The Kennedy Center

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Richard Freed

Mahler composed nine songs for voice and piano to texts from the collection of German folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn between 1887 and 1890, and these came to be labeled Lieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit (?Songs from a Time of Youth?); subsequently, between 1892 and 1901, he composed 15 for voice and orchestra to different texts from the same collection. All of these orchestral songs (the first dozen of which were collected under the heading Balladen und Humoresken) were introduced by Mahler himself; three of them became movements of his symphonies; the remaining dozen eventually came to be regarded as a song-cycle (a term applied rather loosely in this case), usually divided, when performed in its entirety, between a baritone and a soprano or alto, sometimes with some of the songs as duets. The respective premieres took place in five concerts conducted by Mahler: ?Der Schildwache Nachtlied? and ?Verlorne Müh? in Berlin on December 12, 1892; ?Trost im Unglück,? ?Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht,? ?Das himmlische Leben? (later to become the finale of the Fourth Symphony) and ?Rheinlegendchen? in Hamburg on October 27, 1893, and all the rest except those in the Second and Third symphonies, in Vienna: ?Das irdische Leben? and ?Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen? on January 14, 1900. ?Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,? ?Lied des Verfolgten im Turm,? ?Der Tamboursg'sell? and ?Revelge? on January 29, 1905, and ?Lob des hohen Verstandes? on February 3, 1905. ?Urlicht? was first heard in the premiere of the entire Second Symphony, which Mahler conducted in Berlin on December 13, 1895. Apparently the Dutch baritone Johannes Messchaert performed the entire cycle (i.e., the twelve not used in the symphonies) early in 1907.

While the Second, Third and Fourth symphonies, which include actual settings of Wunderhorn texts, have been presented many times by the National Symphony Orchestra, only four of the independent Wunderhorn songs have appeared in the orchestra's concerts before this week?all sung by women and only one of them indoors. On August 5, 1973, at Wolf Trap, the soprano Jessye Norman sang ?Das irdische Leben? and ?Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,? with Julius Rudel conducting; On May 21, 1976, the soprano Evelyn Congiglere sang ?Lob des hohen Verstandes? in this hall, with Murry Sidlin conducting; and on July 22, 1999, again at Wolf Trap, the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade sang that song and ?Rheinlegendchen,? with Leonard Slatkin conducting. In this week's concerts the orchestra is performing an extended Wunderhorn collection for the first time, all sung by the baritone Matthias Goerne, with Mr. Slatkin conducting.

The orchestra comprises the following instruments, not all of which, however, are used in every one of the songs: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 English horns, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet; 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, rute, tam tam, triangle, harp, and strings. Duration, 51 minutes.


During his lifetime Mahler commanded respect as a great conductor, but not so much for the symphonies he composed. There were, however, many who, while rejecting the symphonies, unreservedly admired his songs. Mahler's time did come, as he knew it would, about a half-century after his death, when his large, colorful, deepfelt, intensely expressive symphonies, no longer written off as eccentricities, began taking their place in the so-called standard repertory. From our vantage point in time, we can recognize that the two categories?symphony and song?are, in the context of this composer's work, really inseparable: the term ?song-symphonist,? once used derisively in references to Mahler, has assumed validity in an altogether positive sense. Mahler was a natural melodist. Composing songs came instinctively to him, and he filled his symphonies with songlike themes. He quoted popular ditties in some of his symphonies, and also incorporated some of his own songs in them, either in clear thematic citation, sometimes using an entire song, with its sung text, as a movement of a symphony. His First Symphony makes use of themes from the four Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (?Songs of a Wayfarer,? the orchestral song-cycle composed a few years before the Symphony). The music of his setting of the Rückert poem ?Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen? is recalled in the Adagietto of his Fifth Symphony. So many of the songs from the cycle one particular textual source turn up in his Symphonies Nos. 2 through 5 that these four are referred to as the Wunderhorn symphonies?and the Wunderhorn allusions did not end with these symphonies..

Des Knaben Wunderhorn is the title affixed by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano to the collection of German folk poetry they published in 1805. (The title is translated literally as ?The Boy's Magic Horn,? but in order to avoid mischaracterization in the direction of nursery rhymes it may be rendered as ?The Youth's Magic Horn.?) These two writers were vastly admired poets and playwrights; they collaborated with eminent composers in their time, and Brentano's sister Bettina, who became Arnim's wife, was in her own right a successful singer and composer as well as a sculptor and poet, remembered now for her friendship with Goethe. Her husband and her brother are remembered for their remarkable edition of folk poetry, which provided song texts for several composers, from Schubert and Mendelssohn to Strauss and Anton Webern and our own Charles Ives. Mahler, however, identified himself with Des Knaben Wunderhorn as no other composer has done or is likely to do: the substance and character of these verses and of his music simply suited each other as if sprung from the same source.

It was the emotional range of the Wunderhorn poems, perhaps more than any other single factor, that made them so striking, and in particular so appealing to composers. Most of them are in ballad form, and the subjects range from love and heartbreak to childhood fantasy to military life and war. Some project heroic idealism, several are humorous in a satiric or ironic vein, some express bitterness, some are playful, some are tragic, some are professions of faith. Mahler spoke of the Wunderhorn poems as being ?essentially different from all kinds of ?literary' poetry, being more nature and life?that is, the sources of all poetry?than art.? The German music critic Karl Schumann observed that Mahler was attracted to these poems not by ?the literary claims of the text, but by the abundance of music latent in the words.?

Mahler expressed his admiration for an earlier song-composer, Carl Loewe (1796-1869), whose hundreds of ballads made a strong impression on him. In his own time Loewe too was somewhat ?misunderstood,? but many of his ballads are still in the recital repertory, and at their core is the sort of fusion of folk character and art song that Mahler achieved in his own works. Loewe, curiously, did not make use of Wunderhorn texts, limiting himself instead to verses by recognized poets; one of those he favored was Friedrich Rückert, whose name we now associate primarily with Mahler's.

Two of the orchestral Wunderhorn songs that are not included in this week's concerts are familiar as parts of Mahler's Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4, in which each of them is actually sung. ?Es sungen drei Engel? (?Three Angels Were Singing?) is the charming piece for boys' choir, women's chorus and alto solo that precedes the wholly instrumental finale of the Symphony No. 3, and ?Das himmlische Leben? (?Life in Heaven?), originally intended for the same symphony, became the finale of No. 4, in which it is sung by a soprano (either a woman or a boy soprano). Also omitted in our sequence is ?Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht??

While Mahler's earlier Wunderhorn songs, for voice and piano, were eventually orchestrated (by other musicians, with Mahler's approval), it is inescapably apparent that those we hear this week were conceived in orchestral terms from the outset. What we hear is not merely ?accompaniment? that was conveniently adapted from piano to orchestra, but music that is no less truly ?symphonic? in respect to its coloring, its textures and its total integration of the orchestra and the voice than the later ?song-symphony? Das Lied von der Erde. As for the voice itself: although Mahler advised, ?My songs are all conceived for male voices,? and expressed himself as opposed to having any of these songs presented as duets, he had female soloists and duets in the Hamburg concert in 1893, and the soprano Selma Kurz was his soloist in the first of the three Vienna concerts listed above.

Apparently Mahler never established a ?definitive? sequence for performing the entire set of Wunderhorn songs. His distinguished biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange, in fact, notes that when the aforementioned Johannes Messchaert put this question to him, Mahler him ?to make up his own mind about the sequence.? The following order is observed in the present concerts:

DER SCHILDWACHE NACHTLIED (?The Sentinel's Night Song?). Mahler adapted this song from sketches he made in or about 1888 for an opera he began in collaboration with Karl von Weber. He had worked with Weber on the completion of the latter's famous grandfather's unfinished opera Die drei Pintos, but their new project was abandoned, possibly because of the disturbing effects of the young composer's infatuation with his beneficent collaborator's wife . Mahler affixed a descriptive subtitle to this song: ?A Scene from Army Life.? The sentinel thinks of his distant beloved, and laments his helplessness to determine the course of his own life.

RHEINLEGENDCHEN (?Little Rhine Legend?). Another Tanzlied, in Ländler rhythm, with an orchestra of single woodwinds, horn and strings. The text is in from Tyolian folk poetry, with additions by one or both of the collection's original editors.

WO DIE SCHÖNEN TROMPETEN BLASEN (?Where the Shining Trumpets Sound?). Listeners familiar with the Rückert-Lied ?Um Mitternacht? and the vast ?Abschied? at the end of Das Lied von der Erde may hear, or imagine, ?pre-echoes? in this song. A soldier leaving for the wars bids farewell to his beloved, knowing he will not return: ?There, where the shining trumpets sound,/There lies my bed . . . of green grass growing.? This is the most extended of the Wunderhorn songs, a veritable tone poem with voice, as several commentators have observed. An aura of unworldliness, underscored by the mutes strings and brass, suggests the soldier's acceptance of his coming death. Reality sinks in with the removal of the mutes on the horns and trumpets at the end.

DAS IRDISCHE LEBEN (?Life on Earth?). Both the title and the character of this dark, tragic song stand in direct contrast to the Wunderhorn song ?Das himmlische Leben,? the radiant ?child's dream of Heaven? that ends Mahler's Fourth Symphony. The scene of a desperate mother's confronting the hunger of her child is frequently compared with Schubert's dramatic ?Erlkönig,? and with Loewe's setting of that same Goethe text.

URLICHT (?Primeval Light?). This song is familiar of those sung in the present concerts, by virtue of its position as the fourth movement of Mahler's Second Symphony (the ?Resurrection?), the meditative interlude for alto solo leading to that work's massive choral finale.

LIED DER VERFOLGTEN IM TURM (?Song of the Prisoner in the Tower?). In this dialogue of contrasts the utterances of ?the Prisoner? and ?the Maiden? are clearly and specifically labeled. The Prisoner defiantly reiterates, ?Our thoughts are free!? The Maiden, however, such abstraction means little: ?Were I but dead were I with thee . . . ? The original folk source gave only the Prisoner's lines, projecting a spirit rather like that of Henley's familiar Invictus; the Maiden's poignant responses were added by Arnim and/or Brentano.

VERLORNE MÜH (?Wasted Effort?). In this dialogue between a lad and a lass, the former wants none of what the latter so eagerly offers. The cynicism and irony, applied with a light touch, are part of the song's charm; so is the reduced orchestra, which contrasts with the large one emphasizing dark colors in the first song.

DES ANTONIUS VON PADUA FISCHPREDIGT (?Saint Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fishes?). On the wall of his studio in Hamburg, and again in Vienna, Mahler kept an etching depicting Saint Anthony preaching to his finny congregation. The music he created to match it was composed in two forms at the same time: (a) this song setting, and (b) the scherzo (third movement) of his Second Symphony, the ?Resurrection.? As already noted, Mahler incorporated a completed Wunderhorn, the ?Urlicht,? into his Second Symphony, but his fascination with Anthony of Padua impelled him to create a vocal treatment and a purely orchestral one using essentially the same musical materials. He left us his own commentary on the song, in a remark to Natalie Bauer-Lechner:

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. . .

LOB DES HOHEN VERSTANDES (?In Praise of High Intellect?). The text in this case may be traced back to a version earlier than the Wunderhorn collection, originally circulated under the title ? Wettstreit des Kuckuks mit der Nachtigall? (?Contest between the Cuckoo and the Nightingale.? The judge for this competition is a donkey, chosen because of his long ears; predictably, he awards the prize to the cuckoo, whose singing is more ?regular? than the nightingale's. Mahler's original title, in case anyone missed the point, was ?Lob der Kritik,? and he referred to the song as ?a humorous mockery of the critics.? Mahler cited this song at the beginning of the rumbustious finale of his Fifth Symphony, a movement which ends with a passage supposedly depicting a music critic being kicked down a flight of stairs.

REVELGE (?Reveille?). La Grange tells us that Mahler considered this ?the most beautiful and the most successful of his Humoresken, perhaps even [as the composer remarked to Natalie Bauer-Lechner] ?the most important of all his Lieder.'? The surpassingly long opening movement of his Third Symphony, Mahler said, was just a ?study in rhythm? for this powerful song. La Grange advises further:

Mahler enjoyed confiding to his friends that, after long wanting to set the poem to music, the right melodic inspiration had only come to him one day in June 1899 in Alt-Aussee while he was sitting on the toilet, and that he emerged with the completed sketch for the setting in his hand.

However the inspiration may have come, this is surely the most striking, and perhaps the most truly ?symphonic,? of the Wunderhorn songs. Death, tragic and meaningless, is limned here, and Mahler calls on big orchestral forces. The entire song is in march time, the military brass and drums are prominent, and the imagery is particularly vivid. For the concluding episode in which ?the dead comrades muster, grim skeletons, all, come rushing faster and faster,? the strings play col legno (striking the strings with the wood part of the bow).

DER TAMBOURSG'SELL (?The Drummer Boy?), completed on August 10, 1891 and introduced together with the song the precedes it in these concerts, was the last of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs, contemporaneous with the Kindertotenlieder, the five other Rückert-Lieder, and the funeral march that opens the Fifth Symphony. In this case Mahler actually set down the gloomy music, the saddest of all the Wunderhorn songs, itself in the form of a funeral march, before he found the words to fit it: A drummer boy is led out of his dungeon and sees the gallows awaiting him; he speaks his farewell to the mountains and hills, to the officers and men. As in its companion-piece ?Revelge,? the spirit of the barracks yard is prominent, but in this case the orchestra is without violins and violas, and also missing are trumpets. The poignant final passage gives the spotlight to the English horn.