Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) for Baritone and Orchestra

Mahler had a particular affinity for the sophisticated poetry of Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), one of the most profound German Romantic poets. The composer wrote Five songs for voice and orchestra based on his poems in 1901-1902, and between 1901-1904 he created the famous cycle SONGS ON THE DEATH OF THE CHILDREN.The original poetic cycle Kindertotenlieder comprises 428 poems written by Rückert in 1833-34 to express his anguish after the death of two of his children who had scarlet fever. These poems are very personal; they were not intended for publication and were not printed until 1871, five years after the poet’s death. Mahler himself knew the pain of losing children – five of his brothers died very young, and his most beloved brother Ernst passed away at the age of 13. Rückert’s little elegiac poems attracted him with their immense richness of psychological nuance and contrasting imagery, united by the theme of inconsolable grief.He chose five of them to turn into songs, composing the first, third and fourth in 1901, after completing his Fourth Symphony. After a long hiatus, when the Symphonies No. 5 and the tragic No. 6 were composed, he returned to Rückert and wrote the remaining two songs in the summer of 1904, just two weeks after the birth of his own second child. That upset his wife Alma, who found it incomprehensible and feared that Mahler was provoking fate. Sadly, indeed, a short time later their daughter Maria died of scarlet fever at the age of four.

As usual, the cycle was composed as a vocal-symphonic score, and later a version with keyboard accompaniment was constructed. And while each of the songs has different emotional nuances, they represent an overall integral form with a unified development. The premiere performance of Songs on the Death of the Children, along with the previous Five Songs, was in Vienna on January 29th,  1905, conducted by the composer himself, with the Viennese Court Opera’s leading baritone, Friedrich Weidemann, as soloist, and accompanied by a chamber orchestra of musicians from the Vienna Philharmonic. A relatively small hall had been chosen to accommodate the intimacy of the work.

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