The German Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), linguist and Orientalist, was one of Gustav Mahler’s favorite poets, and he set a number of his poems to music, including the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Mahler composed four of the five Rückert Liederin 1901, initially with piano accompaniment, but immediately orchestrated them. He was in his fifth year as musical director of the Vienna Hofoper, a prestigious post he accepted even though it meant converting to Roman Catholicism to allay the anti-Semitism rife in Austria. In 1899 he took on the added position of conductor of the Philharmonic concerts but in 1901 had to relinquish this duty as a result of a serious illness and his inability to get along with the orchestra. These setbacks, however, did not prevent him from experiencing a burst of creativity during the summer, when – in addition to four of the Rückert Lieder – he also completed the Symphony No. 4, started on No. 5 and composed three of the Kindertotenlieder. Mahler composed a fifth Rückert Lied, “Liebst du um Schönheit?” (Do you love for beauty?) a short while later, but never orchestrated it.
Mahler’s Rückert Lieder do not form a cycle and there is no conventional order in which they are to be sung. Each song is distinct from the others in subject matter, structure and orchestration. Although the musical form is strongly conditioned by the poetic structure, Mahler uses different ways to vary the traditional strophic organization.
“Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (Look not into my songs) warns the listener not to be too inquisitive about the process of artistic creativity since only the finished work matters. The analogy made with the work of bees in the second stanza provides Mahler with the basis for his musical tone painting. A brief introduction establishes a perpetual motion with a subtle buzzing produced by muted strings without double bass, single woodwinds and a horn.
“Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (I breathed a gentle fragrance) musically evokes the delicate fragrance of the lime tree which the poet associates with his beloved. The orchestration is extremely delicate, often one instrument at a time, even dropping out momentarily when the poet first senses the fragrance. The continuous even motion in the strings suggests the quiet wafting of the scent through the air. The settings of the two stanzas share musical material, but are not strophic.
The poetic theme of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I have been lost to the world), one of Mahler’s most beautiful and moving songs evokes the peace achieved through the poet’s withdrawal from the turmoil of the world into his heaven, his life, and his song. The comparatively long introduction is used as both an interlude and a counterpoint with the singer. It features that orchestral symbol of isolation, and often desolation, the English horn, with an arch-shaped melody that moves upward from a simple two notes, to three, and then more rapidly to the line’s melodic peak, followed by a descent that completes the arch. The voice then repeats the melody, in a dialogue with the English horn. Mahler sets the song’s three stanzas irregularly by repeating the interlude after the third line of the first stanza with only the shortest break between the last line and the first line of the second stanza. The second stanza presents a passionate contrast as the poet declares himself dead to the world. The final stanza begins with the song’s main theme but continues with new musical material leading to the climax, the poet’s song. The English horn concludes the song echoing the final line of the voice.
“Um Mitternacht” (At midnight) recounts the poet’s battle with darkness (in both its literal and figurative sense) until he finally gives up his search and commends himself into the hands of God. Three central instrumental motives are introduced in the opening bars and form the foundation for much of the song: a three-note dotted figure in the clarinets; a rising and falling dotted figure in the flute and an even descending scale in the horns, mirrored by an ascending scale in the voice. While the poem has five regular six-line stanzas (the first and last line of each are “Um Mitternacht”), Mahler sets each of them to different music. In musical imitation of the poet’s persistent striving, he sets each stanza with new music. The final stanza, the transcendent moment in which he finds his answer through surrender to the “Lord of death and life,” concludes with triumphant brass fanfares, harp glissandi and a resounding plagal (“church”) cadence.
The most traditional of the songs, “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty), was the last composed and was left unorchestrated by Mahler, but an orchestration by Max Puttmann, who worked for Mahler’s publisher, is frequently performed. Of the five, it is the most strophic in form, with the four stanzas presented in pairs, separated by a short orchestral interlude. The first three stanzas are closely related one another, while the fourth begins as if it were simply to repeat the pattern, but then underscores the message of the song by stressing and expanding the melody on the words “Liebe” (love) and “immer” (always). Clara Schumann set this poem to music as well.