Ken SchaphorstMahler's song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn permeates NEC's Mahler Unleashed concerts, including this reorchestrated or "re-composed" set of four of the Wunderhorn songs, to be immediately followed by a performance of a longer selection in their traditional orchestration on November 30. NEC jazz chair Ken Schaphorst writes here about his personal history with Mahler's music and his approach to creating this new Wunderhorn suite.

Mahler UnleashedFour Wunderhorn Songs

I’ve been a huge fan of Mahler’s music for many years. I heard the BSO play the First Symphony when I was a graduate student at NEC in the early ’80s. And I’ve been hooked ever since. As I learned about the symphonies, I became more and more interested in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of songs that Mahler composed between 1892 and 1901.

The Des Knaben Wunderhorn text started as a set of German folk poems edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, published between 1805 and 1808. Mahler’s settings of those texts are central to Mahler’s Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, often referred to as the “Wunderhorn Symphonies.” Three of Mahler’s settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn texts became entire movements in Mahler’s early symphonies. “Urlicht,” which I’ve arranged, is the slow movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony.

Initially, my goal was simply to arrange a few of my favorite Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs for voice and jazz ensemble. However, I gradually came to the realization that I could organize these four particular songs into a sort of mini-drama, revolving around four of Mahler’s recurrent themes: love, war, death and redemption.

After choosing the four songs, I initially started to set them in German. However, as proceeded, I felt increasingly dissatisfied, eventually deciding to take on the role of reluctant translator.

In three of the songs, “Where Trumpets Blow,” “The Drummer Boy,” and “Eternal Light,” I was more or less faithful to Mahler’s original form, stretching or condensing things here and there, adding brief improvisations, altering harmonies as well as taking advantage of some of the orchestrational opportunities that the jazz ensemble offers.

But on “Reveille,” it was difficult for me to imagine a jazz vocalist communicating the shouting and battle cries that I associate with that particular song. And I was committed to recreating that song’s war-like atmosphere. So I ended up making it an instrumental arrangement, in which the march becomes a sort of Art Blakey–esque shuffle. This is the piece that I took the most liberties with. As opposed to following Mahler’s form, I took his motives and re-worked them into my own sort of fantasy or recomposition, creating a prolonged prelude to “The Drummer Boy.”