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They spoke about it
Mahler’s compositions followed two basic spheres of activity: on the one side were his huge, heaven-storming symphonic frescos; on the other, more than forty exquisite, intimate, deeply personal songs. His interest in the poems of the German lyricist and Orientalist Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) stemmed in part from the poet’s fascination with the East and its spiritual predilection for deep introspection, tender resignation, inner peace and withdrawal from the consuming cares of the outer world. When two of Rückert’s children died from scarlet fever, the poet responded to this emotional trauma by writing more than four hundred poems which were published in 1872 under the title Kindertotenlieder. Mahler himself was no stranger to infant mortality. Seven of his thirteen siblings died in infancy. Ernst died at thirteen, and Otto (also a composer) committed suicide. In the summer of 1901, Mahler set a number of Rückert poems to music, including three of the Kindertotenlieder (Nos. 1, 2 and 4 in the present cycle). In 1904, he composed two additional Rückert songs to form a cycle of five Kindertotenlieder.
One of the most notable features of this music is the remarkable restraint, refinement and transparency of the scoring. The first song begins with just an oboe and a horn in simple counterpoint. Throughout the song it is woodwinds and horns – never more than two of each – that carry the main musical argument in conjunction with the voice. The harp too plays a prominent role, and, for just a moment here and there, the glockenspiel. The third song includes English horn, the fifth (the longest and by far the most densely scored) celesta, piccolo, contrabassoon and tam-tam.
During the summers of 1901 and 1902, Mahler set eight Rückert poems to music, three of which eventually went into Kindertotenlieder and five as independent, unrelated songs. Mahler himself orchestrated four of these five songs, the exception being “Liebst du um Schönheit.” Each song requires a different configuration of instruments.
“Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (Glance not at my songs) was Mahler’s first Rückert setting, in which the poet-composer gently chides his lover not to examine his creative efforts until they are finished. “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty’s sake) represents the very epitome of graceful lyricism and simplicity in song-writing. It is one of Mahler’s few love songs, written for Alma whom he had recently married. It was orchestrated only after the composer’s death by the conductor and critic Max Puttmann.
Many Mahlerites consider “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world) to be the finest of all the composer’s independent songs. This seven-minute gem depicts a sense of profound peace and oneness with the world. The remarkable similarity of this song’s melodic lines to those of the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, conceived about the same time, cannot be ignored. In “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (I breathed the air of sweet linden) the poet acknowledges his lover’s gift of a branch from a lime tree placed in his room. Rückert plays constantly with the words Linde and lind, the former a noun meaning lime-tree, the latter an adjective meaning mild, gentle or tender. By extension, this song may be seen as a love offering by Mahler to his fiancée Alma (they married in March of 1902). “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) is the only song of this Rückert group with a dark and anguished tone.
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
The latter part of the year 1883 was not a particularly joyous time for the 23-year-old Mahler. Both his parents were ailing, the new conducting position he had secured at the court theater in Kassel turned out to be artistically very limiting, and his love affair with actress and opera singer Johanna Richter came to an abrupt and unhappy end. Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen may thus be viewed as Mahler’s artistic response to autobiographical events, especially to being jilted. The overall tone of the texts closely parallels the composer’s own grief and heartache, while the music breathes the spirit of the Austrian countryside and German folk poetry.
In the opening song, the wayfarer describes how he will feel when his former sweetheart eventually marries another man. For most of its length, the second song portrays joy in the beauties of nature (a theme dear to Mahler) but the ending returns to a grief-stricken mood. The listener is jolted by passionate outcries in the third song, in which the wayfarer imagines a knife in his breast, so intense is his sorrow. He wistfully recalls the blissful days of happiness, now gone. The final song, set to a funereal tread, is the wayfarer’s farewell to his sweetheart, to happiness, and, it would seem, to life itself.
© Robert Markow