Program Notes on Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder
By Mary Craig
.pdf file of song texts and program notes (100 KB)
In the winter of 1833-1834, the German poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) and his family suffered the death of three-year-old Luise from scarlet fever. Just sixteen days later, five-year-old Ernst followed his sister in death to the same disease. Over the ensuing six months, Rückert poured his sorrow and disbelief into 461 poems he called "Kindertotenlieder." The poems remained unpublished until after his own death. A Web site hosted by the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, offers the full text of all 461 poems as well as lovely drawings of Rückert's two children.
The Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) selected five of Rückert's poems to set as symphonic songs written between 1901 and 1904. He conducted the premiere performance of the work in Vienna in 1905. Mahler is said to have been inspired to write this work, in part, because he experienced the deaths of eight of his thirteen siblings, including his favorite brother, also named Ernst.
Sadly, Mahler's own daughter, Maria, succumbed to the same disease as Rückert's two children in 1907 at the age of five. Although Mahler said he had imagined the pain of losing a child of his own as he composed his Kindertotenlieder, he believed that, after the death of Maria, he would not have been able to write the songs.
On August 6, 2004 my son, Simon Craig Vodosek, died of a childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. He was seven years old, having lived with his illness since he was four and a half. Although he received extensive treatment, Simon's illness proved as lethal as the scarlet fever of Rückert's and Mahler's time.
The very next day, a fortuitous meeting occurred. A neighbor came by to offer to run errands for the family. It turned out that she was a pianist with a strong interest in German Lieder, just like me. Within weeks, Elizabeth Ballantyne and I were enjoying sessions of reading music together. At some point, we decided to look at Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.
The result of that curiosity is this evening's performance of Mahler's settings of his selections from Rückert's poems. I have found it helpful and important to explore my grief through singing. Since my son's death, I have relied on writing to help me comprehend my sorrow and the enormous changes in my life. I find a kindred spirit in Friedrich Rückert, who also turned to writing to help him grasp the horror of the death of one beloved child followed so closely by another.
Mahler's music and Rückert's words offer a means of understanding some of the terrain of parental bereavement. Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehen expresses exhaustion and disbelief at the sun's audacity to rise so soon, so relentlessly in spite of tragedy. Nun seh' ich wohl warum so dunkle Flammen describes the sparkle in a child's eyes, the intensity of which seemed to foretell the child's untimely death. Wenn dein Müttlerlein observes domestic life as it continues after the child's death. The author, both charmed and distressed, finds himself expecting to see his little daughter still following her mother about the house.
Oft' denk ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen offers insight into feelings of disbelief about a death. The author assures himself that the children have only gone for a walk and will be returning soon. As the realization sinks in, he admits that they have gone on a walk to "yonder heights," and he will not see them again until he joins them there. In diesem Wetter evokes a storm of guilt and remorse as the author desperately clings to the illusion that the deaths could somehow have been prevented. As the storm abates, a peaceful image emerges of the children now resting as if in their own home, safe from storms, sheltered by the hand of God.
For the German song texts and my translations, please see the .pdf file of song texts and program notes, which also includes the Brahms songs.