This is an edited reprint of writing and research I conducted independently in the 90s as a teenager.
It reflects my historical, philosophical, and musical interests centering around the time of revolution and war in Germany and Austria. And, again, like my ebook on Wozzeck- my personal fascination with the forensic psychology of composers guided the nature of this short ebook on Mahler. It is written for those who already grasp Mahler's music and know of the curse that accompanies the performances of this very dark vocal and orchestral work, the Kindertotenlieder or Songs on the Deaths of Children.
The Idea of Immortality in Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder
By Angela M. “Kikuchi” Kneale
March 4, 1994
self-published reprint November 19, 2022
Gustav Mahler was a conductor and composer who was born in Kalischt (Kalist), Bohemia
on July seventh, eighteen-hundred and sixty, 07/07/1860. Of fourteen children born to
Bernhard and Marie Mahler, Gustav Mahler was the first of six to survive early childhood.
Gustav Mahler, known simply as Mahler, was born to Jewish parents, but later in his life
converted to Catholicism for the sole purpose of drawing larger audiences to his
performances during his time in Vienna. He was also vegetarian, and had a strong
philosophical view of life.
Mahler studied history and philosophy at the University of Vienna between 1877 and 1880,
and came in direct contact with Sigmund Freud, who was surprised with Mahler's psycho-
analytical perceptiveness. Mahler also came in contact with people who knew the famed
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, (1844-1900), a philosopher who intrigued Mahler.
In conjunction with his philosophical interests, Mahler's encounters with death and his
desire for immortality lead to the composition of his operatic song cycle the
Kindertotenlieder in 1904. The first three songs were written for the song cycle in the
summer of 1901, "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n", "Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so
dunkle Flammen", and "In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus", respectively song numbers
1, 2, and 5. The remaining two songs, written in the summer of 1904, were "Wenn dein
Mütterlein" and "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen", respectively numbers 3 and 4.
These Kindertotenlieder or “Songs on the deaths of children”, 5 song cycle, was written
to commemorate his younger brother Ernst Mahler who died in 1874. Mahler was deeply
affected by this loss. It has been said that:
"Ernst's death was the first cruel experience in Gustav Mahler's childhood.
He loved his brother, and followed every stage of his illness with profound distress.
It seems that he did not stir from his brother's bedside throughout the many months
of his illness, and passed the time by telling him stories."1
However, this was not the only catalyst of this sorrowful and cursed song cycle. In addition
to his brother's death, Mahler lost his parents in 1889. On February 24, 1901 the final
catalyst was Mahler’s own direct personal experience with death;- when Mahler had
a hemorrhage that was caused by the bacteria streptococci viridans that prevented his
heart valves from functioning properly and was a near fatal experience.2 Given the relatively
short time-frame of these tragic events within 17 years, Mahler re-evaluated his life. His
fear of mortality led him to look for ways to surpass its boundaries, the most obvious being
to have children. Since he was in his early forties and still unmarried, he had no practical
and socially acceptable way of proceeding with this solution. This is why the
Kindertotenlieder were written. Within these songs, Mahler expressed his want of having
children of his own while faced with the harshness of reality.
"Mahler's crisis shocked him into the thought of having children of his own
'as a gateway to immortality'; his whirlwind courtship of Alma Schindler
resulted from his wish to have children; he symbolized his wish to have
children in the Kindertotenlieder in the form of a mourning parent."3
In 1902 Mahler’s longings were fulfilled by his marriage to Alma Schindler on March ninth,
and followed by the birth of their daughter, Maria Anna on November third. Also in 1902
Mahler's Third Symphony was premiered. This Symphony contained the poem
“Zarathustra's Rundgesang” of Friedrich Nietzsche. Mahler showed great interest in
Nietzsche's philosophy, as can be seen in part of his daily routine in the autumn of 1896,
"With his coffee and a cigarette he first reads for a while (Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
Goethe, and Nietzsche)."4 It was also through his interest in Nietzsche's philosophy that
Mahler was able to overcome the despair of his earthly dilemma. It was this same philosophy
which added momentum to the writing of Kindertotenlieder.
Mahler's Kindertotenlieder set are only five of several hundred Rückert poems. How Mahler
decided which poems to use for his Kindertotenlieder may have been influenced by Nietzsche's
primary philosophy in “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, which Mahler was reading in 1894. Bruno
Walter G (1876-1962), a German conductor at the Municipal Theater in Hamburg, stated,
"Mahler also inspired me with an interest in Nietzsche, with whose Also Sprach Zarathustra
he was just then much occupied."5 The Kindertotenlieder cycle starts with sunrise and concludes
with sunset. Typically, throughout human history, these solar images symbolize birth and death,
yet, this concrete symbolism applies only to the commemoration of his brother Ernest’s life and
the incomplete life cycle of Mahler himself. This widely accepted association does not explain why
Mahler felt that writing of children, forever irretrievable-- both unborn and deceased, displayed
his emotional and psychological longing for the birth of his offspring.
A less traditional association of sunrises and sunsets -- which could explain Mahler's reasoning
pertaining to his choice of 5 of 428 Rückert poems-- is found in Also Sprach Zarathustra. Here,
Nietzsche connects the sunrise and light with things which are religious, religion being decadent
and thus scorned. However, life in the earthly, dark, Dionysian sense is hailed as the expanse of
infinite imagination and a dream world intermingling with a veil of madness without the spiritual
grace of God. The image of the sun going under the earth (a sunset) is seen as desirable as it
draws attention to earthly life and improving mankind’s day to day reality, rather than to live in fear
of nature and to neglect humanity by looking to the heavens. It symbolizes the birth of new
generations which would follow this doctrine.
Keeping in mind that songs 1, 2, and 5 of Kindertotenlieder were written shortly after Mahler's February
1901 encounter with death, the evidence of the Nietzschean view of the sunrise holds true. In the first
song of Kindertotenlieder, "The symbolic mitigation is the sun- the sun that will rise and gladden the
heart."6 "The sun that will rise and gladden the heart" is contrary to what Mahler apparently feels and
wrong according to the Nietzschean view. The rising sun in the first line (see appendix for complete
poems) reflects Mahler's realization of his mortality. In line 8 of the poem, "A lamp has gone out in my
(his) abode.” His "abode" is referring to his house and the reality that when he is gone there will be no
living embodiment of his descent to occupy it. The concluding line of this poem, "Hail to the whole
world's gladdening light!", then becomes a cry of great despair over his impending death. This mood
leads to the second song where he lingers upon this terrifying fate and becomes spiteful (with himself)
for being too busy with his day-to-day concerns.
Song 2 - Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
line 1 Now I see clearly...
line 5 Yet I never suspected (because of the mists that hovered round me,
line 6 All spun by the deceitful looms of fate),
The tension builds to the fifth and last Kindertotenlieder song, where Mahler has become emotionally
fierce, thus opening and closing the song with a storm.
Song 5 - In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus
line 1 In this grim weather, this raging storm,
(closing lines 17-21)
17 In this grim weather, this howling gale, this raging storm,
18 They rest, as if in their mother's house.
19 No storm can now frighten them,
20 The hand of God protects them,
21 They rest, as if in their mother’s house.
There is one especially interesting factor that could contribute to the choosing of the setting of the fifth
Kindertotenlieder song. Mahler changed "mother's house (Haus)" in lines 18 and 21 to "mother's
womb (Mutterschoß)," (see fig. 2).7 This intentional change of the original Rückert
A 5 measure example manuscript from Engraver’s Copy of “In diesem Wetter”
Bedeckt sie ruh’n sie ruh’n wie in der Mutter Haus, wie… The song example begins with Treble
clef and 2 sharps F#, C# beginning on a half note E5 with the syllable de- of Be-de-cket.
m. de-cket, sie m. ruh’n, sie m. ruh’n wie m. in der Mutter m. Schoß Haus, wie
“In diesem Wetter” Stichvorlage (portion of final measures.) 7
poem signifies an ending which speaks of unborn, non-existent children. It also contributes to the
uncertainty, frustration, and reality of Mahler ever having children to fill his "abode."
Mahler composes "Wenn dein Mütterlein" und "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen"
Keeping in mind that Mahler was married and had his first child the year after the first of the songs
of the Kindertotenlieder cycle were written, a change in mood is found in Kindertotenlieder
song 3 "Wenn dein Mütterlein"and song 4, "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen"."Wenn dein
Mütterlein" depicts a father daydreaming of a daughter, who is non-existent, but he very easily
conjures her image. It is very probable that this poem was chosen since Gustav and Alma Mahler
expected a child the same summer the third and fourth songs were composed. On June 15, 1904
their second daughter Anna Justine was born.
The setting of Rückert’s of "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen" in Kindertotenlieder depicts
lost children, and a parent's hope that their children will be returning home. This song, like the
others, depicts dead, non-existent children in the traditional sense of a delusional or intoxicated
parent easing their grief with a mirage of memory. A duality in real life and in spiritual
life;- “Coming home”, to the parent who lives or to God. However, in the Nietzschean sense,
it shows the success of Mahler surpassing his mortality reflected in the last two lines of the poem.
line 11 We'll soon overtake them, up on the hills,
line 12 In the sunshine! The day is fine upon the hills!
Referring to figure 3, "We'll soon overtake them, up on the hills,/In the sunshine!" is the parents’
death in God’s light, They are both in the sunshine and since the children cannot be found in the
light where their parents are, they must be in the tumultuous Dionysian darkness, remembered.
The remaining phrase "The day is fine upon the hills!" is the cry of continued life that was missing
in the first Kindertotenlieder, although the parents are going to be "In the sunshine," they have
assurance that their children are not there. The dual meaning that these five Rückert poems
take on made sure that they were not set to music due to some frivolous fancy of Mahler's.
Surly it was the philosophical interests of Gustav Mahler and his encounters not only with
death, but also with birth, influenced the choosing of these particular Rückert poems.
Incomplete rehearsals and other performances of the Kindertotenlieder cycle were conducted with a singer and smaller chamber ensemble more suited for Mahler's Rückert-Lieder (see fig. 4 ) or Songs after Rückert in January 1905. The complete Kindertotenlieder cycle was premiered with a full orchestra, with similar fuller and robust instrumentation (see fig. 5), for his 5th Symphony that was orchestrated in Essen on March 8, 1906. In a letter to his wife dated March 9, 1906 Mahler wrote,
"...So yesterday the symphony (5th), Kindertotenlieder, magnificent performance
except for the singer (Gerard Zalsman), who lacked warmth."8
It is well known that Mahler's wife had said to Mahler, before they married, that to compose such
sorrowful pieces as the Kindertotenlieder was "tempting Providence!" The year after the
premiere of the work, Maria Anna, his eldest daughter died at the age of five. Her death
was followed by the composition of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)
which was to commemorate her. Mahler died at the age of fifty-one from heart disease,
that was diagnosed the same year Maria Anna passed. Fortunately, his younger daughter
Anna Justine survived him, living into the late 1900's.
Miss Angela M. “Kikuchi” Kneale has a B.A. in Music (piano) and extensive private studies in
European classical piano performance.
1. Kurt Blaukopf and Herta Blaukopf, Mahler, (Yugoslavia: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 21.
2. Edward F. Kravitt, "Mahler Dirges for his Death: February 24, 1901," Musical Quarterly, 64 (1980), p. 329.
3. Kravitt, "Mahler Dirges," Musical Quarterly, p. 333.
4. Kurt Blaukopf and Herta Blaukopf, Mahler, (Yugoslavia: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 118.
5. Kurt Blaukopf and Herta Blaukopf, Mahler, (Yugoslavia: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 106.
6. Donald Mitchell, Songs and Symphonies of Life and Death. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985),p. 93.
7. Edward F. Kravitt, "Mahler Dirges for his Death: February 24, 1901," Musical Quarterly, 64 (1980), pp. 335- 336.
Gustav Mahler, Thomas Hampson, Weiner Philharmoniker, Leonard Bernstein “Kindertotenlieder”
from Symphony No. 6 & Kindertotenlieder, CD 427 699-2 Deutsch Grammophon GmbH,
Hamburg 🅟1989, 🅒1986 by Sevenarts Ltd. London.
Nietzsche, Friedrich, “Also Sprach Zarathustra”
Please see complete works of Nietzsche