Length: 26 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, percussion (chimes, glockenspiel, tam-tam), harp, celesta, strings, and solo voice
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 19, 1942, Bruno Walter conducting, with contralto Eula Beal
Mahler began his Kindertotenlieder in the summer of 1901, after a health crisis got him thinking about his own mortality. Laid low with the flu in January of that year, Mahler had returned to his duties as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and as director of the Vienna Court Opera looking like death warmed over - Alma Schindler, his future wife, observed him leading a performance of Mozart's The Magic Flute and remarked on his "Lucifer-like face, pale cheeks, eyes like burning coals," telling her companions, "This man can't go on like that."
That night, February 24, after the performance, Mahler telephoned his sister, who arrived at his apartment to find him lying in a pool of his own blood. She summoned a doctor and a surgeon, and Mahler underwent an emergency operation for an intestinal hemorrhage. "You know, last night I nearly passed away," he told his close friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner. "When I saw the faces of the two doctors, I thought my last hour had come…. While I was hovering on the border between life and death, I wondered whether it would not be better to have done with it at once, since everyone must come to that in the end. Besides, the prospect of dying did not frighten me in the least…and to return to life seemed almost a nuisance."
But return to life Mahler did, and with abandon if we consider the events of the months that followed the crisis. Mahler composed during summers, and the summer of 1901 was one of his most prolific, yielding a host of songs, including the first, third, and fourth of the Kindertotenlieder and two movements of his Fifth Symphony. He also began his courtship of Alma, whom he married in March 1902. Their first daughter, Maria, was born in November of that year. The first moments of her life, during which she seemed not to be breathing, were terrifying, and Mahler constantly worried about her frail health. (Mahler's fears were justified; Maria died at the age of four from scarlet fever and diphtheria.)
Perhaps this explains his attraction to Friedrich Rückert's poems. Rückert (1788-1866) began writing his Kinder-totenlieder following the deaths of two of his children from scarlet fever during the winter of 1833-34. He eventually produced hundreds of these poems, which were published posthumously.
The texts chosen by Mahler touch on several themes, but the constant that binds them together seems to be their prevalent nature imagery, which places the localized tragedy of a child's death within an uninterrupted broader context. The texts also tell us something about Mahler's spirituality, with his firm belief in an afterlife affirmed by the recurring image of "light" and by the serene D-major conclusion of the final song.
The cycle - and that it truly is, as Mahler's instruction in the score reminds us: "These five songs form a complete and indivisible whole, and for this reason their continuity must be preserved by preventing interruptions, such as for example applause at the end of each song." - is constantly striving toward that D-major conclusion. Orchestrally, Mahler also builds up to the last song, which is the only one to use the full instrumental complement. Elsewhere, he creates compelling sonorities, such as the alternation between winds and strings in the first song, or the combination of English horn with violas and basses in the third. Taken as a whole, the cycle is as rigorously structured as any of Mahler's symphonies, and its atmosphere - Mahler described them as "terribly sad" - informs his three "middle period" works in the genre, Symphonies 5, 6, and 7, a full appreciation of which is impossible without the Kindertotenlieder.
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Annotator/Designer.