NEC music history chair Katarina Markovic writes on Mahler's song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which exists as an independent work but also suffuses many of Mahler's symphonies that followed. Both as songs and as source material, the Wunderhorn songs permeate NEC's season of Mahler Unleashed programs. Many of the songs in the cycle are performed by NEC voice majors on November 9, in juxtaposition with other composers' settings of the original folk song material, and again on the December 5 "First Monday" concert. Ken Schaphorst's new arrangements of four of the songs appear November 30 on a concert that includes the orchestral versions of a selection of Wunderhorn and Rückert songs.
In fall of 1887, in the living room of Karl Maria von Weber’s great-grandson, Gustav Mahler stumbled across a book that would give the crucial jolt of inspiration and direction to his compositional life. At the time, the 27-year-old Mahler was working as a conductor in Leipzig and finishing a commission to complete Weber’s unfinished opera Die Drei Pintos. The book he took out of the bookshelf was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an anthology of 723 old German songs (“Alte deutsche Lieder”) collected, compiled, edited, and revised from 1805 to 1808 by two young early Romantic poets, Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.
As he read the poems, which were dizzyingly different in style, subject matter, tone, verse structure, provenance, and genre, Mahler nevertheless tapped into the underlying spirit that united them and made them, if not the staple of every common family’s household along with the hymnal and cookbook, as Goethe proposed, then the beloved source of imagination for generations of musicians (Loewe, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Wolf, Schoenberg), artists (Moritz von Schwind, Ludwig Richter), and writers (Uhland, Heine, Möricke, Hofmannsthal). The spirit he sensed there was contained in the romantic notion of “universal poetry,” a creative form which, irrespective of its folk or learned author, always renews and revitalizes itself, its creator, and its reader.
Within three months of immersing himself in the borrowed book, Mahler already at the end of 1887 started sketching the first songs on the Wunderhorn texts, along with his first two major symphonic works—the First Symphony and Totenfeier.
Bruno Walter described Mahler’s fascination with this collection thus: “When he finally read the Wunderhorn, he must have felt as though he was finding his home. Everything that moved him was there—nature, piety, longing, love, parting, night, the world of spirits, the tale of the mercenaries, the joy of youth, childhood, jokes, quirks of humor all pour out as in his songs.” And indeed, he never parted from that book again, although the close proximity of some of his earlier texts from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, along with Walter’s comment, indicate that Mahler might have, in fact, read, known, or at least heard some of the Wunderhorn texts even earlier, perhaps during his student days in Vienna.
Even though the Wunderhorn poetry clearly seduces with its archaic naïveté, where soldiers, children, animals, fishermen, and saints all equally partake in the relativity of sorrow, joy, humanity, humor, love, and cruelty, it is curious that Mahler, a young Jewish man from the Bohemian provinces, would so enthusiastically and emphatically identify with this clearly Germanic poetic source, whose history is closely related to romantic nationalist aspirations of German artists in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Heine ironically praised the specifically German heritage that he found in this collection, where the “German anger drums, German banter whistles, German tear sparkles.” The impetus for creating such a collection came in the context of the five-year occupation of large portions of Germany by Napoleon, and apocalyptic predictions that the German nation was finally doomed. Altogether the collection was an expression of the awakening to the national spirit as expressed in folk songs and folk tales which started already in the 1770s and ’80s as a reaction to the impulse of the Enlightenment, which was perceived as unpoetic, stifling, and mechanizing.
As a contrast to that, the collections of folk poetry that James Macpherson and Bishop Thomas Percy had undertaken were looked upon as models for the possible German appropriation of folk songs. It was in Herder’s 1773 essay “Ossian and the Song of Ancient People,” inspired by Macpherson’s and Percy’s translations and collections of old English poetry, that the German term “Volkslied” (adapted from the English term “popular song”) appeared for the first time in literature.
When in 1802 Arnim and Brentano started their journeys down the Rhine, eavesdropping on sailor’s songs, jotting down minstrel’s ballads, children’s lullabies, soldiers’ marches, servants’ hymns, but also copying out long-forgotten manuscripts, pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, they were reacting to a 30-year-long call for a “German Percy” who would affirm the existence of a uniquely German Volkgeist (spirit of the people).
The uniqueness of the Wunderhorn collection lies, however, not in the fact that it follows a general European wave of nationalism, but rather in the way that Arnim and Brentano approached this historical mandate, defying expectations of the learned, scholarly society and instead following their priority and passion for the reconciliation of high culture and folk art. As the correspondence between the two friends shows, they aimed at a “delicate balance between the Romantic and everyday mood…religious, tradesmen’s and common laborer’s songs, songs of the times of day and year and humorously frivolous songs”. To the horror of academic historians and folklorists, both in their time (the brothers Grimm and Schlegel), as well as today, who criticized the free editing, revising, and lack of transparency regarding documentation and treatment of sources, Arnim and Brentano never aimed for the type of scholarly purity that an authentic “folksong” collection should represent.
Arnim and Brentano’s attitude towards these songs then—tapping into the “universal poetry” concept of living and changeable art, of folk heritage and folk spirit that belong to all—was what made them open to Mahler. Just as Arnim and Brentano freely approached the sources from which this wealth of imagination sprang, so did Mahler mould and wrestle the contents and form of the twenty-four texts which he set to music between 1887 and 1901.
In a letter from 1905, Mahler reveals that it was precisely the absence of the “high” and elevated literary tone which attracted him to this poetry:
“I have devoted myself heart and soul to that poetry (which is essentially different from any other kind of ‘literary poetry’ and might almost be called something more like Nature and Life—in other words, the sources of all poetry—than art) in full awareness of its character and tone.”
His keen awareness of the “character and tone” of this poetry of Nature and Life is evident in his compositional choices. Taking the texts at their face value, without romanticizing the disappointments, softening the cruelties, prolonging the brief delights, masking the inevitability of death and departure, Mahler strives for precision in every detail.
Starting with the early songs and versions for voice and piano—finished pieces in their own right, often preceding their orchestral counterpart by either one day, one month, or half a year—Mahler gives the piano accompaniment the responsibility of bringing the most subtle details of meaning to the fore. The multilayered perspective of a seemingly simple walk through the woods in Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald (Happily I walked through a green wood) lives in a calm D-major through the different registers of the piano: the depths of the woods in the opening bass pedal contrast immediately with the heights of the trees in the rising and expanding triad, on top of which a chirping right-hand figuration reveals a singing bird.
Oftentimes the piano part already has embedded within it the future sound of the orchestra, as in the crushing Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the beautiful trumpets sound). The transformation of this song—in the collection entitled Unbeschreibliche Freude (Indescribable Joy), and ending with the affirmation of the lovers’ dedication (I wish all the fields were paper/ And the students all writing thereon/ They could write the whole night through/ and never write our love away)—into Mahler’s Lied is indeed indescribable: Mahler slashes the euphoric last stanza and replaces it with his own text, which completely redirects the entire previous narrative. The gentle farewell of lovers, in which they promise to reunite in a year, now ends with an ominous premonition of death: “I go to war on a green heath/ a green heath far away/ where the bright trumpets blow/ there lies my house, my house of green sward.” Accordingly, we hear in the piano the two distinct worlds that Mahler creates: the harsh, bare and cold reality of the military and of possible death that will, in the orchestral version, be given to the dotted rhythm woodwind and brass ritornello and the expressive, lyrical sections of the lovers’ duet, sounding in the gentle rocking of the bass, and resonating in the warmth of the string sonorities.
Sometimes the connection of the two worlds that Mahler inhabits—the song and the symphony—is much more palpable. The parodistic Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, after its versions for piano and then orchestra, moves into the purely symphonic realm of Mahler’s Second Symphony, where, without the voice and text, it takes over the aimless wandering of its moto perpetuo in the bass and the cynical turns and slurs in the woodwinds and becomes the Scherzo movement.
Similarly to the usage of Ablösung im Sommer for the Scherzo of the Third Symphony, Mahler characterizes the atmosphere as one of “a somewhat sweet-and-sour humor;” he elaborates: “Antonius preaches to the fish, but he seems to be drunk. His speech is slurred (in the clarinet) and confused. And what a glittering congregation! The eels and carps and the sharp-nosed pikes, with their stupid expressions as they look at Antonius, stretching their stiff necks out of the water. I practically saw them in the music and burst out laughing…”
It is precisely this unadorned realism and his laying bare the non-artistic nature of the texts that makes Mahler’s Lied collection so sharply different from Brahms’s, Mendelssohn’s, and Schumann’s approaches.
The texts, as well as the music, don’t shy away from horrifying us with the inevitable and cruel death of the starving child in Das irdische Leben, or disappointing us with the carelessness and crudity of male rejection in Verlorne Müh’, or with the wanderer’s matter-of-fact sternness (accompanied absurdly by a “cuckoo, cuckoo” mimicry) in Um Schlimme Kinder artig zu machen, where the wanderer, even though carrying gifts for the children, does not relent due to the children’s supposed naughtiness.
Mahler also doesn’t shy away from remaining superficial, coy, or silly in songs such as Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? or Starke Einbildungskraft. No one advocates for the mischievous children, the rejected maiden, the starving child, the dying lover, the departing soldier. There is no attempt nor need to provide a happy ending or a glimmer of hope, or an ennobling sprit, as Mahler’s Wunderhorn world is already filled with the acceptance of the beauty of the World as it is, and of Nature as it is, “terrifying, great and also lovely,” as he explained in reference to his Third Symphony.
For Mahler, thus, the fates of the inhabitants of these songs are left adrift as part of the eternal and universal wandering soul, the one that Mahler shared with them and that he brought to life through his surgically precise, yet limitlessly original and inspired vocal and orchestral settings.