Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Born July 7, 1860 in Kalisté, Bohemia

Died May 18, 1911 in Vienna, Austria

Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Composed 1892–1901

First Performance: Varies

Instrumentation: Varies

Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The youth’s magic horn) is a collection of folk tales gathered by the poets Achim von Arnim (1781-1831) and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) during travels on the Rhine published in 1805 and a larger edition in 1808. Some of the tales were authentic while others were manufactured by Brentano and Arnim.

The collection was dedicated to no less than Goethe who wrote in 1806, “By rights, every household in which cheerful people live should possess this book, and display it by a window, or under a mirror, or wherever else song and cookbooks tend to be placed, so that it may be opened at any moment of high or low spirits, when one wishes to find something harmonious or inspiring.”

The exact chronology of the composition of each song is difficult to determine. The dates given here were determined by musicologist Donald Mitchell.

The songs were written for vocal ranges – high voice and low voice – rather than for specific vocal types such as soprano or baritone. Some texts lend themselves to performance by a particular gender, other do not. Revelge and Der Tamboursg’sell being doomed drummers are usually sung by a male voice. On the other hand Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt is usually sung by a female voice due to tradition rather than the text. In addition Mahler specified no definitive order in which the songs are to be sung.

Revelge

“Reveille” or “The Dead Drummer”

Composed in July 1899

First performance: January 29, 1905, at the Kleiner Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, with Mahler conducting a chamber orchestra (members of the k.k. Hofopernorchesters). Fritz Schrödter, Tenor.

2 flutes (plus piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, 3 percussion, strings

Sung by Alex in C minor

Revelge is a grotesque portrayal of a parade of soldiers who fell in battle, skeletons who mindlessly sing their marching song “tralali, tralalei, tralalera”. The tramping is persistent throughout the song. Mahler marked it Marschierend, in einem fort (Marching ceaselessly).

The marching music is interrupted (but the tramp tramp tramp lies just under the surface) by pleas from a fallen drummer who sees his comrades pass him by. He implores them to take him with them, but they respond that they cannot.

Example 1. Comrade I cannot carry you

They march to his sweetheart’s house so that in the morning she can see their bones lined up like tombstones, with the drum in front marking those of her drummer. This frightening image is eerily portrayed by col legno (with wood: striking the strings with the wood of the bow) string playing.

Mahler pronounced this longest of his Wunderhorn settings “the most important of all my lieder.”

Das irdische Leben

“Earthly life”

Composed 1892-1893

2 flutes, 2 oboes, English Horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, trumpet, cymbals, strings.

First performance: January 14, 1900 in Vienna with Mahler conducting members of the K.K. Hofopernorchesters, Selma Kurz, Soprano

Sung by Susan in E flat minor

This is a dialog between a mother and child. The hungry child repeatedly begs the mother for food with the phrase “Gib mir Brot, sonst sterbe ich.” (Give me bread or I will die). The mother’s reply each time is “Warte nur! Warte nur, mein liebes Kind” (Wait a little, my darling child). The increasing insistence and desperation of the child’s pleas is depicted by increasingly chromatic and angular variations of his initial plea. On the other hand the mother’s calm reply always starts the same. The bread is ready the next day as she promised but by then the child is dead.

Example 2. Wait a little, my darling child

The story is similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig in which the father does everything he can to avoid his child’s death, while in Das Irdische Leben, the mother neglects the child’s need for food until he dies. Mahler’s perpetual motion string scoring also reflects the Erlkönig‘s accompaniment.

The finale of his Symphony No. 4 which sets Das Himmlische Leben (Heavenly life) could perhaps be seen as the opposite bookend to this song.

Verlorne Müh’

“Labor lost”

Completed April 26, 1892

2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, triangle, strings

First Performance: December 12, 1892, in Berlin with Raphael Maszkowski conducting the Berliner Philharmonisches Orchester. Amelie Joachim, Mezzo soprano.

Duet in A.

This is a triple meter duet between a girl and boy. The girl repeatedly tries to entice him, first with an invitation to look at little lambs, then a snack and finally her heart.

The boy is always dismissive, beginning each response addressing her as Närrisches Dinterle (Silly lassie). His first response is mostly stepwise, but becomes more angular to show his irritation with each rejection.

Undaunted, the girl’s phrases always start with the same motif which slides from major to minor. At first she sings the final C natural but then sings the higher E as she becomes more insistent.

Example 3.

Rheinlegendchen

“Little Rhine Legend”

Completed August 9, 1893.

Flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, strings.

First performance: October 27, 1893 in Hamburg with Mahler conducting the Julius Laubesche Kapelle. Paul Bulss, Baritone.

Sung by Susan in G.

This legend is the story of a girl who throws her ring into the sea hoping that her true love will find it. The ring is swallowed by a fish, which ends up on the King’s table. The king asks to whom it belongs and is answered by her sweetheart who will then search for her to return it.

The song is a gentle Ländler (a rustic Austrian waltz-like dance) in triple meter (3/8), and is very lightly scored for single woodwinds, horn and strings.

This Hamburg concert at which this song was first performed contained 5 other Wunderhorn songs as well as being the German premiere of his First Symphony.

Der Tamboursg’sell

“The drummer boy”

Completed August 10, 1901.

2 oboes, English Horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, celli, basses.

First performance: January 29, 1905, at the Kleiner Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, with the Mahler conducting a chamber orchestra. Friedrich Weidemann, Baritone.

Sung by Alex in D minor.

Der Tambourg’sell, completed in August 1901, is the last composed of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings was written at the same time as the funeral march that opens the Fifth Symphony. He actually wrote this music as a funeral march before finding the text for it. The orchestration is fittingly dark with the addition of bass clarinet and contrabassoon and the subtraction of flutes, violins and violas.

Like Revelge, it is sung by a doomed drummer. This drummer is led out of his cell to see the gallows awaiting him. He then gives his farewell to the mountains and other soldiers.

Der Schildwache Nachlied

“The Sentinel’s night song”

Completed April 26, 1892

3 flutes (and piccolo), 2 oboes, English Horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 4 percussion, harp, strings.

First performance: December.12.1892, in Berlin, with Raphael Maszkowski conducting the Philharmonisches Orchester. Amelie Joachim, Mezzo soprano.

Duet in B flat

Amid a march like military setting a sentinel rejects happiness in favor of his duty. He falls asleep three times dreaming of his sweetheart who sings contrastingly lyric waltz like interludes. Each time the sentinel wakes up his rejections become more insistent until finally he confronts an intruder and is killed. The music fades into an unresolved chord.

Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?

“Up there on the hill” or “Who thought up this ditty?”

Completed April 26, 1892.

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, triangle, strings.

First performance: October 27, 1893 in Hamburg with Mahler conducting the Julius Laubesche Kapelle. Clementine Schuch-Prosska, Soprano.

Sung by Susan in F.

This is pastoral setting in triple meter as is Verlorene Müh’.

An innkeeper’s daughter who is visiting a house on a mountain sings a little love song. Finally she asks who made up this song. It was brought to her by 3 geese who will whistle it to you if you cannot sing it.

While appearing to be a simple ditty, the vocal part which contains long melismatic passages are quite demanding.

This song was one of the most well known in the days before the mid century Mahler revival. Elisabeth Schumann championed the song and recorded it in 1930.

Lob des hohen Verstandes

“Praise of lofty intellect”

Composed June 21-28, 1896.

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (one in Eb), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, triangle, strings.

First performance: February 03.1905, in Vienna with Mahler conducting a chamber orchestra. Marie Gutheil-Schoder, Soprano.

Sung by Alex in D.

Although not as notorious as Max Reger’s famous letter to music critic Rudolph Louis, Lob des hohen Verstander (originally titled Lob der Kritik!) is Mahler’s snarky swipe at his own critics.

The story is about a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale. The judge of the contest is an ass chosen by the cuckoo for his long ears. The ass declares the cuckoo the winner because the nightingale’s song was too complex. The calls of the birds are portrayed (a nod to the Pastoral Symphony which portrayed the same birds?) as well as the braying of the ass on which the song comes to a raucous conclusion.

Mahler quoted this song in the finale of his Fifth Symphony, a movement which contains a passage depicting a music critic being kicked down a flight of stairs.

Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt

“Anthony of Padova’s Sermon to the Fishes”

Completed July 8, 1893 for Voice, Piano, and the Orchestral version August 1, 1893.

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, 2 or 3 percussion, strings.

First performance: January 29, 1905, in Vienna with Mahler conducting a chamber orchestra. Anton Moser, Baritone.

Sung by Susan in D minor.

On the wall of his studios, Mahler kept an etching depicting Anthony of Padova preaching to the fishes.

(Note that the shark is piously listening but in the lower panel he goes back to eating other fish)

The music he used for this song was also used in the third movement scherzo of the Second Symphony.

The satirical text describes a preacher who goes to the rivers and preaches to the fishes after finding an empty church. The fishes listen attentively, but after the sermon remain the same as they were.

Mahler provided the following commentary on the song:

A somewhat sweet-and-sour humor prevails in the Fischpredigt. Antonius preaches to the fishes, but he seems to be drunk. His speech is slurred (in the clarinet) and confused. And what a glittering congregation! The eels and carps and the sharp-nosed pikes, with their stupid expressions as they look at Antonius, stretching their stiff necks out of the water. I practically saw them in the music and burst out laughing. Then, the sermon over, the congregants swim away in all directions.

Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

“Song of the prisoner in the tower”

Composed July 1898.

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 percussion, strings.

First performance: January 29, 1905, at the Kleiner Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, with Mahler conducting a chamber orchestra. Anton Moser, Baritone.

Duet in D minor.

This is similar to Der Schildwache Nachtlied, but now the protagonist is a prisoner. This song begins – and ends – with the prisoner announcing that Die Gedanken sind frei (thoughts are free) with a bold rising triad against a military accompaniment.

His sweetheart sings to him in contrastingly lyric music through the prison walls wishing that they were together reminding him that “it is good to be merry on wild high meadows and mountains”. He rejects her each time by repeating that his thoughts are free. Ironically he shows in rejecting his sweetheart that his thoughts are indeed not free after all.

Trost im Unglück

“Solace in Sorrow”

Completed April 26, 1892.

3 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 percussion, strings.

First performance: October 27, 1893 in Hamburg, with Mahler conducting the Julius Laubesche Kapelle. Paul Bulss, Baritone.

Sung by Alex in G.

Without reading the text one would assume from the brass fanfares, drum rolls and rushing string figures that this is some sort of military march. But instead Mahler is providing an ironic setting of a man who is trying to recover and move on from a failed romance by assuring himself that he loved her out of foolishness and he can “live well without [her].”

Example 4. I can live without you well

Unfortunately he is brought back to reality when she points out that while he thinks the world of himself he “Ist aber weit, weit gefehlt!” (you are far, far from the mark) and assures him that she too “can live without [him].”

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen

“Where the beautiful trumpets blow”

Completed the Voice and Piano version in July 1898.

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, strings.

First performance: January 14, 1900 in Vienna, with Mahler conducting a chamber orchestra. Selma Kurz, Soprano.

Duet in D minor.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, composed at the same time as Lied des Verfolgten im Turm, is an encounter between a girl and the ghost of her soldier sweetheart who has fallen in battle. The visit is brief because he must return to his green grave, “there, where the beautiful trumpets blow.” He says goodbye, promising that within a year she will be his, and that their love is undying.

It suggests a funeral march, with an imitation of muffled drums and distant bugles by the pizzicato strings and winds, which alternates with a tender Ländler. When the beautiful trumpets do blow it is always very soft.

This song is titled Unbeschreibliche Freude (Indescribable Joy) in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In addition to changing the title Mahler also substituted the last stanza with one of his own.

The original last stanza was:

I wish all the fields were paper,

And the students all writing thereon,

They could write the whole night through,

And never write our love away.

Mahler’s substitution is:

I go to war on the green heath,

The green heath that is so broad!

It is there where the beautiful trumpets blow,

There is my house of green grass!

In so doing he replaced the “indescribable joy” of an affirmation of undying love with melancholy.

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