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Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) is one of the purest musical outpourings of grief and sadness. This song cycle, often performed by orchestras with a baritone or mezzo soloist, is based on poems by Friedrich Rückert. In Mahler & Strauss, the wonderful mezzo-soprano, Alla Yarosh, will perform this heartbreaking cycle in the surroundings of the beautiful St. Mary’s Anglican Church.

Mezzo-soprano, Alla Yarosh - featured artist in Mahler & Strauss on Sunday 31st July. Tickets.


In the summer of 1901, Mahler began to work on this song cycle after a period of ill health led him to reflect on his own mortality. No stranger to death himself (having lost eight siblings during his childhood), Mahler was drawn to the works of the German poet, Friedrich Rückert, who had written a collection of 428 poems after the tragic loss of two children. Written in 1834, these became an obsessive task for the poet as a means to cope with the tragedy, but were only published posthumously in 1872.

Compsoer Gustav Mahler (left) and poet, Friedrich Rückert (right).

Between 1901 and 1904, Mahler set five of these poems as lieder, during which he fathered two children of his own following a rapid courtship with Alma Mahler. Although he had composed three of the five songs prior to the birth of his first daughter Maria Anna, the child’s frail health worried Mahler immensely. Despite this, Mahler resumed the composition of the works, upsetting his wife who “feared Mahler was tempting Providence”.

These fears proved prescient three years after the works completion, when Maria Anna died of Scarlet Fever, the same illness that took Rückert’s children. Mahler later wrote “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”.

Poetry and Music

Mahler’s music not only brings Rückert’s poetry to life, but heightens its haunting mood with his unique musical language. This cycle is a representation of Mahler’s world of sound, as you can hear melodies which were frequently referenced in some of his symphonies. Many agree that a complete appreciation of Mahler’s fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies cannot be achieved without first understanding his Kindertotenlieder. Usually performed with orchestra, Mahler was very particular with the instrumental choices as a way of achieving the desired effects and musical colors.

Each song touches on various themes, however these are connected by the recurrent nature and light imagery which sets the children’s death in a universal context. Yet, natural elements like storms are also metaphors for emotional struggles that the character is experiencing. Rückert’s poetry, besides touching on earthly emotions, also plays with the idea of an afterlife represented by the “light”, as well as fate and resignation. Mahler represents these with the use of a serene D major tonality, which is often used by other composers as a musical representation for joy, heaven and triumph.

The cycle is performed without interruption to avoid disruption of the emotional build up Mahler wrote towards the fifth and last song.

Recommended Recording:

The Songs:

1. Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n
(Now the sun prepares to rise as brightly)

Now the sun prepares to rise as brightly,

As though no misfortune had befallen in the night!

The misfortune befell me alone!

The sun, it shines on all mankind!

You must not enclose the night within you,

You must immerse it in eternal light.

A little lamp went out in my firmament,

Hail to the joyful light of the world!

2. Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
(Now I see clearly why you so often)

Now I see clearly why you so often

Flashed such dark flames at me.

– O eyes! – To compress, as it were, all your power

Into a single glance.

Yet I could not guess, for mists surrounded me,

Woven by fate to dazzle me,

That your brightness was already making for home,

Towards the place whence all light comes.

With your shining light you were trying to tell me:

We’d dearly love to stay here by your side,

But this our destiny denies us.

Look at us well, for soon we shall be far from you!

What now are merely eyes to you,

In nights to come shall be merely stars.

3. Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein
(When your dear mother comes in through the door)

When your dear mother

Comes in through the door

And I turn my head

To look at her,

My eyes light first,

Not on her face,

But on that place

Nearer the threshold

Where your

Dear little face would be,

If you, bright-eyed,

Were entering with her,

As you used, my daughter.

When your dear mother

Comes in through the door

With the flickering candle,

I always think

You are coming too,

Stealing in behind her,

As you used.

O you, the joyful light,

Ah, too soon extinguished,

Of your father’s flesh and blood!

4. Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen
(I often think they have only gone out!)

I often think they have only gone out,

They will soon be coming home again,

It is a beautiful day, ah do not be afraid,

They have only gone for a long walk.

Yes, they have only gone out

And will now be coming home again.

Do not be anxious, it is a beautiful day!

They are only walking to those hills!

They have merely gone on ahead of us

And will not be coming home again.

We shall overtake them on those hills

In the sunshine! The day is beautiful on those hills.

5. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus!
(In this weather, this raging storm)

In this weather, this raging storm,

I’d never have let the children out;

But they were carried from the house,

I had no say in the matter.

In this weather, this howling gale,

I’d never have let the children out,

I feared that they would fall ill;

These are now but idle thoughts.

In this weather, this dreadful blast,

I’d never have let the children out.

I feared they might die next day,

There is no cause for such fears now.

In this weather, this raging storm,

I’d never have let the children out;

But they were carried from the house,

I had no say in the matter.

Join us for Mahler & Strauss on Sunday 31st July to hear Alla Yarosh perform this work, alongside many more with sopranos Leanne Kenneally and Caitlin Weal.


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