minor shifts and melody in parallel thirds as well as the dissonant and agonized repetitions of ‘Ade!’. Ablösung im Sommer (4) is a deft example of the comic, rustic side of the Wunderhorn songs, in which the handover from cuckoo to nightingale is characterized in a shift from naïve slapstick to the sublimely lyrical in the same manner as in the comic singing-competition of Lob des hohen Verstandes in the later collection. As for the final song, Scheiden und Meiden (7), the breezy cheerfulness of its bright hobby-horse rhythms is offset, as so often in these poems, by a darker thread, as in the third stanza (Mahler doesn’t set the second stanza), where the theme of parting brings a reference to infant mortality (‘Es scheidet das Kind wohl in der Wieg’).
Mahler himself wrote the texts for Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, modelling them on the style of the Wunderhorn poems. Thus the journeying apprentice of the title is a stock character whose tale of unrequited love is drawn in simple imagery that also recalls Schubert’s Müller cycles (as in the reference to his sweetheart’s blue eyes, or the linden-tree beneath whose branches he finally finds peace). Incidentally, the customary English translation, Songs of a Wayfarer, is somewhat misleading, suggesting as it does a generalized traveller, rather than a member of a traditionally itinerant workforce – what in English used to be known as a ‘journeyman’.
In the first song, Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (8), the rustic setting is immediately audible in the asymmetrical piping of the wedding dance and in the calling of the birds, clearly differentiated from the sustained sonorities of the lover’s lament, which begins by withdrawing into itself, but then cannot help opening up again in widely arching phrases expressive of his grief. In Ging heut morgen übers Feld (9) – which Mahler reused substantially in the First Symphony – he shakes off the gloom, under the influence of a bright summer morning. In the piano part all is burgeoning nature and bright fanfares of birdsong; only at the end does the contrast with his own lost happiness become too much for him.
Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (10) is the storm at the heart of the cycle, its emotional turmoil expressed in an exceptional vocal range from low D to high G and searing chromatics over stark open fifths in the bass. In the quiet central section ‘Wenn ich in dem Himmel seh’’, devotees of Schubert would not need Mahler’s own orchestration to recognize the two horns that represent the vision of two blue eyes. But the sepulchral E flat minor of the postlude, with its scurrying triplets, is pure Mahler. The final song, Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (11), begins as a funeral march, but ends as a vision of emotional sublimation and release, the E minor of the opening yielding to an almost seraphic F major melody whose triadic contours are designed to release all the possible harmonic overtones of the accompanying pedal-point in the piano. By the end the funeral march has become a distant echo, suggesting a comparable emotional distancing of the singer from his grief.
In February 1901, under the extreme pressure of overwork, Mahler collapsed with a severe haemorrhoidal haemorrage, during which he was convinced that ‘my last hour had come’. The event was to prove a turning point: during the following summer vacation, he composed seven Rückert songs – three of the Kindertotenlieder and four of what would become known as the cycle of Rückert-Lieder.
Friedrich Rückert had been briefly set by Schubert in three songs, one of which, Dass sie hier gewesen, looks forward in its adventurous harmonic colouring to the perfumed atmosphere of Mahler and Strauss. He was also a favourite poet of Robert and Clara Schumann – Clara’s setting of Liebst du um Schönheit stands up well to comparison with Mahler’s more well-known version. In Mahler’s case, the refined sensitivity of Rückert’s poetry, with its intricate, rather contrived rhyme schemes derived from Persian and Turkish models, chimed with a newly refined vein in his own composition. Thus songs like Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (12) and Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder (14) are examples of the delicate web-like texture that was to become a mark of Mahler’s late style, even when writing for full orchestra.
Mahler’s personal identification with Rückert was in any case profound. When he wrote ‘Only when I experience do I compose, and only when I compose do I experience’ he was echoing Rückert’s own statement that ‘I never think without poetizing and never poetize without thinking’. And in these songs he has finally abandoned the stock characters of the Wunderhorn, with their generalized if intense emotional expression, for a poetic world that could express his own feelings with uncanny accuracy and sensitivity. Thus of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (16), he wrote ‘It is my very self’, and there is no doubt that in this song he created if not his all-out masterpiece, certainly one of the greatest and most profoundly spiritual songs in the German language. The mood of the song is one of rapt withdrawal from the concerns of the world – one may imagine how the middle-aged symphonic composer and director of the Vienna State Opera must often have longed for such a retreat – and its melodic line is woven from the same pentatonic figures as Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft. It is an expression of serene happiness that seems to be inherent in its implied orientalism, later to be echoed of course in the Chinese-based songs of his great orchestral song cycle/symphony Das Lied von der Erde.
We have noted already that only these four songs of the set were composed in the summer of 1901. The fifth song has a curious and revealing history, which came to light only decades afterwards with the publication of Alma’s diary. At the time of their marriage in 1901 both Alma and Mahler had been recently involved in other relationships; she passionately with the composer Zemlinsky, he with the soprano Anna von Mildenburg. Although Mahler indicated that this relationship was now over, it still rankled with his twenty-two-year-old wife, who tried to have Mildenburg banned from the house. When Mahler insisted on her making a final visit in 1902, Alma defused the situation by turning it into a musical occasion, at which Mildenburg sang several passages from Wagner’s Siegfried. That summer, Mahler presented Alma with a score of Siegfried between the pages of which was the manuscript of Liebst du um Schönheit (13). It was both a peace offering and a gentle admonition. ‘Love me not for beauty’ (Alma made no secret of her muted passion for Mahler), ‘nor for youth’ (he was nearly twenty years older than she), ‘nor for riches’ (his financial situation was a cause of anxiety if not acrimony to them both). ‘Love me for love’s sake’, at which point the song’s hitherto simple utterance – harking back to an earlier, Schumannesque style – is trans-formed by harmony of ineffable tenderness. Significantly, the final word ‘immerdar’ (‘evermore’) is repeated for emphasis, in a high, arching phrase whose expression is intensified by the descanting right hand of the piano. If Mahler here lays bare his innermost feelings, it is possible that the sighing chromatics of the postlude reveal a premonition of Alma’s subsequent infidelity.
Although the first three songs of Kindertotenlieder were composed in the same summer of 1901, with the last two following in 1904, their overall structure is unified by their key sequence. Thus the bleak D minor of the first song (17) (only partially warmed into the major by the rising sun) returns in the storm – surely as much symbolic as real – of the finale, a storm that resolves into the D major of the final section. In the three intervening songs, Mahler underlines the shifting emotional field of the poems as they seek for understanding and consolation. Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen (18), in deciphering the message of the children’s eyes, is full of lingering appoggiaturas (‘O Augen!’) and poignant changes of key. Wenn dein Mütterlein (19) suggests a funeral march with Bachian overtones, but on an intimate scale that befits the domestic moment it recalls. Both these songs are in C minor. The E flat major of Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (20) by contrast has an open-air feel to it, with a lilting melody in sixths and warmer harmonies – the sidestep to G flat major on ‘Bald werden sie wieder nach Hause gelangen!’ is especially touching.
The final song, In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus (21), returns to D minor in a surging, raging tempest that is a challenge to an orchestra, never mind a pianist; significantly, the moment at which it blows itself out is signalled by the return of two little notes high above the stave, which had last been heard at the end of the first song. There follows a sublime apotheosis which, having first woven a celestial lullaby for the children, returns to earth in a long, consoling postlude for those left behind.
Sentimental tradition often ascribes the composition of Kindertotenlieder to a premonition on Mahler’s part of the tragic death of his own daughter in 1907. But he was already well acquainted with infant mortality, no fewer than eight of his siblings having died in childhood. And in his settings these poems, with their striking images of light and darkness, of regret and hope, of grief and consolation, found their perfect musical expression.
from notes by Roger Vignoles © 2004