There can be nothing more tragic to a parent than the loss of a child. Imagine the grief of the German poet Friedrich Rückert, who lost two of his children to scarlet fever within a period of six months. Attempting to cope with this devastating tragedy, Rückert penned 428 highly personal poems that were only published after his own death. What constituted Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) primary motivation for excerpting 36 poems, and eventually setting five to music, has been endlessly debated. After the death of her husband, Alma Mahler suggested that the settings constituted an act of clairvoyance in connection with the 1907 death of their own daughter Maria Anna. Yet in 1901, and seemingly unconnected to events in his personal life, Mahler completed the musical setting for three of Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder, adding two further settings in 1904.
This cycle of five orchestral songs became one of his most personal and intimate musical expressions. Mahler radically departed from the folksongs and military marches of the earlier Wunderhorn settings, and immerses himself into a sound world of subtle shadings and nuances. He does not provide an evolutionary drama or narrative flow, but creates contrasting emotions of a confessional nature by employing a chamber orchestra capable of achieving transparent textures and ephemeral nuances.
The opening song “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” (Now the sun rises so brightly) presents a sunrise that brings no comfort. Rather, a pale atmosphere hangs over the song, hiding feelings of extreme grief. Two desolate meandering melodies—one in the oboe and the other in the horn—engage in counterpoint that is stripped bare of all extraneous elements. Conveying a sense of emotional restraint, a monotone vocal line haltingly emerges. The solo horn, in turn, provides a soulful response, almost pleading for compassion. Ending without a sense of closure, the ringing of the death peal in the harp and bells creates a sense of endless time. Becoming more animated, the vocal line continues with fragile variations on the opening phrase, before an agitated orchestral climax expresses the innermost emotions that the singer is unwilling to expose. The final stanza ironically juxtaposes a consoling text against a vocal line in the minor mode and the ringing of the death bell.
“Memories of the children’s star-like eyes” provide the textural basis for the second song in this cycle. Emotionally expressive, a chamber-like orchestra primarily offers harmonic support for a vocal melody that represents faint pleas to relieve suffering. Steeped in post-Wagnerian chromatisism, augmented chords and frequent changes of mode provide a disturbed instrumental background for the unsatisfied yearning expressed in the vocal line. Momentarily pierced by a brief ray of radiant sunshine, the music soon returns once more to express desperate yearning. “Wenn dein Mütterlein” (When your dear mother) presents a gloomy reflection on the absence of the child. A sparse and dark orchestration, resulting from the omission of violins, contrasts homophonic and contrapuntal textures. A gently flowing melody in the English horn introduces the first stanza that takes on the character of a lullaby. As the tempo becomes more agitated, horn and vocal line combine to express feelings of profound suffering. The return of the introduction provides the transition for one of the most heart rendering moments in this cycle, expressing an overwhelming outpouring of grief. Eventually, the song ends with a gently prayer asking for relief from suffering.
Expressing parental delusions that the children are merely playing outside “Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen!” (I often think they’ve just gone out), Mahler juxtaposes major and minor tonalities to contrast tragic reality with hopeful fantasy. The concluding song “In diesem Wetter” (In this grim weather) describes the raging storm of anguish on the day of the funeral, the violent grief of the father, and eventually a haven of eternal sleep. The music, unfolding in an asymmetrical formal structure summarizes the thematic, motific and rhythmic materials presented in the preceding songs. The pervasive calm of the other songs has vanished, as orchestral effects establish a turbulent and tortured atmosphere. This psychological storm offered in the orchestral prelude is intensified in each successive stanza of the text, reaching its climax—supported by kettledrums and gongs—at the beginning of the third stanza. Unexpectedly, the chime of the glockenspiel dispels the storm, and piccolo, harp and cello harmonics provide a beaming ray of radiant light. A gentle lullaby with rocking cadences ultimately provides consolation, as both children and parents have finally found peace.
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