Saturday, November 19, 2022

Mahler and Kindertotenlieder to add to Wozzeck

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.

Fig. 1


Human limitations


Beyond Human Limitations


Traditional view

(widely accepted interpretation)

Birth of Gustav Mahler

Death of Gustav Mahler (1911)

No evidence

Nietzschean view

Non-existent Children = 

(Mahler’s Death)

Birth of children

 (& their survival)

Mahler supersedes his mortality.

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

fig. 2 

 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 WetterStichvorlage (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.

Song 4

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.

Fig. 3




Traditional view

Birth of parents

Death of parents 

No evidence 

Birth of children

Death of children

No evidence

Nietzschean view

Parents' death

Surviving Children

Parents surpass

"In the sunshine!"


Parents surpass


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."



Fig. 4 - Ruckert-Lieder Orchestration

Fig. 5 Kindertotenlieder Orchestration

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.

Other References: 


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