Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) is a song cycle for voice and orchestra by Gustav Mahler. The words of the songs are poems by Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866).
The original Kindertotenlieder were a group of 428 poems written by Rückert in 1833-1834 in an outpouring of grief following the illness (scarlet fever) and death of two of his children. Karen Painter describes the poems thus: “Rückert’s 428 poems on the death of children became singular, almost manic documents of the psychological endeavor to cope with such loss. In ever new variations Rückert’s poems attempt a poetic resuscitation of the children that is punctuated by anguished outbursts. But above all the poems show a quiet acquiescence to fate and to a peaceful world of solace.” These poems were not intended for publication, and they appeared in print only in 1871, five years after the poet’s death.
Mahler selected five of Rückert’s poems to set as Lieder, which he composed between 1901 and 1904. The songs are written in Mahler’s late-romantic idiom, and like the texts reflect a mixture of feelings: anguish, fantasy resuscitation of the children, resignation. The final song ends in a major key and a mood of transcendence.
The poignancy of the cycle is increased by the fact that four years after he wrote it, Mahler lost his own daughter Maria, aged four, to scarlet fever. He wrote to Guido Adler: “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.”
The cello melody in the postlude to “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus” (mm. 129–133) alludes to the first subject of the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (1895/96), a movement titled “What love tells me” (“Was mir die Liebe erzählt”). “Musically, then, this is the last word of the Kindertotenlieder: that death is powerful, yet love is even stronger.”
The work was premiered in Vienna on 29 January 1905. Friedrich Weidemann, a leading baritone at the Vienna Court Opera, was the soloist, and the composer conducted. The hall was selected as a relatively small one, compatible with the intimacy of the lied genre, and the orchestra was a chamber orchestra consisting of players drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic.
The work is scored for a vocal soloist (the notes lie comfortably for a baritone or mezzo-soprano) and an orchestra consisting of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais (English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, timpani, glockenspiel, tamb tam, celesta, harp, and strings. There are no trumpets. Deployed at chamber-orchestra scale, this orchestration permitted Mahler to explore a wide variety of timbres within a smaller-scale sound; Tunbridge sees this as a new precedent adopted by later composers; for instance Schoenberg in Pierrot lunaire.
Concerning the performance of the work, the composer wrote “these five songs are intended as one inseparate unit, and in performing them their continuity should not be interfered with”.