The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Richard Freed

A Change of Heart

During my tenure as music director of the NSO, we have performed all the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. For years, the goal used to be getting the nine Beethoven Symphonies played. Now Mahler, for years merely a "cult figure," seems to have eclipsed even Beethoven - or certainly to have matched him in terms of popularity and staying power.

How did this come about? My own relationship with Mahler may provide some answers. It began inauspiciously. Growing up in a household with a resident string quartet, I did not hear anything of Mahler's; the fragmentary Piano Quartet of his student years had not come to light, and he composed no other chamber music at any time. During the 1950s, when I was forming my first musical impressions, Mahler was far from occupying the place in the so-called standard repertory he commands today: performances of his music were infrequent, and the way most of us got acquainted with it was via recordings. What I heard did not appeal to me: those long-winded symphonies, so extravagant and self-indulgent, seemed to represent the direct opposite of the music with which I was comfortable, the music I was accustomed to hearing in the living room of my parents' house.

When I arrived in New York as a student, Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the Philharmonic. Improbable as it may seem, I avoided his Mahler performances, just as I did those of the various famous conductors visiting Carnegie Hall. Certainly that was my loss, but it did not seem that way at the time.

In 1964, though, a friend offered me a ticket to a performance of Deryck Cooke's new "performing version" of the Tenth Symphony, the work Mahler had left unfinished at the time of his death. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, a conductor and orchestra I admired so much that I would attend their performance of a long symphony by a composer I didn't care for - and a work he didn't complete, at that.
And of course - what a revelation it was!

Perhaps it was the committed and utterly convincing performance, or perhaps I was swept away in a sonic world I had not allowed myself to experience before. In any event, it was a transforming evening, and I began devouring every Mahler score I could get my hands on. Instead of continuing to avoid his music, I now made a point of hearing as many performances of it as I could find. In the truest sense, a new world had opened up to me.

Since then, of course, the nine completed symphonies by Mahler have entered the standard canon of every major orchestra. Countless other musicians and their audiences were won over as I was, and younger ones simply grew up with Mahler as part of their regular musical diet. There are festivals devoted to his music and and whole internet sites in which his legions of admirers vigorously debate all things Gustavian. While Beethoven remains, for me, the pinnacle of symphonic achievement, there is no question that Mahler follows closely as well as reverently.

By Leonard Slatkin

The composition of this orchestral song-cycle on poems of Friedrich Rueckert occupied Mahler from 1901 to 1904; the first performance was sung by the Vienna Opera baritone Friedrich Weidemann in a concert of the Vereinschaffender Tonkuenstler in Vienna, with Mahler conducting, on January 29, 1905. In the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, given in Baltimore on February 9, 1937, and in Constitution Hall five days later, the baritone was Loudon Greenlees and the conductor was Hans Kindler; in the most recent ones, given at the Kennedy Center on February 7, 8, 9 and 12, 1991, and at Carnegie Hall, New York, on February 11, Hakan Hagegard was the soloist and Mstislav Rostropovich conducted.

The orchestra for this work comprises 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, glockenspiel, harp, and strings. Duration, 23 minutes.

Mahler's composition of the two works on this week's program partially overlapped, and as things turned out they are related in terms of personal significance as well as the period of their creation. According to the composer's wife, it was in these two works that he foretold the remainder of his own life. The song cycle was composed between 1901 and 1904, the symphony between 1903 and 1905; both may be described by the title Mahler considered for the symphony: "Tragic." This of course is apparent in the very title of the song cycle, rendered in English as "Songs on the Death of Children." Mahler did not compose this cycle, as an expression of personal bereavement, however, but simply out of admiration for, and a deepfelt connection with, the poems themselves.

In the summer of 1901, however, when Mahler began work on this music, he was simply attracted by the poems. Friedrich Rueckert (1788-1866), one of the more interesting minor poets of the German Romantic movement, was born nine years before Schubert and died ten years after Schumann; both of those composers set his verses to music, as did such others as Brahms, Liszt, Strauss, Mussorgsky, Carl Loewe and John Ireland, but it is with Mahler's name that his is most closely associated, because of ten unusually compelling songs that suited the poet's texts so exceptionally well.

In that busy summer, Mahler composed "Der Tamboursg'sell," the last of his settings of texts from the collection of folk poetry known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, began work on his Fifth Symphony, and composed most of his Rueckert settings. First came four songs on unrelated texts - "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft," "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder," "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," "Um Mitternacht" - and then the first three of the Kindertotenlieder, all with orchestral accompaniment. In November of that year that year, a few weeks before the premiere of his Fourth Symphony in Munich, Mahler met the fiery young Alma Maria Schindler at a dinner party in Vienna; they became engaged almost at once, and were married on March 9, 1902. In the summer of that year, in happy anticipation of the birth of their first child, Mahler composed another Rueckert setting as a token of love for his wife ("Liebst du um Schoenheit," with piano accompaniment, eventually orchestrated by one M. Puttmann), and in 1904, at about the time he completed the sketch for his Sixth Symphony, he wrote the two final songs of the Kindertotenlieder.

This cycle, the four other Rueckert songs orchestrated by Mahler himself, and the last two Wunderhorn songs - "Revelge" and "Der Tambousg'sell" - were all introduced in a concert of Mahler's works which the composer conducted in Vienna at the end of January 1905, some twelve weeks after the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in Cologne. These were to be Mahler's last efforts in the realm of song as such, and his last compositions for voice until the vast Eighth Symphony (1906) and Das Lied von der Erde (1908), the latter a song-cycle on Chinese texts, but of such proportions that Mahler could designate it "a symphony for tenor, alto and orchestra." While the five other Rueckert songs are not related to one another textually, the five in the Kindertotenlieder constitute a genuine cycle, for they all deal with the same subject. It was from Rueckert's lamentations over the death of the two youngest of his six children, expressed in more than four hundred poems, that Mahler selected his texts.

When Mahler began composing the Kindertotenlieder, in 1901, he had not yet met the woman who would be his wife; by the time he completed the cycle, in 1904, he was the father of two young daughters, and his wife found it "incomprehensible" that he would produce such a work at that time. In her reminiscences, Alma Mahler wrote,

I can understand setting such frightful words to music if one had no children, or had lost those one had. Moreover, Friedrich Rueckert did not write these harrowing elegies out of his imagination: they were dictated by the cruellest loss of his whole life. What I cannot understand is bewailing the deaths of children, who were in the best of health and spirits, hardly an hour after having kissed and hugged them. I exclaimed at the time, "For heaven's sake, don't tempt Providence!"
Providence may or may not have been tempted, but Alma was very much mindful of this when their elder daughter died of diphtheria and scarlet fever in July 1907. (Nearly thirty years later, when Alma was the wife of the architect Walter Gropius, the death of their daughter Manon at the age of eighteen would inspire Alban Berg to compose his Violin Concerto in her memory.) Gustav Mahler's fascination with Rueckert's poems, though, went back much earlier, and may have had something to do with the coincidence of his having been profoundly moved by the death in 1874 of his beloved younger brother who had the same name as one of Rueckert's children, Ernst. (This and other considerations are discussed in some detail by Theodor Reik in his book The Haunting Meloldy.) In a broader sense, the Kindertotenlieder might be said to represent a certain fascination, or absorption, with death that runs through all of Mahler's music, from the First Symphony and the songs from which it grew, and even earlier in the cantata Das klagende Lied, to the great valedictory triptych comprising Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony and the unfinished Tenth.

In any event, at the time it was composed, at midpoint in his cycle of symphonies, this song-cycle signalled a new phase in Mahler's creative development, the poignancy and intimacy of these settings looking ahead in many respects to Das Lied von der Erde. One conspicuous indication of the new departure represented by these songs is the scoring of their accompaniment. Here Mahler calls for much smaller orchestra than he used in his symphonies, frequently evoking a chamber-music texture that goes beyond the level of intimacy suggested in the symphonies. There is no better example than the very opening of the first song, with its stark solo oboe and horn, followed by the bassoon and horn once the singer enters, with only the cellos, in a high register, filling in at first. The English horn has a poignant solo in the third song, in which the violins are omitted to darken the string sound. Solo instruments, the horn in particular, are used with great effect throughout the cycle, "symphonic" effects occurring relatively infrequently (in the concluding section of the fourth song, for example, and the opening of the final one).

Various thematic interrelationships among Mahler's works highlight an extraordinary sense of continuity, and lead to interpretations in terms of autobiography and even "prophecy" in his music. In the first two songs of this cycle there are resemblances to motifs in the contemporaneous Symphony No. 5 (the opening of the second song strongly suggests the beginning of the famous Adagietto), and in the last two are instances of "pre-echo" of the aforementioned valedictory works.