INKPOT#83 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Requiem Issue – MAHLER Kindertotenlieder – an Inktroduction
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Classical Music Reviews Return to the Requiem Index
Articles from Sequence II:
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Songs on the Death of Children
When a classmate passed away from a road accident in the second year of school in college, it came as a slap, a vision of mortality. A split second of pain, then nothingness. It seemed that grief had engulfed us, that death had for a fleeting moment fondled us with its bony claw and left us forever unclean. It was a realisation that the young are fallible too, that the young, too, die.
I ask you to imagine then, the terrible anguish Friedrich Rückert must have felt when he wrote what he entitled Kindertotenlieder. The German poet and professor Rckert married Luise Fischer in 1820 and together they had ten children; of these only seven outlived their parents. In December 1833 his only daughter and youngest child died of scarlet fever at the age of three and sixteen days later his second youngest child, Ernst, too succumbed to the same disease. In an outpouring of sorrow, Friedrich Rckert wrote the 425 Kindertotenlieder in the six months following their deaths.
Seven decades later between 1901 and 1904, Gustav Mahler chose five of the poems for his monumental song cycle for baritone or alto and orchestra. It is nearly a truism that Mahler was a neurotic obsessed with the insistent theme of death, and in his selection of material, and his composition of the cycle (concurrent with the tragic Sixth Symphony), at the most joyful time of his life, seems only to confirm it.
From all accounts, Mahler was an exceptionally widely-read individual and also a most omnivorous one. Rückert’s prolific Lieder output, of which the Kindertotenlieder make up but a chapter, served as a source of inspiration for such well-known Lieder-composers as Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and later Reger, Loewe, Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. Mahler had probably read through Rckert’s Lieder as a matter of course.
Whatever the case, it seems that in these Kindertotenlieder, Mahler found a germinal bud which struck a cord with his sensitive character. His parents had fourteen children, eight of whom died in infancy. He was fourteen when his favourite brother Ernst died at the age of twelve. This must have affected him immensely, as also shown more dramatically as the two brothers in his early cantata Das Klagende Lied. The fact that Ernst was also the name of Rckert’s son was no mere coincidence and must have played an important part in Mahler’s choice to set some of these poems to music.
This song cycle is one of immense comfort, and is one of the high-points of late-Romantic orchestral songs. I say to the people who think that Mahler’s music is death-laden music written by a death-laden neurotic: Listen! Mahler tried to encompass the world in his music, and death is an indivisible part of life. Given the circumstances he lived in, he could have chosen to write nothing but self-pitying music. But in his music and in his Kindertotenlieder, Mahler aims to uplift, to comfort, to offer solace and friendship to those who have ever been sad, or distraught, or in despair, or disappointed. Listen to it, be touched, be comforted.
The Music and the Poems
The first, Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n, “Now the Sun will rise so brightly”, is a mastery of dramatic and poetic device, the strong symbols of the sun and the night used to create tremendous tension. Mahler starts the song quietly with a sad solo oboe’s sinuous lines, before the solo voice, with contained grief enters. Throughout the song cycle, Mahler makes use of very thin and ghostly, but effective orchestral textures that are his trademark, and the textures of the cycle are amazingly homogenous, making the cycle “a piece”. In this song, it is the aftermath of the death of the child, the next morning, when the sun still shines cruelly for everyone, as if unhappiness had fallen on parent only. He counsels himself, saying that he should not keep the night within himself, to immerse it in eternal light, but the music suggests that despair overcomes him at the end of the phrase.
The musical mood of Nun will is an oppressive but stunningly beautiful one, and is characteristic of Mahler’s late-Romantic idiom. Mahler’s orchestra never really just “accompanies” the soloist; instead, it gives many clues as to the state of mind of the protagonist. Mahler’s setting of the words is very effective as well – take for example the line “als sei kein Unglck, kein Unglck die Nacht geschen” (“As if no misfortune had befallen in the night”), where the musical phrase rises, at first strongly, then reminiscingly, and finally falls again, so that the overall effect is one of strength in despair. Later, the opening music is used again in “Ein Lmplein verlosch in meinem Zelt”, and the effect is one of the protagonist trying to compose himself. When the word “Freudenlicht” (“Light of joy”””) in the last line takes the place of the original “Nacht” (“Night”), one feels that the memories of the night, and despair are not yet over.
Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen is a piece of great passion, and great longing, and in the end of it one feels a immense sense of loss, and yet comfort. The glory of German compared to the English is brought under spotlight in the word “Augen” (“eyes”). What depth of expression can be coazed out of this single word! In “O Augen, o Augen” Mahler encapsulates myriad feelings of grief, despair and love. At the end the eyes of the loved one become one of the many stars in the sky.
Musical onomatopoeia is used very often in the Kindertotenlieder as well. You’ll find more examples, but the most subtle is in Wenn dein Mtterlein, Mahler accompanies the melody with pizzicato cello, imitating in the Bachian sense, the mother’s footsteps. Later, pizzicato viola imitates the footsteps of the daughter who once followed the mother’s footsteps, but no more. This piece is full of the numbness of expression when one is bereaved.
In the Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s use seemingly major keys which change into the minor also reflect the emotional instability of the protagonist in the cycle. Take for example the opening of Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (“Often, I think they have only gone out”), a affecting poem which shows the fractured state of mind of the protagonist. Here Mahler, ever the musical-painter, starts the song with a pastoral vision of rolling hills in major, before abruptly changing into the minor on “Oft denk’ ich”. This is a achingly beautiful poem, set to achingly beautiful and haunting music.
The final song, (or movement, whichever you like to call it; since the cycle is nearly symphonic in its breadth) In diesem Wetter begins with the full orchestra storm, complete with blaring muted trumpet. In this last song the protagonist regrets having let the children out. He tries to shift the blame, and then realises that it is no use trying to blame anyone anymore, and that there is no more to worry about since they have gone. The music throughout the first few stanzas is angry, emphatic, even desperate. In the final stanza, Mahler suddenly transforms the music, into some of the most heartbreakingly tender, loving music that was ever written. It becomes child-like, like a sweet lullaby, which rocks the child to sleep, at the care of God’s own loving Hand.
In the final verse, I feel God’s own hand, reaching down to dry my eyes, to offer solace, consolation, peace, requiem … …
Derek Lim would like to dedicate
Two of the most amazing performances I know are happily easily available on CD.
561: 10.9.1999 Derek Lim