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Gustav Mahler

Kindertotenlieder V

In diesem Wetter!

At the end of Kindertotenlieder 4, Oft denk' ich, the father could see his children "In the sunshine! The day is fine on those heights." It was the most optimistic part of the cycle. The alternate orchestras were gradually blending into one, bringing the singer along; the song ended in the tonic of a major key, and the lyrics were unmistakably positive, at least if you didn't get too obsessed about the "heights" also meaning "heaven" with all that that implied.

But recovery from such a trauma as the rapid, successive loss of two children cannot proceed in a linear way, so it is no surprise that the parent – if he wants to console his children in the sunshine on those heights and find resolution for himself – will be tested one more time. Mahler, who in the Kindertotenlieder proves himself as masterly in psychology and human nature as he was in music and literature – again intensifying the original Rückert poem far beyond its original state – knew this. For the parent to find resolution, he must pass through a storm. But this is no Beethovenian storm, especially not one with Disneyesque gods hurling lightning bolts at satyrs and drunken shepherds; no, this is a more serious storm, a psychological one. A Mahlerian one.

The storm comes on suddenly, with a downward, sinister motif that is repeated in all stanzas. The strings – muted throughout! – portray a downpour. The singer begins, and two things that will have the most important consequences are immediately announced. The more obvious one is a rhyming scheme based on an -aus sound. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus: in succeeding stanzas this is replaced by Saus and then Graus, as if giving the storm a new, more savage face each time. But there is something else just as unsettling going on. As the singer enters after the continually intensifying orchestral introduction, note is first line in the first stanza: Wetter and Braus are on the same note, D. Peter Russell says, "The force of the storm accumulates throughout the introduction, and its noise and momentum are such that hen the singer first enters on a monotone, his weakness is tangibly felt." In the next phrase, Wetter and Saus are elevated a note, to E. In the third stanza, Wetter and Graus rise to a G. The effect is that of the storm – remember, it's both physical and psychological – whipping itself into a frenzy.

The physical frenzy, however, is nothing compared to what the parent is enduring. Don't forget what follows the "weather" idea: "In this weather, in this raging, I would never have sent the children out." It sounds for all the world not only like a self-reproach, but like an accusation against the mother: "I wouldn't have sent the children out, but you did!" (I've recently read that, in contemporary America at least, 75 percent of marriages that suffer the loss of a child end in divorce). The storm words also rhyme with hinaus in the very next line: "They have been carried out," in other words, to be buried. And there is one more -aus rhyme, but that is better saved for later.

The climax of the storm begins at the end of the third stanza. The entire orchestra – no alternate orchestras here! – rages, including the kettledrum and gong, and at this point it bears recalling how far we've come in this cycle, which began with a bleak contrapuntal dialogue between oboe and horn. The singer has elevated the storm note to a G, while simultaneously plunging to the psychological depths: "They have been carried out; I was not allowed to say anything about it!" It simply can't get any worse for him. These are the last words before what comes next, and is accompanied by the most ferocious music of the song and the cycle.

And then, Light. "…a wholly unexpected sound is heard – unexpected yet not unfamiliar, for we have heard it at a significant point in the first song: the chime of the glockenspiel. This time it rings out with distinct and particular brilliance, for its A is reinforced by an A on piccolo, harp and cello harmonic. The effect of this sound is instant and magical…"(Russell). The light begins to dispel the storm, and we sense that relief is in sight. But Mahler is not finished with us. The denouement of this climax, in which it seems that God himself is beaming the light that simultaneously dispels the storm and makes the parent whole again – is a lullaby. And this lullaby, complete with rocking cadences and consolatory, soothing effects, starts with the horrible words that began the song: "In this weather, in this rushing (Saus), this raging (Braus)." But now, instead of recriminations, these words are followed by Sie ruh'n, "They rest." it is as if the father was granted one last touch, and it is precisely here that the musical resolution begins, as Mahler makes us gradually approach the final modulation to D Major. Mahler has captured us. He gives us a flute line that makes me think of nothing but a child playing in a field, a butterfly overhead. Then, with the light shining all around, the parent begins the verse that will help us find resolution. In German it is so simple, so poignant, that I just have to quote it:

Von keinem Sturm erschrecket,
Von Gottes Hand bedecket,
Sie ruh'n, sie ruh'n
Wie in der Mutter Haus,
Wie in der Mutter Haus

(Frightened by no storm, covered by God's hand, They rest as in their mother's house!)

Here is the final stroke, and we now see the genius in Mahler's plan: Not only are there rhymes between Braus, Saus, Graus, and hinaus, but all these awful words rhyme with the ultimate consolation, Mutter Haus. The final lines, this ultimate clincher, are Mahler's.

The lullaby fades, and with it does the harp, Mahler's symbol of light. It is getting dark now, but it is finally a benign darkness. Mahler announces it with a chorale-like postlude, an echo of the lullaby that is among the most beautiful of all Mahlerian melodies and we are transported by an unshakeable modulation to D Major. It is voiceless: The parent can say no more; it is all in "God's hand" now. A long, slow fadeout completes the song and the cycle. After listening to the Kindertotenlieder at least 80 times in the past two months, my awestruck shake of the head has become a part of whatever version is playing. In my opinion, this transporting passage is best realized not by Horenstein, Bernstein, nor Barbirolli, but by Wolfram Rieger, the accompanist on Thomas Hampson's piano version of the song cycles. The Kindertotenlieder are so subtle, so reliant on the "alternate orchestra" idea, that this piano version is not as effective as, say, Hampson's Wunderhorn disc. But at the very end, where there is nothing left but a fadeout, it is shattering. It is truly the sound of inevitability in music, like the final pieces of a great cosmic plan coming together. The genius, of course, is not Rieger's, but Gustav Mahler's.

There are many points left over from the lullaby alone. First, the words Gottes Hand bedecket. At first, I thought Mahler had missed an opportunity here. He had a choice of lengthening Hand or bedecket, and chose bedecket. At first I felt he should have lengthened Hand, as if to show how encompassing God's hand was. But now I agree: what's important is the protection that is being provided. Then, after the word bedecket, I wonder if was Mahler tempted to insert one of his signature luftpausen? The music seems to cry out for one. Perhaps he thought it would have been too rhetorical; we're at the point where we need simplicity, not melodrama. And finally, we have the Last Mystery of the Kindertotenlieder. It seems that in the composition sketch and the manuscript full score, Mahler wrote "Mutter Schoss" at the end: Mother's womb. It somehow was changed to Haus, "though probably not by Mahler," Mitchell says. Scholarly opinion is divided, and Russell says "the editor of the critical edition of the score thinks the change was probably not made by Mahler himself." Mitchell thinks that the imagery of the Womb is more powerful, but I think that the ultimate symmetry of rhyming the storm words with Haus is so fitting, so right, that I can't imagine it any other way. And seeing that the Kindertotenlieder were first published in 1905, Mahler had ample opportunity to revert to Schoss if he felt strongly about it. I wonder who actually did it? Max Puttmann maybe?

Why should we care about the Kindertotenlieder? For once I am not going to hide behind any qualifiers. Mahler's Kindertotenlieder – inadequately described by the overused word "masterpiece" – are a transcendent work, as echt-Mahlerian and ingeniously constructed as any of the symphonies. They might even be a symphony, as suggested in the introduction to this series. They stand at the end of the Wunderhorn period and as a departure in a new direction, toward Das Lied. He composed no further songs after these. But all that pales before the Kindertotenlieder's ultimate significance: the insight they provide into the mind of Mahler and his own view of human nature. Three songs were composed before his marriage, two songs after he became a father. While we are not completely sure which songs belong to which period, the attitudes toward life that they evoke will be seen in the later symphonies.

I've quoted much from Peter Russell's book, but perhaps the last word should go to Henry-Louis de La Grange. Schönberg, Henry-Louis de La Grange writes, "…observed that in fact Mahler's two 'saddest' works (apart from the Sixth Symphony) both end with a radiant vision of eternal life, without which this deeply mystical, if not conventionally religious, man would not have been able to bear the reality of human suffering. The principal message of the cycle lies in the disembodied tenderness of its conclusion, where Mahler seems to find a new answer to the metaphysical questions that had always obsessed him. The belief in eternal renewal and in the union of man with nature was one of the great revelations in this mature phase. It was only one transcendental step from these songs to the luminous melancholy of the Adagios of the last symphonies." It is on the Kindertotenlieder that this momentous step is based.

Copyright © Mitch Friedfeld, 2001.