Alma Mahler severely took her husband Gustav to task for composing a series of orchestral songs on texts dealing with the death of children. Merely two weeks after the birth of their second child, Alma found it incomprehensible and feared that Mahler had tempted Fate. “I could understand,” she writes, “setting such frightful words to music if one had no children, or had lost those one had… Rückert did not write these harrowing elegies solely out of his imagination; they were dictated by the cruelest loss of his whole life. 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!” Alma’s fears seemingly proved an act of clairvoyance, as four years after the work had been completed, their daughter Maria Anna—also known as Putzi—died of scarlet fever in 1907. At that time, Mahler wrote to Guido Adler: “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.”
Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder
Kindertotenlieder premiered on 29 January 1905 at the Kleiner Musiksaal (Small Concert Hall) of the Vienna Musikverein. Friedrich Weidemann, a leading baritone of the Vienna Court Opera was the soloist and Mahler conducted. Mahler had insisted on the small concert hall to preserve the intimacy of the lied genre, and he reduced the orchestra consisting of players drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic to chamber size. Written at the high of his compositional powers, this cycle of five orchestral songs became one of his most personal and intimate musical expressions. Mahler immersed 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 relying on transparent textures and ephemeral nuances.
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