Time & Place: Mahler's Life in Vienna

In the City of Music

Explore Mahler's world in the City of Music and the era of emerging modernism. See where he and other artists and intellectuals met to share ideas and inspiration - and where he settled down into family life.


New York & Europe

Herr Direktor

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Herr Direktor

Vienna Opera House
Mahler received a provisional appointment as staff conductor at Vienna Hofoper in April 1897 and was formally appointed to the directorship on October 8.
Mahler's Apartments

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Mahler's Apartments

Apartments designed by Otto Wagner
Mahler lived in several apartments during his years in Vienna: first in furnished rooms at Universitatstrasse 6, then in a full apartment with his sister Justi at #13 Bartensteingasse, then settling in the fall of 1898 in a building in the Auenbruggergasse designed by Secessionist architect Otto Wagner.
The Philharmonic

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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The Philharmonic

Mahler conducting
Mahler was appointed conductor of Vienna Philharmonic in September of 1898, a post he held until April 1901, when Josef Hellmesberg, Jr. was elected by the Philharmonic committee. The reasons for Mahler's removal seem to have been political rather than musical.
A Country Retreat

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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A Country Retreat

Mahler's composing hut
With the increased income from his position, Mahler was able to build a summer house (and composing hut) at Maiernigg in the Austrian Alps. For the next several years, he enjoyed an extremely productive period of composing during the summer. Even so, he was uneasy at his good fortune, writing to a friend: “It is too beautiful. One can't allow oneself such things.”
Love and Loss

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Love and Loss

Alma and daughters
Mahler met Alma Schindler in late 1901. On 19 December 1901, he wrote her a 20-page letter setting out his plan for a future life and urging her to abandon her own composition work: “Do you think you will have to do without a high point of being which you cannot live without, if you entirely give up your music in order to possess—and also to be—my own?” They married on March 9, 1902. In November of that year their first daughter, Maria Anna, was born, followed by a second daughter, Anna, in 1904. In July of 1907 Maria died from scarlet fever and diphtheria at home in Maiernigg. Mahler was heartbroken at the loss of the little girl his wife described as “entirely Mahler's child.”
Modern Art

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Modern Art

Vienna Secession building
Mahler's move to Vienna coincided with the founding of the Vienna Secession, a group of artists who sought to promote artistic styles free from the weight of history. “To every age its art, to art its freedom” (“Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit”). Mahler participated in a Vienna Secession opening, where he met artist Alfred Roller and hired him as stage designer at the Opera (Tristan, 1903). Critic Hans Liebstöckl wrote: “Friends of the Secession will be very pleased to see Tristan and Isolde wandering amid strangely Impressionistic landscapes.”
Young Vienna

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Young Vienna

The Café Griensteidl was the meeting place of a group of young writers led by Hermann Bahr and including Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannstahl, known as Jung Wien, or Young Vienna. The group was satirized by journalist Karl Kraus in the book Die demolierte Literatur (Demolished Literature); he continued his acerbic cultural commentary in a later periodical, Die Fackel.
A Lively Café

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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A Lively Café

Vienna's coffeehouses were the scene of lively discussion on all topics, including contemporary science, a field Mahler enjoyed. He wrote to a friend: “What do you think now of the immutability of scientifically based views? ...it is conceivable that in the course of aeons (perhaps as a result of a natural law of evolution) even the laws of nature may change; that for instance the law of gravity may no longer hold—does not Helmholtz even now assume that the law of gravity does not apply to infinitely small distances? perhaps (I myself add) not to infinitely great distances either—for instance very distant solar systems. Just think that through to its logical conclusion.”
The Waltz King

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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The Waltz King

Vienna was the city of music, and no musical form was so prominent as the waltz. Johann Strauss, Jr., The Waltz King, was an important local figure. Although Mahler did not consider Strauss's waltzes to be true works of art, he praised their "characteristic and charming inventions" and made Strauss's work Die Fledermaus a staple at the Court Opera, beginning with a benefit performance on 31 October 1897. Strauss sent him a telegram of praise and thanks the next day.
Jewish Life

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Jewish Life

In 1900, Jews made up 8.7 per cent of Vienna's population. Mahler's years in the city coincided with the increasing tensions surrounding the Dreyfuss Affair in France. In Vienna, the 1895 election of the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger as mayor was a sign of increasing repression. The following year Theodor Herzl (1860—1904) published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), the beginning of the modern zionist movement. Ironically, it is highly possible that Adolf Hitler heard one of Mahler's Wagner performances in 1906.
Modern Psychology

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Modern Psychology

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud's family moved from Freiburg, Moravia, to Vienna in 1860. He published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, stating: “A dream is the fulfillment of a wish.” Later works developed his theories of the unconscious, the emotions, and human sexuality. Years later, distraught over the infidelity of his wife Alma, Mahler consulted Freud.
Modern Philosophy

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Modern Philosophy

Mahler was a frequent guest at the home of the Wittgensteins. Son Ludwig was a prominent philosopher and his brother Paul a pianist. The family hosted small private musical performances featuring many of the city's top musicians. Much later, Ludwig wrote in Culture and Value (1948): “If it is true that Mahler's music is worthless, as I believe to be the case, then the question is what I think he ought to have done with his talent. For quite obviously it took a set of very rare talents to produce this bad music.”
Our Famous Guest

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Our Famous Guest

Hotel Krantz
“Our Famous Guest” is a nickname given to Mark Twain, who arrived in Vienna on Sept 28, 1897 for nearly two years. Among other pursuits, Twain watched the funeral of assassinated Empress Elizabeth, from the balcony of the Krantz Hotel (now the Ambassador) on Sept 17 1898.
Resting Places

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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Resting Places

Vienna's Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), opened in 1874, contained the graves of prominent musicians, including Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner, but did not allow Jewish graves.
The End of an Era

Mahler's Life in Vienna

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The End of an Era

Mahler in 1907
Mahler resigned from his opera position in late summer of 1907 and conducted his last performance, Beethoven's Fidelio, on October 15. The decision may have been influenced by an active anti-Semitic press campaign. Mahler himself said: “I am going because I can no longer endure the rabble.” To members of the Court Opera Company, he wrote: “What I leave behind me is not such as I dreamt, something whole, something complete in itself, but fragments, things unfinished, as is man's lot.” He accepted a position with the Metropolitan Opera and sailed for New York in December.
Songs from The Youth’s Magic Horn

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Selections from The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)


  • “Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower” (Lied des Verfolgten im Turm)
  • “Where the Lovely Trumpets Blow” (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen)
  • “The Drummer Boy” (Der Tambourg’sell)
  • “Reveille” (Revelge)
  • “Primal Light” (Urlicht)

Gustav Mahler composed “Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower” (Lied des Verfolgten im Turm) in July 1898, “The Drummer Boy” (Der Tambourg’sell) in August 1901, “Where the Lovely Trumpets Blow” (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen) in July 1898, “Reveille” (Revelge) in July 1899, and “Primal Light” (Urlicht) probably in 1892. “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm,” “Der Tambourg’sell,” and “Revelge” were all premiered on January 29, 1905, at Vienna’s Kleiner Musikvereinssaal, with the composer conducting a chamber orchestra and with soloists Anton Moser (baritone) in “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm,” Friedrich Weidemann (baritone) in “Der Tambourg’sell” and Fritz Schrödter (tenor) in “Revelge.” “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” was first performed January 14, 1900 in Vienna, with Mahler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and soprano Selma Kurz. Before it was ever performed as a stand-alone item, “Urlicht” was subsumed into Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and it was first heard at the premiere of that symphony on December 13, 1895, in Berlin, with the composer conducting the Berlin Philharmonic; the soloist in the “Urlicht” movement was the contralto Hedwig Felden.

The five songs are set for low voice with varying orchestral complements: “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings; “Der Tambourg’sell” for two oboes (both doubling English horn), two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and a string section of only cellos and basses; “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four horns, two trumpets, and strings; “Revelge” for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, timpani, triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbals, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, and stings; and “Urlicht” for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, bells, harp, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Mahler was a young conductor at the Leipzig Theater when he discovered the collection of folk poetry that would inspire him with its tales of magic and fairylands, soldiers and lovers. He made musical settings of twenty-two poems from The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn), compiled between 1805 and 1808 by Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. In their compilation, von Arnim and Brentano gathered original sources but also revised and rewrote some of their material, ensuring a suitably antiquated aura. It was an amazingly influential publication, a kind of Romantic sourcebook for nineteenth-century German artists. Mahler set the last of his Wunderhorn texts in 1902, marking the end of an early part of his career, but continued to orchestrate them, and orchestral forms of the music he invented for the verses often found their way into his early symphonies.

— Michael Steinberg


Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

Der Gefangene
Die Gedanken sind frei,
Wer kann sie erraten?
Sie rauschen vorbei
Wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen,
Kein Jäger sie schiessen;
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei.

Das Mädchen
Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein
Auf hohen wilden Bergen.
Dort findet man grün’ Plätzelein,
Mein herzverliebtes Schätzelein,
Von dir mag ich nicht scheiden.

Der Gefangene
Und sperrt man mich ein
Im finsterne Kerker,
Dies alles sind nur
Vergebliche Werke,
Denn meine Gedanken
Zerreissen die Schranken
Und Mauern entzwei.
Die Gedanken sind frei!

Das Mädchen
Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein
Auf hohen wilden Bergen.
Man ist da ewig ganz allein,
Auf hohen wilden Bergen.
Man hört da gar kein Kindergeschrei!
Die Luft mag einem da werden.

Der Gefangene
So sei es, wie es sei,
Und wenn es sich schicket,
Nur alles sei in der Stille!
Mein Wunsch und Begehren,
Niemand kann's wehren!
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

Das Mädchen
Mein Schatz, du singst so fröhlich hier,
Wie's Vögelein im Grase.
Ich steh’ so traurig bei Kerkertür,
Wär’ ich doch tot, wär’ ich bei dir!
Ach, muss ich denn immer klagen?

Der Gefangene
Und weil du so klagst,
Der Lieb’ ich entsage!
Und ist es gewagt,
So kann mich nichts plagen!
So kann ich im Herzen
Stets lichen und scherzen.
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei!"


Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower

The Prisoner
Thoughts are free.
Who can guess them?
They slip by
like shadows in the night.
No one can know them,
no hunter can shoot them.
It’s a fact:
Thoughts are free.

The Girl
In summer, it’s great to be
in the high, wild mountains.
There you find patches of green.
My heart’s true love,
I will not leave you.

The Prisoner
Even if I’m imprisoned
in a dark dungeon,
all these things
are temporary.
For my thoughts
will tear apart the confines
and the walls.
Thoughts are free.

The Girl
In summer, it’s great to be
in the high, wild mountains.
You’re always alone there
in the high, wild mountains.
You hear no screaming children,
the air belongs to you.

The Prisoner
Be it as it may,
and whatever happens,
let everything happen in silence!
No one can control
my wishes and desires.
It’s a fact:
Thoughts are free.

The Girl
My love, you sing so happily,
like a bird in the fields.
I stand so sadly at the prison door.
If I were only dead, if I were only with you!
Ah, must I grieve forever?

The Prisoner
Because of your grieving,
I renounce love.
Once that is risked,
nothing can torment me!
In my heart
I can always laugh and joke.
It’s a fact:
Thoughts are free.

Fourth Symphony

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Symphony No. 4 in G major


  • I. Bedachtig, nicht eilen (deliberately, not rushed)
  • II. In gemachlicher bewegung, ohne hast (with leisurely movement, without haste)
  • III. Ruhevoll (poco adagio) (peacefully, a little slowly)
  • IV. Sehr behaglich (very comfortably)

Except for the finale, which was composed as a song with piano accompaniment in February 1892, Mahler wrote his Fourth Symphony between June 1899 and April 1901. On the basis of his experience conducting the work, he continued to tinker with the orchestration. The score used in the San Francisco Symphony performances is that published in 1963 by the International Gustav Mahler Society, Vienna, which incorporates the composer’s final revisions, made after the last performances he conducted with the New York Philharmonic in January 1911. Mahler led the first performance of the work on November 25, 1901, with the Kaim Orchestra of Munich. The soprano was Margarete Michalek. The first North American performance was conducted by Walter Damrosch at a concert of the New York Symphony Society on November 6, 1904, with the soprano Etta de Montjau.

The orchestra consists of
- four flutes (third doubling piccolo)
- three oboes (third doubling English horn)
- three clarinets (second doubling high clarinet in E-flat)
- third doubling bass clarinet)
- three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon)
- four horns
- three trumpets
- timpani
- bass drum
- triangle
- sleigh bells
- glockenspiel
- cymbal
- tam-tam
- harp
- strings

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Many a love affair with Mahler has begun with the sunlit Fourth Symphony. Mahler himself thought of it as a work whose transparency, relative brevity, and non-aggressive stance might win him new friends. It enraged most of its first hearers. Munich hated it and so did most of the German cities—Stuttgart being, for some reason, the exception—where Felix Weingartner took it on tour with the Kaim Orchestra immediately after the premiere.

The very qualities Mahler had banked on were the ones that annoyed. The bells, real and imitated (in flutes), with which the music begins! And that rustic tune in the violins! What in heaven’s name was the composer of the Resurrection Symphony up to with this newfound naïveté? Most of the answers proposed at the time were politicized, anti-Semitic, ugly. Today, we perceive more clearly that what he was up to was writing a Mahler symphony, uncharacteristic only in its all but exclusive involvement with the sunny end of the expressive range. But naïve? The violin tune, yes, is so popular in tone that we can hardly conceive that once upon a time it didn’t exist, but it is also pianissimo, which is the first step toward subverting its simplicity. Then Mahler marks accents on it in two places, both unexpected. The first phrase ends, and while clarinets and bassoons mark the beat, low strings suggest a surprising though charmingly appropriate continuation. A horn interrupts them midphrase and itself has the very words taken out of its mouth by the bassoon. At that moment, the cellos and basses assert themselves with a severe “as I was saying,” just as the violins chime in with their own upside-down thoughts on the continuation that the lower strings had suggested four bars earlier. The game of interruptions, resumptions, extensions, reconsiderations, and unexpected combinations continues—for example, when the violins try their first melody again, the cellos have figured out that it is possible to imitate it, lagging two beats behind (a discovery they proffer with utmost discretion, pianissimo and deadpan)—until bassoons and low strings call “time out,” and the cellos sing an ardent something that clearly declares “new key” and “second theme.”

“Turning cliché into event” is how Theodor W. Adorno characterized Mahler’s practice. Ideas lead to many different conclusions and can be ordered in many ways. Mahler’s master here is the Haydn of the London symphonies and string quartets of the 1790s. The scoring, too, rests on Mahler’s ability to apply an original and altogether personal fantasy to resources not in themselves extraordinary. Trombones and the tuba are absent; only the percussion is on the lavish side. Mahler plays with this orchestra as though with a kaleidoscope. He can write a brilliantly sonorous tutti but hardly ever does. What he likes better is to have the thread of discourse passed rapidly, wittily, from instrument to instrument, section to section. He thinks polyphonically, but he enjoys the combining of textures and colors as much as the combining of themes.

He could think of the most wonderful titles for the movements of this symphony, he wrote to a friend, but he refused “to betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners” who would then subject them to “their banal misunderstandings.” We do, however, have his name for the scherzo: Freund Hein spielt auf--Death Strikes Up. (Freund Hein—literally this could be rendered as “Friend Hal”—is a fairy tale bogy whose name is most often a euphemism for Death.) Alma Mahler amplified that hint by writing that here “the composer was under the spell of the self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin, in which Death fiddles into the painter’s ear while the latter sits entranced.” Death’s fiddle is tuned a whole tone high to make it harsher (the player is also instructed to make it sound like a country instrument and to enter “very aggressively”). Twice, Mahler tempers these grotesqueries with a gentle trio; Willem Mengelberg, the Amsterdam conductor, took detailed notes at Mahler’s 1904 rehearsals, and at this point he wrote into his score, “Here, he leads us into a lovely landscape.”

The adagio, which Mahler thought his finest slow movement, is a set of softly and gradually unfolding variations. It is rich in seductive melody, but the constant feature to which Mahler always returns is the tolling of the basses, piano under the pianissimo of the violas and cellos. The variations, twice interrupted by a leanly scored lament in the minor mode, become shorter, more diverse in character, more given to abrupt changes of outlook. They are also pulled more and more in the direction of E major, a key that asserts itself dramatically at the end of the movement in a blaze of sound. Working miracles in harmony, pacing, and orchestral fabric, Mahler, pronouncing a benediction, brings us back to serene quiet on the very threshold of the original G major, but when the finale almost imperceptibly emerges, it is in E. Our entry into this region has been prepared, but it is well that the music sound new, for Mahler means us to understand that we are now in heaven.

On February 6, 1892, Mahler had finished a song he called “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”), one of five humoresques on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of German folk poetry compiled just after 1800 by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. That, at least, is what it purports to be. In fact, the two poets indulged themselves freely in paraphrases, additions, and deletions, fixing things so as to give them a more antique and authentic ring, even contributing poems all their own. Mahler began to write Wunderhorn songs immediately after completing the First Symphony in 1888 (he had already borrowed a Wunderhorn poem as the foundation of the first of his Songs of a Wayfarer of 1884-85). The Wunderhorn then touches the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies. The scherzo of No. 2 was composed together and shares material with a setting of the poem about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes, and the next movement is the song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”). The Third Symphony’s fifth movement is anotherWunderhorn song, “Es sungen drei Engel” (“Three Angels Sang”), and until about a year before completing that symphony, Mahler meant to end it with “Das himmlische Leben,” the song we now know as the finale of the Fourth. That explains why the Third appears to “quote” the Fourth, twice in the minuet and again in the “Drei Engel” song.

Mahler had to plan parts of the Fourth Symphony from the end back, so that the song would appear to be the outcome and conclusion of what was in fact composed eight years after the song. From a late letter of Mahler’s to the Leipzig conductor Georg Göhler, we know how important it was to him that listeners clearly understand how the first three movements all point toward and are resolved in the finale. The music, though gloriously inventive in detail, is of utmost cleanness and simplicity. The solemn and archaic chords first heard at “Sanct Peter in Himmel sieht zu” (“Saint Peter in heaven looks on”) have a double meaning for Mahler; here, they are associated with details about the domestic arrangements in this mystical, sweetly scurrile picture of heaven, but in the Third Symphony they belong with the bitter self-castigation at having transgressed the Ten Commandments and with the plea to God for forgiveness. Whether you are listening to the Fourth and remembering the Third, or the other way around, the reference is touching. It reminds us, as well, how much all of Mahler’s work is one work. Just as the symphony began with bells, so it ends with them—this time those wonderful, deep single harp-tones of which Mahler was the discoverer.

The poem Mahler used for the text of the Fourth Symphony’s finale is a Bavarian folk song called “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (“Heaven is Hung With Violins”). On the text: Saint Luke’s symbol is a winged ox. Saint Martha, sister of Lazarus, is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy. It is said that Saint Ursula and her ten companions, returning home to England from Rome, were slaughtered by Huns who hated them for their Christian faith. Over the centuries these eleven martyrs somehow became eleven thousand.

—Michael Steinberg


Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden,
D’rum thun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich’ Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt Alles in sanftester Ruh’!
Wir führen ein englisches Leben!
Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben!
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen!
Sanct Peter im Himmel sieht zu!

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes drauf passet!
Wir führen ein geduldig’s,
Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod!
Sanct Lucas den Ochsen thät schlachten
Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten,
Der Wein kost kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller,
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten!
Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen!
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ and gut’ Trauben!
Die Gärtner, die Alles erlauben!
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Strassen sie laufen herbei.

Sollt ein Fasttag etwa kommen
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort Läuft schon Sanct Peter
Mit Netz and mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sanct Martha die Köchin muss sein.

Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die uns’rer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen!
Sanct Ursula selbst dazu lacht!
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen!
Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht.

--von Des Knaben Wunderhorn


We delight in the heavenly joys,
and keep clear of the things of the earth.
There’s no worldly racket
to be heard in heaven.
Everything here lives in the gentlest peace!
We live an angelic life!
And a happy one, too!
We dance and leap,
we jump and sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the young lamb out,
the butcher Herod lies in wait.
We lead a patient,
innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death!
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without a thought or concern.
The wine costs nothing
in the heavenly cellar.
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of all kinds
grow in the heavenly garden!
Good asparagus, string beans,
and anything we want!
Whole bowls await us!
Good apples, good pears, and good grapes!
The gardeners allow everything!
If you want deer or rabbit,
they run free in the streets.

Should a day of fasting come along,
all the fish come swimming happily!
There goes Saint Peter running
with net and bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha will be the cook.

No music on earth
can compare with ours.
Eleven thousand maidens
step out to dance!
Even Saint Ursula laughs at the sight!
Cecilia and her family
are first-rate court musicians!
The heavenly voices
gladden our senses,
and everything wakes to joy.

--from Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
Translation: Larry Rothe

Rückert Songs

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Five Songs on Poems by Friedrich Rückert


  • “I Breathed a Gentle Fragrance” (Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft)
  • “Don’t Look into My Songs” (Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder)
  • “If You Love Because of Beauty” (Liebst du um Schönheit)
  • “At Midnight” (Um Mitternacht)
  • “I am Lost to the World” (Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen)

Gustav Mahler wrote his Rückert Songs between 1901 and 1902. Janet Baker was the first to sing these songs with the San Francisco Symphony, in January 1974, with Seiji Ozawa conducting.

The orchestra consists of two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and bass trombone, tuba, harp, celesta, piano, timpani, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

After writing the Songs of a Wayfarer in 1884-85 to verses of his own, Mahler for years drew his song texts exclusively from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), three books of folk poetry collected, edited, and published in the first years of the nineteenth century by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Then in the summer of 1901, Mahler discovered, or more probably rediscovered, the poems of Friedrich Rückert. Schubert was the first composer to set Rückert, his fantasy being kindled to incandescence by the poems he found in the volume called Oestliche Rosen (Eastern Roses), published in 1822. Rückert was of Schubert’s generation, having been born in 1788 in the Franconian city of Schweinfurt. In 1815, he went to Stuttgart as a newspaper editor, but most of his career was devoted to the study of Eastern languages and literatures, a subject in which he became a professor, first at the University of Erlangen and later in Berlin. He died in 1866. He was vastly prolific—“I never think without making poems,” he once said—and much of his work consists of virtuosic and fantastical translations from Sanskrit, Hebrew, Persian, Coptic, and Arabic. Some of his most beautiful poetry, certainly the most intensely felt, is to be found in his large book of Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), forced into being by the death of his young son Ernst. Mahler selected five of these for a cycle of songs, beginning that work together with the Rückert settings on this program, which he wrote between 1901 and 1902.

Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft (I Breathed a Gentle Fragrance) is a miniature. The pun on “linden Duft” (gentle fragrance) and “Lindenduft” (fragrance of linden) is typically Rückert. Mahler’s marking is “very tender and inward; slow,” and he said of this song that it describes “the way one feels in the presence of a beloved being of whom one is completely sure without a single word needing to be spoken.”

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder (Don’t Look into My Songs) was the first of Rückert’s poems that Mahler set. The songwriter-lover’s admonition is rendered quite playful in this lively song. Um Mitternacht (At Midnight) is remarkably flexible in its movement and crests to a great, triumphant conclusion. Liebst du um Schönheit (If You Love Because of Beauty) is at once intimate and urgent.

The summer of 1901 was also the summer of beginning the Symphony No. 5. Song and symphony are related in Mahler. The first four symphonies quote or incorporate songs, and here in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am Lost to the World) we have a song that shares a set of gestures—the hesitant, upbeating beginning—with the famous Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, a movement he would actually write the following summer. The tempo is extremely slow and tending always to hold back still more. The sense of removal is uncanny. Mahler spoke of “the feeling that rises to the tip of one’s tongue but goes no further,” but still more significantly he said of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, “It’s I myself.”

— Michael Steinberg


Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder

Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!
Meine Augen schlag’ ich nieder,
Wie ertappt auf böser Tat;
Selber darf ich nicht getrauen,
Ihrem Wachsen zuzuschauen:
Deine Neugier ist Verrat.

Bienen, wenn sie Zellen Bauen,
Lassen auch nicht zu sich schauen,
Schauen selber auch nicht zu.
Wenn die reifen Honigwaben
Sie zu Tag gefördert haben,
Dann vor allen nasche du!

Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft

Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft.
Im Zimmer stand
Ein Zweig der Linde,
Ein Angebinde
Von lieber Hand.
Wie lieblich war der Lindenduft!

Wie lieblich ist der Lindenduft!
Das Lindenreis
Brachst du gelinde;
Ich atme leis
Im Duft der Linde
Der Liebe linden Duft.

Um Mitternacht

Um Mitternacht
Hab ich gewacht
Und aufgeblickt zum Himmel;
Kein Stern vom Sterngewimmel
Hat mir gelacht
Um Mitternacht.

Um Mitternacht
Hab ich gedacht
Hinaus in dunkle Schranken.
Es hat kein Lichtgedanken
Mir Trost gebracht
Um Mitternacht.

Um Mitternacht
Nahm ich in Acht
Die Schläge meines Herzens.
Ein einz’ger Puls des Schmerzens
War angefacht
Um Mitternacht.

Um Mitternacht
Kämpft ich die Schlacht,
O Menschheit, deiner Leiden;
Nicht konnt ich sie entscheiden
Mit meiner Macht
Um Mitternacht.

Um Mitternacht
Hab ich die Macht
In deine Hand gegeben:
Herr über Tod und Leben,
Du hältst die Wacht
Um Mitternacht.

Liebst du um Schönheit

Liebst du um Schönheit, o nicht mich liebe!
Liebe die Sonne, sie trägt ein goldnes Haar!

Liebst du um Jugend, o nicht mich liebe!
Liebe den Frühling, der jung ist jedes Jahr!

Liebst du um Schätze, o nicht mich liebe!
Liebe die Meerfrau, sie hat viel Perlen klar!

Liebst du um Liebe, o ja—mich liebe!
Liebe mich immer, dich lieb ich immerdar!

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben;
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält.
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel
Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.

—Friedrich Rückert


Don’t Look into My Songs

Don’t look into my songs!
I avert my eyes
as if caught doing wrong.
I don’t trust even myself
to look as they grow.
Your curiosity betrays you.

Bees who are building their cells
don’t allow themselves to be observed,
nor do they watch themselves.
When they have finished
making the rich honeycombs:
the first taste will be yours!

I Breathed a Gentle Fragrance

I breathed a gentle fragrance.
In the room was
a linden branch,
a present
from a loving hand.
How lovely was the linden scent!

How lovely is the linden scent!
You broke off
the linden branch so gently.
Softly, enveloped in linden scent,
I breathe
the gentle fragrance of love.

At Midnight

At midnight
I awoke
and looked up into the sky;
no star from among the stars’ multitude
smiled on me
at midnight.

At midnight
my thoughts
went out into the darkness.
No luminous thought
brought me comfort
at midnight.

At midnight
I began to heed
the beating of my heart.
A single pulse of pain
was kindled and inflamed
at midnight.

At midnight
I fought the battle
of human sorrows;
I could not win a decision
with all my strength
at midnight.

At midnight
I put my strength
in your hands:
Lord of death and life,
you keep the watch
at midnight.

If You Love Because of Beauty

If you love because of beauty, don’t love me!
Love the sun, with her golden hair!

If you love because of youth, don’t love me!
Love the spring, which is young every year!

If you love because of riches, don’t love me!
Love the mermaid, with her trove of sparkling pearls!

If you love because of love—oh, love me!
Love me always, and I’ll love you forever!

I am Lost to the World

I am lost to the world
where I once wasted so much time.
It has been so long since the world has heard from me,
it may seem as though I’ve died!

And it makes no difference to me
if the world thinks I have died,
nor can I dispute that claim,
since I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s tumult
and I rest in a quiet place!
I live alone in my heaven,
in my love, in my song.

—Translations: Larry Rothe

Fifth Symphony

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Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

1901 - 1902

Mahler composed the Symphony No. 5 in 1901‑02 and led the first performance with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne on October 18, 1904, having conducted a read‑through with the Vienna Philharmonic earlier that year.

The score calls for four flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, bass drum with cymbals attached, snare drum, triangle, glockenspiel, tam-tam, slapstick, harp, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

In the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1899‑1901), a sunny exposition leads to a surprisingly shadowed development. Its explosive climax is quickly stifled, and, across the still unsettled muttering and ticking of a few instruments, a trumpet calls the orchestra to order with a quietly insistent fanfare. It is a variant of that fanfare that opens the Symphony No. 5. There is no obvious explanation for this link, but to contend that no explanation is needed will not do. The fanfare, though it comes so close to being a commonplace, is too arresting, and it is too critically placed in both symphonies. Let us speculate. In 1901, at the juncture of completing the Fourth Symphony and beginning the Fifth, Mahler was acutely conscious of taking a new path (as Beethoven had put it just a hundred years before). Perhaps, as he set out, he wanted to show that the seed for the new was to be found in the old.

In what sense is the Fifth Symphony new? After a run of eccentric symphonies, Mahler comes back to a more “normal” design, one that could be described as concentric as well as symmetrical. In the First Symphony, the orchestra plays long passages from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, and the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies actually include singing. While the Fifth also alludes to three of Mahler’s songs, it is essentially an instrumental conception. This movement toward the purely orchestral is tied to another change in Mahler’s work. Except for a few brief departures, Mahler for thirteen years had set only texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. But in July 1901, he composed his last Wunderhorn song and turned to the writings of Friedrich Rückert, setting six of his poems that month and next.

With that change of literary inspiration, a certain kind of “open” Wunderhorn lyricism disappears from Mahler’s symphonies. The music becomes leaner and harder. About this time Mahler acquired the complete edition of Bach and, at least partly in consequence of his excited discovery of what was in those volumes, his textures become more polyphonic. But this new “intensified polyphony,” as Bruno Walter called it, demanded a new orchestral style, and this did not come easily. Mahler was always a pragmatist in orchestration, tending to revise in response to his experience conducting his own works or hearing them under a trusted colleague like Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, but never did he find he had so thoroughly miscalculated a sound as in the first version of the Fifth, with its apparently deafening barrage of percussion. He made alterations until at least 1907 (his final version, which is what you hear at this concert, was published for the first time in 1964 by the International Gustav Mahler Society), and in 1911, looking back at the beginnings of a work that had proved refractory even with such good conductors as Leo Blech and Arthur Nikisch, Mahler wrote: “I cannot understand how I could have written so much like a beginner. . . . Clearly the routine I had acquired in the first four symphonies had deserted me altogether, as though a totally new message demanded a new technique.”

Mahler's wife, Alma, was ill and could not accompany him to Cologne for the premiere, and to that unhappy circumstance we owe one of the composer’s most remarkable and delightful letters, written just after the first rehearsal. Of the symphony he wrote: “Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?”

For the composer Ernst Krenek, the Fifth Symphony is the work with which Mahler enters “upon the territory of the ‘new’ music of the twentieth century.” And to return for a moment to Mahler’s report from Cologne: “Oh that I might give my symphony its first performance fifty years after my death! . . . Oh that I were a Cologne town councilor with a box at the Municipal Theater and at the Gürzenich Hall and could look down upon all modern music!”

Mahler casts the work in five movements, but some large Roman numerals in the score indicate a more basic division into three sections, consisting respectively of the first two, the third, and the last two movements. At the center stands the Scherzo, with which Mahler actually began his work on the symphony, and its place in the design is pleasingly ambiguous in that it is framed between larger structural units (Sections I and III) but is itself longer than any other single movement.

Mahler begins with funeral music. He starts here with the summons of the single trumpet. Most of the orchestra is drawn into this darkly sonorous exordium, whose purpose, we soon discover, is to prepare a lament sung by violins and cellos. At least that is how it is sung to begin with, but it is characteristic of Mahler’s scoring that colors and textures, weights and balances, degrees of light and shade shift from moment to moment. Something else that changes is the melody itself. Ask six friends who know this symphony to sing this dirge for you and you may well get six versions, no two of them identical but all of them correct. It is a wonderful play of perpetual variation.

The opening music comes back; indeed, it is almost as though the cellos’ insistent triplets will the return of the fanfare. Again these summons lead to the inspired threnody, unfolded this time at greater breadth and with more intense grieving. Yet again the trumpet recalls the symphony’s first bars, but this time, suddenly, with utmost violence and across a brutally simple accompaniment, violins fling forth a whipping downward scale and the trumpet is pushed to scream its anguish. Theodor W. Adorno with grim humor refers to this passage as “pogrom music.” An attempt to introduce a loftier strain is quickly swept aside in the turmoil. Gradually Mahler returns to the original slow tempo and to the cortege we have come to associate with it, and it is here that he alludes for a moment to one of the songs of that rich summer of 1901. It is the first of the Rückert Kindertotenlieder, and the line is the poet’s bitter greeting to the first sunrise after the death of his child, “Hail to the world’s joyous light!” When the whipping violin scale returns it is in the context of the slow tempo, and the movement disintegrates in ghostly reminders of the fanfare and a savagely final punctuation mark.

What we have heard so far is a slow movement with a fast interruption. There follows its inversion, a quick movement that returns several times to the tempo of the funeral march. These two parts of Section I actually share thematic material. Still more variants of the threnody appear, and the grieving commentary that accompanied the melody in the first movement comes more insistently into the foreground, to the point even of transforming itself for a moment into a march of unseemly jauntiness. Now trumpets and trombones intone a chorale, the symphony’s first extended music in a major key. But it is too soon for victory. The grand proclamation vanishes, and this movement, too, dematerializes in a passage of the most astounding orchestral fantasy.

As we reach the middle member of Mahler’s symphonic triptych, four horns in unison declare the opening of the Scherzo. The voice of a single horn detaches itself from that call, the beginning of a challenging assignment for the principal player. This is country music, by turns ebullient, nostalgic, and a mite parodistic. There is room even for awe as horns speak and echo across deep mountain gorges. It is exuberantly inventive too, its energies fed by the bold ingenuity of Mahler’s polyphony, and it is brilliantly set for the orchestra.

The diminutive in the title of the famous fourth movement refers to its brevity and is not meant as a qualification of its adagio‑ness; indeed, in the first three measures alone Mahler tells the conductor three times and in two languages that he wants it “very slow.” If any single movement can convey the essence of Mahler’s heartache, the Adagietto is it. The orchestra is reduced to strings with harp, and one could go on learning forever from the uncanny sense of detail with which Mahler moves those few strands of sound. If the harp part were lost and one had to reconstruct it, figuring out the right harmonies would be easy, but nobody could ever guess Mahler’s hesitating rhythm or his sensitive spacing of those chords.

The Adagietto is cousin to one of Mahler’s first Rückert songs, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—“I am Lost to the World.” It is not so much a matter of quotation or allusion as of drawing twice from the same well. Adagietto and song share characteristic features of contour, harmony, and texture, and our knowledge of the song, which ends with the lines “I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song,” confirms our sense of what Mahler wishes to tell us in this page of his symphony.

After the brightness of the Scherzo, Mahler sets the Adagietto in a darker key. Then, in a most delicately imagined passage, he finds his way back to the light. A single horn reintroduces the winds and takes us back to the territory of the horn‑dominated Scherzo, to music before the Adagietto brought time to a stop. As abruptly as he had moved from the tragedy of the first two movements into the joyous vitality of the Scherzo, Mahler now leaves behind the hesitations and cries of his Adagietto to dive into the radiant, abundant finale. It is, most of it, superb comedy, so vigorous that it can even include the melody of the Adagietto--in quick tempo--as one of its themes. The brass chorale from the second movement comes back, this time in its full extension, as a gesture of triumph and as a bridge across the symphony's great span. When all is done, though, no one is in the mood for an exalted close, and the symphony ends on a shout of laughter.

— Michael Steinberg

Songs on the Deaths of Children

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Songs on the Deaths of Children (Kindertotenlieder)


  • “And Now the Sun Will Rise as Bright” (Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n)
  • “Now I Understand” (Nun seh’ ich wohl)
  • “When Your Dear Mother Comes in at the Door” (Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein)
  • “I Often Think They Have Only Gone Out” (Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen)
  • “In this Weather, In this Torrent” (In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus)

Gustav Mahler composed his song cycle Kindertotenlieder over a span of several years, principally at his summer home at Maiernigg, on the Wörthersee in the Carinthian region of Austria. The first, third, and fourth songs of the cycle date from the summer of 1901, the second and fifth from the summer of 1904. Mahler conducted the first performance in Vienna on January 29, 1905, with baritone Friedrich Weidemann joining the Vienna Philharmonic.

The work is scored for vocal soloist (mezzo-soprano, contralto, or baritone) and an orchestra comprising two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, two harps, timpani, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Mahler was an expert on the deaths of children—not an uncommon qualification at a time when infant mortality in northern Europe stood at a rate of nearly 200 per 1,000 live births. Of his thirteen siblings, seven died in infancy (his one older brother, Isidor, had died before Gustav’s birth), and his favorite brother, Ernst, died in 1874 at thirteen. We do not know when Mahler first read Friedrich Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder, but he was ready for them—the more so because one of the two children whom the poet mourned was also called Ernst.

In 1901, when he composed what are now the first, second, and fifth of the Kindertotenlieder, Mahler had no children of his own; in fact he was not yet married and would not even meet his future wife, Alma Maria Schindler, until the end of that year. The death that had most pained him, that of his brother Ernst, was seventeen years in the past and thoroughly absorbed and internalized; Mahler already knew what he needed to know in order to compose his Kindertotenlieder. In 1904, when he decided to complete the cycle for the Viennese Composers’ Association’s Mahler evening, he was the father of two daughters, Maria, going on two, and Anna, just born on 15 June.

No one would give this much thought but for two facts: Maria died of diptheria in the summer of 1907 and Alma Mahler in her memoirs makes much of having been appalled that the father of two healthy children should write Kindertotenlieder. She had implored her husband not to tempt providence—not to paint the devil on the wall, as the Austrians and Germans say. Given her penchant for rearranging history, we cannot be sure what she really felt, thought, and said in that summer of 1904. Mahler himself, in the throes of completing the shattering finale of his one unambiguously tragic symphony, the Sixth, was unconcerned, utterly happy, and as much at peace as ever in his life.

After writing the Songs of a Wayfarer in 1884-85 to verses of his own, Mahler for years drew his song texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of folk verse collected, edited, and published at the beginning of the nineteenth century by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Then, in the summer of 1901, Mahler discovered—or more probably rediscovered—Friedrich Rückert and made songs on ten of his poems between then and 1904.

Schubert was the first composer to set Rückert, his fantasy being kindled to incandescence by the poems he found in a volume called Östliche Rosen and published in 1822. Rückert was of Schubert’s generation, having been born in 1788 in the Franconian city of Schweinfurt. In 1815 he went to Stuttgart as a newspaper editor, but most of his career was devoted to the study of Eastern languages and literatures, a subject in which he became professor, first at the University of Erlangen and later in Berlin. He was vastly prolific—“I never think without making poems,” he once said—and much of his work consists of virtuosic and fantastical translations from Sanskrit, Hebrew, Persian, Coptic, and Arabic. A less attractive side of his muse can be glimpsed in his bellicose, anti-French Katechismus für den deutsche Krieger and Wehrmann (Catechism for the German Soldier and Militiaman) of 1814. Rückert’s children Ernst and Luise died in 1836, but the 423 Kindertotenlieder which he wrote in response to this catastrophe for his wife and himself were published only in 1872, six years after his own death.

Mahler tended to tinker a lot with the poems he set, but except for some minor changes of word order, word and phrase repetitions of the sort one finds in most songs, and one interesting substitution of one word for another in the last song, he left these poems of Rückert’s alone. As always, he is a masterful “librettist,” making perfect choices to open and close his cycle (even before he knew what—or how much—would come between) and, as Donald Mitchell points out, choosing poems unified by imagery of light and dark.

Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n—The tempo and character direction is “Slow and melancholy [schwermütig, which carries implications of heartsick and depressed]; not dragging.” Hans Redlich remarks on the contrast between the extremely “noisy” symphonies the composer was working on (No. 5 begun in 1901, No. 6 completed in 1904, No. 7 begun that year) and the transparency and orchestral delicacy of these songs. Mahler begins with a spare two-part counterpoint for oboe and horn; his accompaniment for the first phrase of song—only bassoon and horn—is equally chaste. It is as though the orchestra were gradually assembling to join the singer’s lament. Wind instruments dominate at first, which makes the contributions of the strings the more telling. First, at “als sei kein Unglück,” we hear only violas and cellos, both muted, and the cellos above the violas; at “Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein!” second violins, also muted, join in, but below the violas and cellos; first violins, unmuted, “with great expression,” but pianissimo, enter at “musst sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken.”

Something most characteristic of Mahler is his expressive use of expressionlessness. Thus, the oboe’s opening phrase is marked “lamenting”; when, however, that phrase returns to introduce “Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein!” it begins “lamenting” but changes in midcourse to a numbed “expressionless.” When violas and cellos both sing to accompany “Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein!” the former are to play “expressively,” the latter “without expression.” The singer is directed to keep the voice “held in, restrained” (verhalten) at the beginning; “shaken” or “with powerful emotion” (mit Erschütterung) is saved until the penultimate phrase. Another orchestral detail of utmost importance: the glockenspiel, whose two-note interjections poignantly suggest funeral bells reduced to a child’s scale. They end this song.

Nun seh’ ich wohl—The tempo is “Calm, not dragging.” The music begins with a fervent phrase that anticipates the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony (and which Mahler thought of as a declaration of love to Alma). The orchestration is even more delicate than in the first song, with just one oboe and one horn. The timpani are heard in a single miraculous pianissimo roll when the meaning of those dark flames that had leapt from the children’s eyes—“Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen”—is understood by the mourning singer.

Mahler preferred that a man sing these songs, perhaps because the poems are written (naturally enough) from the father’s point of view, but perhaps because he found Weidemann in Vienna and Wüllner in New York to be more interesting, communicative singers than any mezzo-soprano or contralto then available to him. In other words, he might have had a musical reason for his preference. On the other hand, Mahler’s notation of the vocal line in treble clef suggests another possibility, as does the relationship of the delicately placed vocal and instrumental lines.

In the first song, it seems clear that Mahler imagined the first vocal entrance as continuing the oboe phrase at the same pitch, not an octave down. Similarly, he would surely have imagined the first cello entrance (“als sein kein Unghick”) with the cellos sounding at the same pitch as the voice and with the accompanying harp below the voice, conditions that are met only with a female singer. In the second song, the voice ideally continues the two introductory cello phrases at the same pitch, not an octave below, and the preparation of the vocal entrance is given extra urgency because of the way the flutes join the cellos in the final stage of their approach to the B-flat on which the voice will enter. And once the voice is there, the effect is better if the accompanying flute and clarinet are below rather than above. There is no clear right or wrong in this issue.

Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein—The marking is “heavy, dull” (the German dumpf also suggests “hollow” and “dead”). The gait is that of a heavy walk, though Mahler several times stretches the measures from two beats to three. In the very first measures we hear a new voice, that of the English horn. The orchestration is still further reduced: There is no percussion at all, and the violins remain silent. In the second song, Mahler used the harp in the traditional way to play broken chord accompaniment; here he uses it in a way particularly characteristic of his scoring, as a refined percussion instrument.

Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen—The third and fourth songs, like the first and second, are a cool/ warm pair. The tempo (“Quietly moving, but without hurrying”) is the fastest yet, and the music is full of mellifluous thirds and sixths. The text is all incredulity and denial. At the end of his life Mahler returned to this music, quoting the final phrase—“Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n!” (“The day is beautiful on those heights”)—in that almost motionless coda to the Ninth Symphony’s final Adagio. Deeply Mahlerian and poignant is the way the final vocal utterance seems to break off in mid-phrase, a touch of structural and expressive “disorder” that is the more telling after the comfortingly regular gestures with which the song began. The illusion cannot be sustained after all.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus—This, “with restless, pained expression,” is the storm music in Die Walküre brought home. Having written four songs in miraculously varied and sonorous pianissimo, Mahler now brings a newly dense texture, using all the instruments we have heard already as well as introducing piccolo, contrabassoon, a second pair of horns, celesta, and tamtam. This poem too hovers on the edge of the delusion that the children are alive. Mahler’s use of the celesta is characteristically original. It was a new instrument, having been invented in 1886 and having made a star debut in The Nutcracker six years later. Mahler’s own first encounter with it as a conductor came in 1903 when he led the Viennese premiere of Charpentier’s Louise. He was especially enchanted, not so much with the Sugar-Plum Fairy tinkle, but with the exquisite sound of the middle register and the veiled sweetness of its lowest octave. In the last of the Kindertotenlieder he saves it until the storms are past and the children are imagined safe: Then it enters, magically, to add a glowing, ever so slightly percussive edge to the flowing accompaniment in the second violins. It is there that Mahler makes his most striking verbal change. Rückert has the children resting “als wie in der Mutter Haus”—as though in their mother’s house. Mahler altered “Haus” to “Schoss,” which means both “womb” and “lap.” Kahnt, who published the songs in 1905, changed it back to “Haus.” It seems that Mahler used his manuscript score at his own performances, and presumably both Weidemann and Wüllner sang Mahler’s preferred (but unrhyming) “Schoss.”

In diesem Wetter is the biggest song in the cycle, and Theodor W. Adorno points out that its function is that of a big symphonic finale. We hear again the two-note figure of the glockenspiel, and the agitated D minor gives way at last to peaceful D major, the precise placement of this change having given Mahler as much trouble as anything in the whole cycle. The horn continues the singer’s song (in the contralto octave), and the cellos pick it up from the horn. In the last bars, the strings “disappear” in a touching reversal of their first entrance into the cycle. Only here does Mahler give us an expansive postlude modeled, Donald Mitchell persuasively suggests, on the wonderful postludes that complete Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und -leben. Thomas Mann, describing the orchestral postlude to Adrian Leverkühn’s imagined Lamentation of Doctor Faustus, speaks of the “speaking unspeakingness” (sprechende Unausgesprochenheit) that belongs uniquely to music. Here Mahler transcends his pretext and his text. The Kindertotenlieder have ceased to be Rückert’s and become his alone.

— Michael Steinberg


Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n

Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n
als sei kein Unglück, die Nacht gescheh’n!
Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein!
Die Sonne sie scheinet allgemein!
Du musst nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken,
musst sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt.

Nun seh’ ich wohl

Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
ihr sprühtet mir in manchem Augenblicke,
O Augen!
Gleichsam, um voll in einem Blicke
zu drängen eure ganze Macht zusammen.
Doch ahnt’ ich nicht, weil Nebel mich umschwammen,
gewoben vom verblendenden Geschicke,
dass sich der Strahl bereits zur Heimkehr schicke,
dorthin, von wannen alle Strahlen stammen.
Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen:
Wir möchten nah dir bleiben gerne!
Doch ist uns das vom Schicksal abgeschlagen.
Sieh’ uns nur an, denn bald sind wir dir ferne!
Was dir nur Augen sind in diesen Tagen:
in künft’gen Nächten sind es dir nur Sterne.

Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein

Wenn dein Mütterlein
tritt zur Tür herein,
und den Kopf ich drehe,
ihr entgegen sehe,
fällt auf ihr Gesicht
erst der Blick mir nicht,
sondern auf die Stelle,
näher nach der Schwelle,
dort, wo würde dein
lieb’ Gesichtchen sein,
wenn du freudenhelle
trätest mit herein,
wie sonst, mein Töchterlein.

Wenn dein Mütterlein
tritt zur Tür herein,
mit der Kerze Schimmer,
ist es mir, als immer
kämst du mit herein,
huschtest hinterdrein,
als wie sonst ins Zimmer!
O du, des Vaters Zelle,
ach, zu schnelle,
zu schnell erlosch’ner Freudenschein!

Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen

Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen!
Bald werden sie wieder nach Hause gelangen!
Der Tag ist schön! O, sei nicht bang!
Sie machen nur einen weiten Gang!
Jawohl, sie sind nur ausgegangen
und werden jetzt nach Hause gelangen!
O, sei nicht bang, der Tag ist schön!
Sie machen nur den Gang zu jenen Höh’n!
Sie sind uns nur vorausgegangen
und werden nicht wieder nach Haus verlangen!
Wir holen sie ein auf jenen Höh’n
im Sonnenschein! Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n!

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,
nie hätt’ ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus!
Man hat sie getragen, getragen hinaus!
Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
nie hätt’ ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
ich fürchtete, sie erkranken;
das sind nun eitle Gedanken.
In diesem Wetter, in Diesem Graus,
nie hätt’ ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus,
ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen;
das ist nun nicht zu besorgen.
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus,
nie hätt’ ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus,
man hat sie hinaus getragen,
ich durfte nichts dazu sagen!
In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus,
in diesem Braus,
sie ruh’n als wie in der Mutter Haus,
von Keinem Sturm erschrecket,
von Gottes Hand bedecket,
sie ruh’n, sie ruh’n wie in der Mutter Haus.


And Now the Sun Will Rise as Bright

And now the sun will rise as bright
as if no ill luck had befallen in the night.
The ill luck befell me alone,
and the sun shines all around.
You must not enclose the night within you;
you must drown it in eternal light.
A little lamp went out in my tent.
Hail to the gladdening light of the world!

Now I Understand

Now I understand why you sprayed such dark flames
at me in many a look,
O eyes!
As if you would compress
your whole force in one look.
I did not know then (for mists surrounded me,
woven by fate to dazzle me)
that the beam was already turning towards home,
there, there whence all beams spring.
You wanted to tell me with your rays:
“We long to stay near you,
but fate will not let us.
Look at us now, for soon we shall be far away from you.
These that are eyes today,
in nights to come will be stars.”

When Your Dear Mother Comes in at the Door

When your dear mother
comes in at the door,
and I turn my head
to look at her,
my gaze falls first
not on her face,
but on that spot,
closer to the threshold,
yes, there where
your dear little face
would be if you
were entering with her, bright and happy
as you were, my little daughter.

When your dear mother
comes in at the door,
with the candlelight
it always seems
that you come with her,
stealing into the room behind her,
as you used.
O you, glad light
of your father's cell
too quickly quenched!

I Often Think They Have Only Gone Out

I often think they have only gone out;
soon they will come home again.
It is a beautiful day; do not be anxious.
They have only gone for a long walk.
Yes, indeed, they have only gone out,
and they will be coming home now.
Do not be anxious; it is a beautiful day.
They have only gone for a walk to those heights up there.
They have only gone out ahead of us,
and do not want to come home again.
We will find them on those heights up there
in the sunshine. It is a beautiful day on those heights.

In this Weather, In this Torrent

In this weather, in this torrent,
I would never have sent the children out.
They were dragged out.
I was not allowed to say anything against it.
In this weather, in this awfulness,
I would never have let the children go out.
I was afraid it would make them ill,
but those were vain thoughts.
In this weather, in this awfulness,
I would never have let the children go out.
I was afraid they would die tomorrow,
but there is nothing to do about that now.
In this weather, in this awfulness,
I would never have sent the children out.
They were dragged out;
I was not allowed to say anything against it.
In this weather, in this storm,
in this torrent,
they are resting, as if they were at home with mother.
Frightened by no storms,
watched over by God's hand,
they are resting, as if at home with mother.

Poems by Friedrich Rückert, English translation by William Mann, © Angel Records, reprinted by permission of Angel Records.

Sixth Symphony

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Symphony No. 6 in A minor


  • I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo
  • II. Andante moderato
  • III. Scherzo: Wuchtig
  • IV. Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – allegro energico

Mahler composed the Symphony No. 6 during the summers of 1903 and 1904, completing the orchestration on May 1, 1905. He led the Vienna Philharmonic through a reading rehearsal in March 1906 and conducted the first public performance in Essen on May 27, 1906. He later revised the work in various ways; the present performances follow the score of the Critical Complete Edition of the International Mahler Society, Vienna, which claims to embody the composer’s final decisions.

The score calls for four flutes and three piccolos (two of the latter doubling third and fourth flutes), four oboes and three English horns (two of the latter doubling third and fourth oboes), high clarinets in D and E-flat, three clarinets in A and B-flat, bass clarinet, four bassoons and contrabassoon, eight horns, six trumpets, three tenor trombones and bass trombone, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum (doubled), cymbals, triangle, rattle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, cowbells, low-pitched bells, switch (a bundle of birch twigs, used to beat the shell of the bass drum), hammer, xylophone, two harps, celesta (doubled if possible), and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

When I describe what the catastrophe of modern man looks like, music comes into my mind—music of Gustav Mahler, the much abused.—Albert Camus

We often find it difficult to understand that artists do not necessarily produce “happy” works when they themselves are happy, or “sad” works when their lives are going badly. In the summers of 1903 and 1904, Mahler was as happy as ever in his life—and, though his gift for misery gets more attention, he had a great talent for happiness. In March 1902, only four months after meeting her, he had married the vivacious, gifted, and beautiful Alma Schindler; one daughter, Maria, was born in November of that year, and another, Anna, came along in June 1904. His music was getting more performances and even seemed at times to be meeting with more understanding. His work at the Imperial Opera in Vienna, where he had been Director since 1897, was going well, and he had just begun a wonderfully harmonious association with that prince of stage designers, Alfred Roller. During these sunny, energy-filled summers—and Mahler, as an immensely busy conductor and administrator, had to cram all his composing into the summer months—he wrote the darkest music of his life, the Sixth Symphony (which he himself may or may not have called the “Tragic,” though others certainly have) and the two final songs of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children).

Alma Mahler was understandably appalled by the obsession with the deaths of children on the part of a new father of two healthy daughters (Friedrich Rückert had written the Kindertotenlieder poems in response to the death of his own children), and when Maria died of diphtheria in the summer of 1907, Alma was sure that her husband had tempted providence by his composition of those songs. Mahler himself saw it differently. He was convinced that an artist has the power to intuit, even to experience, events before they occur, that in fact he cannot escape the pain of such foreknowledge. He imagined the finale of the Sixth Symphony as a scenario in which “the hero” is assaulted by “three hammer‑blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” The summer of 1907 brought him three such blows: Maria’s death, the discovery of his own severe heart disease, and the bitter end of his directorship of the Vienna Opera. Again, as Alma would have it, the Sixth Symphony is autobiography, written ahead of time.

Was Mahler writing about himself? Was he writing about the apocalypse of 1914? About Auschwitz and Babi Yar? Was he just writing a symphony? We know from Alma—and on matters like this she is dependable—that Mahler was emotionally more engaged, frighteningly so, by his work on this piece than by any other in his life; that after the dress rehearsal for the first performance he walked “up and down in the artists’ room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself”; that at the concert itself he was so afraid of losing control, so afraid of the demons he himself had unleashed in his music, that he conducted badly. The Sixth Symphony is a work imbued with a tragic vision. And, where Mahler’s other symphonies end in triumph or exaltation or joyous exuberance, in quiet bliss, or, at their darkest, in resignation and acceptance, and while even the Kindertotenlieder draw to their close with a vision of the children at rest “as though in their mother’s house, affrighted by no storm, protected by the hand of God,” the Sixth is unique in its tragic, minor-key conclusion.

In 1902, Mahler wrote to the critic Max Kalbeck, “Beginning with Beethoven, there is no modern music without its underlying program.—But no music is worth anything if first you have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it and what he is supposed to experience in it.—And so yet again: To hell with every program! You just have to bring along ears and a heart and —not least—willingly surrender to the rhapsodist. Some residue of mystery always remains, even for the creator.”

Writing around the same time to the conductor Josef Krug-Waldsee about the recently introduced Third Symphony, Mahler elaborated: “Those titles [appended to each movement] were an attempt on my part to provide non-musicians with something to hold on to, and with signposts pointing toward the intellectual, or better, the expressive content of the single movements and to their relationships to each other and to the whole. That it didn’t work (as in fact it never could) and that it led only to misinterpretations of the most horrendous sort became painfully clear all too quickly. It’s the same disaster that had overtaken me on previous and similar occasions, and now I have once and for all given up commenting, analysing, and all such expediences of whatever sort.”

Yes, but—no, but.... Mahler’s ambivalence toward this problem—what is behind his symphonies, how much of that he wanted his listeners to know—never went away. Concerning his First Symphony, he wrote: “I should like to stress that [it] goes far beyond the love story on which it is based, or rather, which preceded it in the life of its creator.” In that spirit, having suggested that the Sixth Symphony carries heavy emotional freight and that it has persistently shown power to provoke intense emotional reactions in its listeners, let us now move on to the work itself.

When the first bad (in both senses) reviews of the Sixth Symphony appeared, Mahler remarked: “All of a sudden they like my Fifth. I suppose we’ll have to wait till the Seventh for the Sixth to turn out to be any good.” And to Richard Specht, his first biographer, he wrote: “My Sixth will propound riddles whose solution can be attempted only by a generation that has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.” It was an accurate prediction.

Mahler begins with a grim march. We feel the tramp before we hear the band, but it takes only five measures of fierce crescendo before the music is hugely present. Bruno Walter drew attention to the breadth of Mahler’s first themes, and here is a striking example. This powerful paragraph ends in a decrescendo as abrupt as the crescendo that introduced it, one managed, however, by the withdrawal of instruments rather than by a reduction in dynamics. Though brusque, these are formal measures of preparation, and their very detachment sets off all the more effectively the cold horror of what they prepare for.

It is a simple gesture. Over a diminishing snare drum roll, two timpanists beat a left...left...left-right-left march cadence. Over that, three trumpeters sound a chord of A major. They too make a diminuendo, and halfway down, the chord changes from major to minor (as the trumpets get softer, three oboes, playing the same notes, make a crescendo). That is all. “Fate” or “tragedy”—no words say it as surely as the music. Chillingly, the symphony continues as though this had never happened, with a quiet, chorale-like passage for woodwinds.

Upon those few measures there follows a complete swing-about in mood as violins, seconded in patches by woodwinds, sing a fervent melody. Alma tells us this is intended to represent her. The Italian scholar Quirino Principe has made an interesting discovery about this “Alma” theme. In 1883, Mahler was for a brief time the conductor at Olmütz (Olomouc) in Moravia. His predecessor was Emil Kaiser, who wrote an opera called Der Trompeter von Säckingen, after a poem by Joseph Viktor von Scheffel, a work on which Mahler also wrote music for a series of tableaux vivants. Principe has found uncanny similarity between an aria for the hero in Kaiser’s Trompeter and Mahler’s “Alma” theme. The words of the aria: “God keep you, it would have been too lovely;/God keep you, it was not meant to be.” Let who will interpret that!

Interrupted briefly by grotesquely staccato march music, “Alma,” in tender decrescendo, brings the exposition to a close. For a long time, the marchers dominate the development. Then Mahler withdraws to mountain heights. Celesta and divided violins play mysterious chord sequences, beautifully blurred by the sound of distant cowbells. “The last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks,” Mahler said. Some fragments of melody drift aloft, but the major-minor “fate” sequence, though strongly intoned by muted horns and trombones, scarcely penetrates our awareness.

The awakening from this vision is sudden and unkind—more march music, but aggressively cheerful and in major. Even the opening theme is recapitulated in major, but not for long. The recapitulation is regular, though powerfully and interestingly compressed. “Alma” reappears in due course, and in fact the movement ends with “herself” in a gesture of unbridled triumph.

Even during rehearsals for the first performance of this symphony, the composer had difficulty making up his mind about the order of the two middle movements. This was a major issue in the revisions that followed the first performance and the first printing that year. Erwin Ratz, editor of the revised score published in 1963 in the Critical Complete Edition, decided in favor of placing the Scherzo second, and most conductors in the last twenty-five years have followed this order. I shall return to the question in a moment.

Sharing motivic material with the first movement, the Scherzo too begins with stabbing detached low A’s, and it is in A minor. But where in the first movement those low A’s provided a grimly regular one-two-three-four framework, here rhythmic dissension reigns from the beginning. What you notice first is the similarity to the first movement—the A’s and the forceful presence of a melodic shape that goes A-C-A. This, however, is a grotesque variant of the earlier music, sardonic commentary filled with mirthless laughter.

The trio, which comes around twice, first in F major, then in D, is of an extreme metrical irregularity and in that sense one of Mahler’s most forward-looking pages. Alma Mahler heard in it “the arrhythmical play of little children.” Her reading of the coda is that “the childish voices become more and more tragic, finally to die out in a whimper.”

After this music of disintegration and suppressed violence, the Andante is balm. Even the key itself, E-flat major, is warmly mellow after the sharper harmonic areas explored thus far. The inspired melody is a marvel of subtle phrasing, magically scored, with dabs of wind color finely setting this or that point on the melodic curve into higher relief. Upon its return later in the movement, Mahler, as well as adding a softly soaring countermelody for muted violins, has the line trace a path from oboe to bassoon to horn and on, the changing colors delicately overlapped. Here is music full of Mahlerian major-minor ambiguities. The movement as a whole is of surprising harmonic sweep, its climax placed in faraway, luminous E major, and for that arrival Mahler brings back the mysterious sound of the cowbells.

Mahler’s final intentions concerning the order of these two middle movements are not entirely clear. The autograph puts the Scherzo before the Andante, as does the first printing, which preceded the first performance. For that performance, however, as well as for the second edition, Mahler reversed this order. One reads consistently that he eventually wished the original order restored, and Ratz in his brief editorial report for the Critical Edition simply states this as a fact, but there is no hard and direct evidence for it. Musically, the case for having the Scherzo precede the Andante is strong and threefold. One: The Scherzo’s impact as a kind of parody of the first movement is greater if it follows that movement immediately. Two: The respite provided by the Andante is more telling when it is offered after the double impact of the first and second movements and just before the emotionally taxing finale. Three: The key relationships (whose impact we all feel even if we cannot put a name to it) are more effective.

With this we come to the Finale. This last movement is not much longer than the first; but, longer than the second and third movements together, it feels big—and it is meant to. The feeling of “big” that this finale conveys has more to do with psychological than with “real” time, and psychological time here is a matter of weight and density. The Finale of the Sixth Symphony surpasses the earlier movements in richness of musical event and in the oppressiveness of the emotional substance it lays upon the listener.

From the thud of a low C there arises an encompassing swirl of strangely luminous dust—harp glissandos, a woodwind chord, chains of trills on muted strings. It is terrifying because it is alien, and it is alien because with one exception, everything in the symphony thus far has been lucidly and sharply defined. The exception is the unearthly episode with the cowbells in the first movement. That was a beatific moment; this is its inverse, music of enveloping terror. The first violins detach themselves from this nebula to declaim a wide-ranging phrase of impassioned recitative, which, in its descent, collides with a specter we have not met in some time—the major chord that turns to minor (trumpets and trombones together this time) and the drummers with their fierce marching cadence. And as this recedes, the low strings come slowly to rest on a low A.

These sixteen measures, not much more than half a minute of music, also define the Finale’s harmonic task. The primacy of the symphony’s central key, A minor, must be re-established. Mahler’s finale is a design not only of great breadth, but of astonishing originality. Its formal point of reference is the familiar sonata plan of introduction, the exposition of material, its development, its restatement or recapitulation, and coda. This is, however, realized in a totally original way. The introduction, itself a complex sequence of events of which the nebula-plus-“fate”-chord is but the first, reappears, always varied, its components redistributed, at each major juncture of the movement—before the development, before the recapitulation, and to introduce the coda. Part of the exposition is recapitulated before the development, and the main recapitulation itself is, so to speak, out of its proper order.

Let me describe the piece in another way. From the introduction, the music gradually breaks through once again to the world of marches. The hero goes forth to conquer, but in the full flood of confidence and exaltation a hammer-blow strikes him down. This is literally a hammer-blow, for which Mahler wants the effect of a “short, powerful, heavy-sounding blow of non-metallic quality, like the stroke of an ax,” or, as the conductor Frederik Prausnitz has put it, like, “presumably, a blow to one’s own helmeted head.” (The realization of this effect caused Mahler no end of difficulty, as it has most conductors and percussionists since.) The music gathers energy, the forward march becomes even more determined, even frenzied in its thrust, only to be halted again by a second hammer-blow.

In Mahler’s original conception, a third hammer-blow coincided with the A major “fate” chord at the last appearance of the introductory dust-storm, but he eliminated it in his revision and probably did not restore it. The irrepressibility of that monstrous introduction is enough. On its last appearance, this begins in A minor, and the “fate” chord is the last A major that we hear. Over a long drum roll that relentlessly glues the music to A minor, trombones and tuba stammer fragments of funeral music. The symphony comes to a halt, recedes into inaudibility. The final, brutal tragic gesture is a sudden blast of A minor—not even the false hope of an A major beginning this time—and, behind it, the drummers’ last grim tattoo.

Seventh Symphony

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Symphony No. 7 in E minor


  • I. Langsam – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo
  • II. Nachtmusik (I): Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante)
  • III. Scherzo: Schattenhaft. Fließend aber nicht zu schnell (Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast)
  • IV. Nachtmusik (II): Andante amoroso
  • V. Rondo-Finale

Mahler composed the Symphony No. 7 during the summers of 1904 and 1905. On August 15, 1905, the day he came to the last page of the draft full score of the first movement, showing off his Latin to his friend Guido Adler, Professor of Musicology at the University of Vienna, he wrote “Septima mea finita est.” “Finita” to him meant essentially finished; in other words, at this point, having concluded his labors by bringing the first movement to its close, he had the whole score under control and in a condition where he could work out the details in whatever moments the winter season allowed him. He conducted the first performance on September 19, 1908, in Prague.

The score calls for four flutes and two piccolos (doubling second and third flutes), three oboes and English horn, high clarinet in E-Flat, four clarinets in A and B-flat, bass clarinet in A and B-flat, three bassoons and contrabassoon, tenor horn, four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, tambourine, cowbells, low-pitched bells, two harps, mandolin, guitar, and strings. Mahler made a number of revisions both before and after the first performance, and even the best available editions—Erwin Ratz’s for the International Gustav Mahler Society (1959) and Hans Ferdinand Redlich’s for Eulenburg (1960)—have not solved all the problems posed by the tangle of available sources.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

“Three night pieces; the finale, bright day. As foundation for the whole, the first movement.”

Mahler to the Swiss critic William Ritter

Mahler began the Seventh Symphony in the middle. As a glance at the program page and Mahler’s own summary for William Ritter tell us, the structure is symmetrical. The first and last movements—both on a large scale—flank three character pieces, which are themselves symmetrical in that the first and third are each called Nachtmusik.

It was with these two night musics that Mahler began this score in the summer of 1904. But with summer’s end, a typically busy year began for Mahler, whose work as Europe’s most famous conductor occupied him throughout the concert season. In June 1905, Mahler headed back to his summer residence at Maiernigg, on the Wörther See, to continue work on his Seventh Symphony. He could not find the way into the composition. He took off for the Dolomites, hoping to release his creative energies, but nothing happened. Profoundly depressed, he returned. He stepped from the train and was rowed across the lake. With the first dipping of the oars into the water, he recalled later, “the theme of the introduction (or rather, its rhythm, its atmosphere) came to me.”

From that moment forward he worked like a man possessed, as indeed he must have been to bring this gigantic structure under control, even if not finished in detail, by mid‑August. His Latin message to Guido Adler was jubilant. Englished, it reads: “My Seventh is finished. I believe this work to be auspiciously begun and happily concluded. Many greetings to you and yours, also from my wife. G.M.” Thinking about the first performance, Mahler considered the New York Symphony, which he would be conducting in the 1907‑08 season, but soon realized that this would be madness in a city and a country that knew so little of his music. A festival in Prague to celebrate the sixtieth year on the throne of the Emperor Franz Joseph provided a more suitable occasion. Prague offered a less than first‑rate orchestra; on the other hand, Mahler had ample rehearsal time, and the worshipful young conductors—among them Artur Bodanzky, Otto Klemperer, and Bruno Walter—who attended the preparations recounted how, refusing all help, he used every night to make revisions on the basis of that day’s experience. He was always the most pragmatic of composer‑conductors.

The Nachtmusiken and the Scherzo made their effect at once; the first and last movements were harder nuts to crack. That has not changed substantially with the years, and in the days when conductors sometimes programmed isolated movements of Mahler symphonies as a form of bait, the two Nachtmusiken often served that purpose and served it well. In Prague the reception was more respectful than enthusiastic. Mahler himself conducted the Seventh only once more, in Munich, a few weeks after the concert at Prague. It is still the least known of his symphonies.

The Seventh is a victory symphony, not a personal narrative but a journey from night to day (it is sometimes called Song of the Night). The focus is on nature. If the Seventh is a Romantic symphony, one should add that the “distancing” effect produced by the outward‑pointing, non‑narrative character of the music can also be perceived as Classical.

The opening is music in which we may hear not only the stroke of oars, but the suggestion of cortege. Here Mahler carries us from a slow introduction into the main body of a sonata‑allegro movement, adhering to the design that afforded symphonists from Haydn through Bruckner a broad range of expressive possibilities. Settling into a new key, he brings in a gorgeous theme, a highly inflected violin melody full of yearning and verve, rising to a tremendous climax, to merge into the music of the second of the three marches we have heard. More such merges lie ahead. At the focal point of the development comes what must be the most enchanted minute in all Mahler, a transformation of the second march from focused to veiled, and an ecstatic vision of the glorious lyric theme. A sudden plunge of violins returns us, shockingly, to the slow introduction. The recapitulation has begun. It is tautly compressed. The coda is fierce and abrupt.

The opening of the first of the Nachtmusiken is a minute of preparation and search. A tremendous skid downwards through five and-a-half octaves calls the proceedings to order. This artfully stylized version of an orchestra warming up turns into a tidy presentation of the theme that has been adumbrated. The theme itself is part march, part song, given a piquant flavor by that mix of major and minor we find so often in Mahler’s music. In later years, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg said that in this movement Mahler had been inspired by Rembrandt’s so‑called Night Watch, but the composer Alphons Diepenbrock, also one of Mahler’s Amsterdam friends, both clarified and subtilized the issue: “It is not true that [Mahler] wanted actually to depict The Night Watch. He cited the painting only as a point of comparison. [This movement] is a walk at night, and he said himself that he thought of it as a patrol. Beyond that he said something different every time. What is certain is that it is a march, full of fantastic chiaroscuro—hence the Rembrandt parallel.”

The initial march theme is succeeded by a broadly swinging cello tune. Like many such themes by Mahler, this one, heard casually, seems utterly naïve; closely attended to, it proves to be full of asymmetries and surprises of every kind. Watch for the return of this tune, even more lusciously scored and with a new counter-theme in the woodwind. Distant cowbells become part of the texture, suggesting the Sixth Symphony, in which they play such a prominent part. Suddenly that great tragedy‑in‑music intrudes even more as a fortissimo trumpet chord of C major droops into minor. This sound of major falling into minor is the expressive and sonorous signature of the Sixth. The string figurations collapse, there is a stroke of cymbals and tam-tam, and then nothing is left but a cello harmonic and a ping on the harp.

Mahler’s direction for the next movement, the Scherzo, is “schattenhaft,” literally “like a shadow” but perhaps better rendered as “spectral.” Drums and low strings disagree about what the opening note should be. Notes scurry about, cobwebs brush the face, witches step out in a ghostly parody of a waltz. The Trio is consoling—almost. The Scherzo returns, finally to unravel and disintegrate.

The first Nachtmusik was a nocturnal patrol, the second is a serenade that Mahler marks Andante amoroso. William Ritter, nearly alone in his time in his understanding of Mahler, gives a wonderful description of the way the second Nachtmusik begins: “Heavy with passion, the violin solo falls, like a turtledove aswoon with tenderness, down onto the chords of the harp. For a moment one hears only heartbeats. It is a serenade, voluptuously soft, moist with languor and reverie, pearly with the dew of silvery tears falling drop by drop from guitar and mandolin.” Those instruments, together with the harp, create a magical atmosphere.

After these four so differentiated night scenes comes the brightness of day, with a thunderous tattoo of drums to waken us. Mahler heads the movement “Rondo Finale,” which sounds like Haydn and is another classical touch. Horns and bassoon are the first instruments to be roused, and they lead the orchestra in a spirited fanfare whose trills put it on the edge of parody. Mahler’s humor gave trouble to many of his first listeners. Sometimes he maneuvers so near the edge of parody or of irony that, unless you know his language and his temperament, it is possible to misunderstand him completely, for example to mistake humor for ineptness. Few listeners here will fail to be reminded of Die Meistersinger.

But what is that about? Again, Ritter understood right away, pointing out that Mahler never quotes Wagner but “re‑begins” the Overture to take it far beyond. The triumphant C major finale is itself a kind of cliché stemming from the Beethoven Fifth and transmitted by way of the Brahms First and, much more significantly for this context, Die Meistersinger. Mahler uses Die Meistersinger as a symbol for a good‑humored victory finale. Other Meistersinger references occur, for instance the chorale to which the prize song is baptized, and even the deceptive cadence to which Wagner frequently resorts to keep the music flowing.

This finale is a wild and wonderful movement. The Meistersinger idea turns out to be a whole boxful of ideas that, to an adroitly and wittily inventive builder like Mahler, suggest endless possibilities for combining and recombining, shuffling and reshuffling. To the city square music of Mahlerized Meistersinger he adds stomping country music. No part of the harmonic map is untouched, while the rhythms sway in untamed abandon.

Then we hear music we have not heard for a long time —the fiery march from the first movement. Or rather, we hear a series of attempts to inject it into the proceedings. Just as we think the attempt has been abandoned, the drums stir everything up again, and finally the theme enters in glory.

—Michael Steinberg

Eighth Symphony

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Symphony No. 8 in E-flat major


  • Part 1: Veni creator spiritus
  • Part 1: Veni creator spiritus (cont.)
  • Part 2: Closing scene from Goethe’s Faust

Mahler sketched the Symphony No. 8 between June 21 and August 18, 1906, and completed the score the following summer. He conducted the first performance in Munich on September 12, 1910, with a specially assembled orchestra, the Riedelverein of Leipzig, the Vienna Singverein, the Munich Central School Children's Chorus, and soloists Gertrud Förstel, Marta Winternitz-Dorda, Irma Koboth, Ottilie Metzger, Tilly Koenen, Felix Senius, Nicola Geisse-Winkel, and Richard Mayr. The dedication is to “meiner lieben Frau, Alma Maria.”

The score calls for an orchestra of five flutes (fifth doubling piccolo), four oboes and English horn, three clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, four bassoons and contrabassoon, eight horns, four trumpets, four trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, tubular bells, celesta, piano, harmonium, organ, two harps, mandolin, and strings. There is, in addition, a group of four trumpets and three trombones, separately stationed. Vocal forces comprise two mixed choruses, boys’ chorus, girls’ chorus, three sopranos (Magna Peccatrix, Una Poenitentium, Mater Gloriosa), two mezzo-sopranos (Mulier Samaritana, Maria Aegyptiaca), tenor (Doctor Marianus), baritone (Pater Ecstaticus), and bass (Pater Profundus).

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Goethe’s subject in Act III of the Second Part of Faust is the union, symbolic and physical, of his tragic hero and Helen of Troy. The association of the two figures is not in itself new. Simon Magus, the first-century sorcerer whose misdeed, as recorded in Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles, has given us the word “simony,” is said to have called himself Faustus—in modern Italian he would be Fortunato and in modern American English Lucky—and he traveled and worked with a former prostitute to whom, for a bit of class, he gave the name of Helena. His sixteenth-century successor, who had probably read about Simon in a new edition of a book then 1,200 years old and titled Recognitiones, for professional purposes styled himself Faustus Junior and later simply Doctor Johannes Faust, and he too—“for the sake of order and propriety,” as Thomas Mann puts it—acquired a companion called Helena. The conjuring up of the legendary beauty, daughter of Leda and Zeus, came to be one of the standard entertainments in dramatic representations of the Faust stories. In Christopher Marlowe’s famous Tragicall History of D. Faustus (1604), Helen takes on greater significance in that it is for her sake that Faust is willing to reject salvation: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.” Nowhere, however, is the bringing together of Faust and Helen drawn so boldly as in what Goethe himself called his “Classical-Romantic phantasmagoria,” nor so freighted with meaning and suggestion. In their meeting the poet seeks to portray ideal love, to suggest the fusion of Germanic and Greek civilization, and to resolve “the vehement opposition of Classicists and Romantics.” And, as Johann Peter Eckermann, the Boswell of Goethe’s later years, pointed out, “Half the history of the world lies behind it.”

Joining Faust to Veni, creator spiritus—linking the complexities of Goethe’s humanism to the orthodoxy, the unquestioning faith of an eighth-century Christian hymn—Mahler sought to create a similarly encompassing work in his Eighth Symphony. In the Anglo-American tradition, we have no cultural totem quite like Faust, no one work so known, so quoted, so lived with and possessed, as Faust was by cultured Germans during the nineteenth century and at least the first third of the twentieth. The King James Version of the Bible is the nearest thing. Mahler’s own closeness to Faust was remarkable. A Viennese lady, whose occasional houseguest Mahler was, reported that he was not really so difficult. She provided apples at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and put Bielschowsky’s Goethe biography in her guest room, one volume in her country villa and one in her city apartment, and “he was in heaven. Goethe and apples are two things he cannot live without.”

Faust is a recklessly inclusive masterwork whose content is expressed in an astounding variety of styles, verse-forms, textures, quotations, allusions, parodies, and in tones sublime and scurrilous. Mahler, one imagines, must often have looked to it for permission for his own unprecedentedly global symphonies.

It was not, however, with Faust that the Eighth Symphony began. In June 1906, when Mahler arrived at Maiernigg on Lake Wörth in Southern Austria, where he had bought a plot of land, he had no ideas for a new composition. Then, on the first day he went to his studio, the Spiritus creator suddenly took hold of him and drove him on for the next eight weeks until the greatest part of his work was done.

He was quick to perceive that Veni, creator spiritus was but a beginning, that he dared tackle that Holy of Holies in German literature, the final scene of Faust, and that the bridge between the texts was to be found in the third stanza of the hymn: “Accende lumen sensibus,/Infunde amorem cordibus!” (“Kindle our Reason with Light./Infuse our hearts with Love.”)

He completed the score with astonishing speed. As usual, however, he was in no hurry about the first performance. He had much else on his mind—in the tumultuous year of 1907 his resignation as Artistic Director of the Vienna Court Opera, his decision to go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the death from a combined onslaught of diphtheria and scarlet fever of his four-year-old daughter Maria, and unsettling news about his own health; in 1908 a heavy schedule in New York at both ends of the year, the premiere of the Symphony No. 7, and the composition of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth); in 1909 the start of a three-year contract with the badly dilapidated New York Philharmonic and work on the Ninth Symphony.

Not until 1910 was the Eighth Symphony heard. Mahler conducted the first performance in Munich on September 12 that year. In addition to his vocal soloists, he led a specially assembled orchestra and three choruses. This concert was his one experience of being completely accepted as a composer. (The impresario Emil Gutmann coined the name Symphony of a Thousand as part of his marketing pitch, and there was truth in his advertising: The performance involved 858 singers and an orchestra of 171, which, if you add Mahler himself, comes to 1,030 persons.)

Tradition ascribes Veni, creator spiritus to Rabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz from 847 until his death in 856, but modern scholarship will not have it so. The hymn, which probably dates from just before Maurus’s time, is part of the liturgy for Pentecost, the festival that commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples (Acts 2). It is also sung at grand celebrations such as the elevation of a saint or the coronation of a pope.

The Faust chapbook of 1587, which is the literary source for the whole legend and which appeared in English in 1592 as The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, is an entertainment and a cautionary tale. For Goethe, the career of the old humbug was not just a tale to tell; it was a story upon which to hang an entire Weltanschauung. This became gradually clear to him as he worked on Faust, and that was a long time. He first harbored plans in the 1760s when he was an undergraduate, and he sealed up the manuscript—“ended, but not completed because uncompletable,” says Mann—on his eighty-second birthday, August 28, 1831, “lest I be tempted to carry this work further.” Being in fact tempted, he opened the packet in January 1832 and tinkered with details until the 24th of that month, eight weeks before his death.

Goethe’s most radical change in telling the story is that he makes it end not in death and damnation, but in Faust’s salvation. The Faustian quest is not arrogance but aspiration. The moment of salvation is the subject of the final scene and of the mighty close of Mahler’s symphony.

The story of Faust I, of the pact with the Devil and the Gretchen tragedy, need not be retold here. Faust II is a fresh start from another perspective. Faust has been made oblivious of his past. In successively higher stages of questing, Faust at last challenges nature itself as he takes on a gigantic project of land reclamation. One hundred years old, he receives the visitation of four gray women, Want, Distress, Guilt, and Care. As Care leaves, she strikes him blind. His pact with Mephistopheles demands that if ever he entreats “the swift moment . . . /Tarry a while! you are so fair!” his life is over and his soul forfeit. In his blindness, he takes the sound of his own grave being dug as the sound of his construction plans going forward. Enraptured by the vision of the life to arise on land newly claimed from the elements, he cries, “I might entreat the fleeting minute:/O tarry yet, thou art so fair!” He dies, but now heavenly hosts wrest his soul from the forces of hell. And with that, Goethe’s—and Mahler’s—finale can begin. To say that Goethe composed this finale as though writing a libretto for an opera or oratorio is not simply a matter of justifying Mahler. The musical libretto is one among many poetic styles touched in Faust; besides, we know that Goethe always hoped that at least parts of the tragedy would be set to music. The ideal composer, he said, would have been Mozart working “in the manner of Don Giovanni.”

The scene is set in mountain gorges inhabited by hermits who are named, in ascending order of divine knowledge, Pater Ecstaticus, Pater Profundus, Pater Seraphicus, and Doctor Marianus. Moving among these anchorites is a group of children who died immediately after birth. Angels come bearing Faust’s immortal essence.

Hailed by Doctor Marianus, the Virgin appears in glory. (This is the counterpart of Gretchen's scene with the statue of the Mater Dolorosa in Faust I.) Three penitent women—the sinner who bathed Christ’s feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee; the Samaritan woman who gave Christ water at Jacob’s well and to whom he first revealed that he was the Messiah; and Mary of Egypt, who repented a life of sin after an invisible hand had kept her from entering the temple and who, at her death after forty years in the desert, wrote a message in the sand asking to be buried there—intercede with the Virgin on behalf of Gretchen. One more penitent, “once called Gretchen,” speaks thanks to the Mater Gloriosa for having heeded her prayers on behalf of “my love of old.” With Gretchen’s reappearance, the immense circle of the poem is closed. The Mater Gloriosa grants to Gretchen that she may lead Faust “to higher spheres.” In eight celebrated and densely beautiful lines, a mystic chorus speaks of heaven as the place where parable becomes reality, where earthly imperfection is made perfect, where the indescribable is achieved.

Mahler specifies an “impetuous” allegro as he hurls the first words of the Veni, creator spiritus at us. The tempo is quick, and the musical events create a sense of urgency. With “Imple superna gratia,” solo voices emerge. “Infirma,” the plea for strength, is dark, with commentary from a solo violin. After an orchestral interlude in which Mahler’s harmonies are at their most adventurous, “Infirma” returns with stern power. Now we come to what Mahler regarded as “the cardinal point of the text” and the bridge to Faust, the “Accende lumen sensibus.” His first introduction of that line by the soloists is quiet, the word order reversed—“Lumen accende sensibus.” The great outburst with all voices in unison coincides with the first presentation of the line in its proper order. The change there of texture, tempo, and harmony makes this the symphony’s most dramatic stroke, and the effect is heightened by the breath-stopping comma that breaks the word accende in two. The points of the hymn are vividly differentiated, the rich detail subordinated to the thrust of the movement as a whole.

Reflecting the difference between Goethe’s discursive and theatrical rhapsodies and the concentrated plainness of the medieval hymn, Part II of Mahler’s symphony is as expansive as Part I was ferociously compressed. (Veni, creator spiritus is between a quarter and a third of the symphony.) Mahler begins with a miraculous piece of landscape painting, a broadly drawn prelude, hushed and slow, whose elements are recapitulated and expanded in the first utterances of the anchorites and angels. Goethe’s spiritual-operatic spectacle draws lively musical response from Mahler. Part of what drew him into the Roman church in 1897 was his attraction to the aesthetics of ceremony.

In some ways this movement is like a song cycle, as Pater Ecstaticus, Pater Profundus, the angel choirs, Doctor Marianus, and the three penitent women bring us their reflections and prayers, each articulated with marvelous individuality—the urgent pleas of the two patres (the one sweetly ardent, the other almost tormented in his passion), the mellifluous song of the Younger Angels, the ecstatic viola and violin rhapsodies that are hung like garlands about the words of the More Perfect Angels, the radiant Doctor Marianus, the all but whispered recollections of the penitent women, the ecstatic vocal line spun by Una Poenitentium as she prays to the Virgin for the salvation of the lover who betrayed her. At the same time, and again parallel to this part of Goethe’s composition, much of Mahler’s music is recapitulation, even hearkening back to parts of the first movement. This symphony, like Faust itself, is something to be lived with for a long time so that the richly intricate network of references and allusions might take on clarity.

The final summons of Doctor Marianus to look up to the Virgin’s redeeming visage—“Blicket auf!”—rises to a rapt climax. This is the beginning of the finale within the finale. Then, after long moments of suspense, the Chorus mysticus intones the poet’s reflections on now and later, here and beyond, image and reality. But, as he does in his Resurrection Symphony, Mahler gives over the power to music without words. Brass instruments, organ, drums, plucked strings, bells, all invoke the symphony’s opening phrase—“Veni, creator spiritus”—but now its dissonances are dissolved in concord. We are home.

—Michael Steinberg