|Song cycle by Gustav Mahler|
|English||Songs on the Death of Children|
|Text||poems by Friedrich Rückert|
|Performed||29 January 1905|
Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) is a song cycle (1904) for voice and orchestra by Gustav Mahler. The words of the songs are poems by Friedrich Rückert.
The original Kindertodtenlieder were a group of 428 poems written by Rückert in 1833–34in an outpouring of grief following the illness (scarlet fever) and death of two of his children. Karen Painter describes the poems thus: "Rückert's 428 poems on the death of children became singular, almost manic documents of the psychological endeavor to cope with such loss. In ever new variations Rückert's poems attempt a poetic resuscitation of the children that is punctuated by anguished outbursts. But above all the poems show a quiet acquiescence to fate and to a peaceful world of solace." These poems were not intended for publication, and they appeared in print only in 1871, five years after the poet's death.
Mahler selected five of Rückert's poems to set as Lieder, which he composed between 1901 and 1904. The songs are written in Mahler's late-romantic idiom, and like the texts reflect a mixture of feelings: anguish, fantasy resuscitation of the children, resignation. The final song ends in a major key and a mood of transcendence.
The cello melody in the postlude to "In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus" (mm. 129–133) alludes to the first subject of the finale of Mahler's Symphony No. 3 (1895/96), a movement titled "What love tells me" ("Was mir die Liebe erzählt"). "Musically, then, this is the last word of the Kindertotenlieder: that death is powerful, yet love is even stronger."
Stephen Hefling indicates that Mahler composed the first, third, and fourth songs in 1901 (he played them for his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner on 10 August). There followed a long break, and the remaining songs were composed in the summer of 1904.
The work was premiered in Vienna on 29 January 1905. Friedrich Weidemann, a leading baritone at the Vienna Court Opera, was the soloist, and the composer conducted. The hall was selected as a relatively small one, compatible with the intimacy of the lied genre, and the orchestra was a chamber orchestra consisting of players drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic.
The work is scored for a vocal soloist (the notes lie comfortably for a baritone or mezzo-soprano) and an orchestra consisting of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais (English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, glockenspiel, tam-tam, celesta, harp, and strings. Deployed at chamber-orchestra scale, this instrumentation permitted Mahler to explore a wide variety of timbres within a smaller-scale sound; Tunbridge sees this as a new precedent adopted by later composers, for example Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire .
Concerning the performance of the work, the composer wrote "these five songs are intended as one inseparate unit, and in performing them their continuity should not be interfered with".
The work takes about 25 minutes to perform.
At the time he wrote the work, Mahler was no stranger to the deaths of children. Hefling writes: "Such tragedy was familiar to Mahler, eight of his siblings died during their childhood. Among all of them, the death of his closest younger brother Ernst in 1875had affected him most deeply, and he confided to [his friend] Natalie [Bauer-Lechner] that 'such frightful sorrow he had never again experienced, as great a loss he had nevermore borne'."
Mahler resumed the composition of the interrupted work (see above) in 1904, only two weeks after the birth of his own second child; this upset his wife Alma, who "found it incomprehensible and feared Mahler was tempting Providence."
Alma's fears proved all too prescient, for four years after the work had been completed the Mahlers' daughter Maria died of scarlet fever, aged four. 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."
"Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n" (D minor)
"Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen" (C minor)
"Wenn dein Mütterlein" (C minor)
"Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" (E-flat major)
"Now the sun wants to rise as brightly"
"Now I see why with such dark flames"
"When your mama"
"I often think that they have just stepped out"
"In this weather"
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