"These five songs form a complete and indivisible whole, and for this reason their continuity must be preserved (by preventing interruptions, such as for applause at the end of each song)." ~ Mahler, on the first page of the score.
This "indivisible whole" starts with "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n": "Now the sun is about to rise as brightly [as if no misfortune had happened in the night]." I don't want to make this article a blatant commercial for the Russell book, but when the very first line of the first song has the words Sun, Bright, and Night, it is hard to avoid. Something else that's hard to avoid is the fact that this poem, very simply structured as four rhyming couplets, conveys the contradictory feelings of grief and consolation in every verse: 1. Sun rising, tragedy at night. 2. Misfortune happened to me alone, the sun shines for all alike. 3. Don't enfold the night within you, drown it in eternal light. 4. A lamp went out in my tent, hail to the gladdening light of the world.
This is the perfect poem with which to start the Kindertotenlieder. It captures the grief-stricken parent bludgeoned back and forth between two emotions. To convey this, GM uses what Mitchell calls "alternate orchestras" to generate opposite sonorities. But Mahler does not woodenly use one sonority for one feeling; he varies the association so as to impart the maximum variation in a poem that conveys a psychological listlessness.
From the first passage, solo horn and solo oboe in counterpoint, you know you have entered a somber sound world. The singer enters and the other instruments drop out, leaving the anguished parent in mournful duet with a horn, his voice descending in diminished fifths. He's singing about a sunrise, but in a descending line. But when he sings about last night's tragedy, his voice takes an upward line – "rising in semitones, as if with great effort," in Russell's memorable phrase – and is joined by consoling strings and harp. That's the story of this song: back and forth between grief and consolation, the numb parent propelled by Mahler's mastery. On the last words of this phrase, Mahler uses a rhythmic figure that is repeated at the end of two more strophes and which also features in Mahler 5th, first movement (a funeral march, I hardly need add). This is followed by a plaintive horn phrase, after which the music collapses back onto the tonic with the singer, and the death knell is heard – played by a glockenspiel.
Who else but Mahler could portray a death knell with a glockenspiel? In fact, the glockenspiel was in Mahler's mind all the time. An early draft of Nun will had only one instrument noted here: the glockenspiel. And while I can't immediately put my hands on a source for this, I am almost sure that Mahler marked the same passage as "death knell." But it gets even worse. While Constantin Floros notes that GM used the glockenspiel as a symbol of eternity, Mitchell suggests that Mahler used it to signify the little bell often found above an infant's crib. I can't listen to Nun will without thinking of that. The glockenspiel is perhaps the most symbolic instrument in the Kindertotenlieder, as in Kindertotenlieder 5 it signals unequivocally the triumph of light over darkness (Russell).
Another note about that repeated rhythmic figure at the end of stanzas 1, 2, and 4: Not only does it form a strong link with Mahler 5th, first movement, it also serves as a trigger for the passages to the "alternate" sonority. The figure is followed by a rising sixth, which then leads to the next, contrasting passage. And all instances of this figure fall on a word signifying "light."
Other significant, not to be missed points: "Everything else in this lied is acutely felt but contained grief, with a deliberately monochromatic sound, and the voice always in the middle register, as if the afflicted father lacked the strength to raise his voice" (Henry-Louis de La Grange). The third of the four strophes is marked to be taken slightly faster than the first two, but strophe four is back to "tempo primo." The feeling Mahler is conveying here is of a parent who is trying to rouse himself, but can't. I have to say I have a hard time detecting this in my five recordings. Henry-Louis de La Grange approvingly backs Russell on the nonspecific nature of the song's light: It is not a Christian light, nor is it an oriental light. Russell says that because Rückert had ample opportunity to make this light a Christian one, the fact that he didn't means that he deliberately did not want to be so construed. I'm sure that is why Mahler was attracted to this song in the first place. Still more to ponder about Mahler's spiritual beliefs.
Where is the climax in this piece? Mitchell believes it is in the long instrumental passage between strophes 3 and 4. it is hard to argue against that; I always picture the parent descending into madness here, and the next strophe is very consoling despite the concluding glockenspiel strokes. And most crucially: Look at the very last line: "Hail to the gladdening light of the world!" Optimistic, right? On paper, maybe, but Mahler has the parent sing a minor third, and the harp fails to resolve to the tonic. And there's that glockenspiel again. So there is an ambiguity, one that will drive the whole symphony.
Did I say symphony? Russell makes the point that the above ambiguity in Nun will portrays a tension that will not be resolved until the last song. In the possibilities it sets up, and the developments that inevitably arise, Nun will in fact functions as the first movement of a five-movement symphony, Russell contends. And I don't think anyone can doubt that the Kindertotenlieder are at least as serious as one of Mahler's symphonies. Something to think about, especially in light of Mahler's quote, above.
Copyright © Mitch Friedfeld, 2001.
On to Kindertotenlieder II