Time & Place: Mahler's Iglau

Mahler's Origins: A "Sonic Goulash"

Explore the soundscape that echoed in Mahler’s music throughout his life. Stroll around Iglau and listen to the kaleidoscope of sounds the young Mahler heard. Then listen to the way they took symphonic form in the very first bars of his first symphony.




Mahler's Iglau

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Mahler's birth home
Gustav Mahler was born in Kaliste, Moravia, now the Czech Republic, on 7 July 1860, to parents Bernard and Marie Mahler. Later that year the family moved to Iglau (now Jihlava).
A Budding Musician

Mahler's Iglau

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A Budding Musician

Young Mahler
For his third birthday Gustav received an accordion and quickly learned to play tunes by ear. Shortly thereafter he discovered his grandparents’ piano. He began music lessons in 1865; composed his first piece in 1866; and gave his first public piano performance in October 1870 at a local theater.
Childhood Home

Mahler's Iglau

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Childhood Home

Tavern musicians
The Mahler family lived above their tavern, a gathering place for soldiers stationed in the town as well as for locals. A great variety of ethnic musical traditions blended throughout the evenings.
  • What Mahler Heard A Tavern Song
  • What Mahler Wrote First Symphony, second movement

Mahler's Iglau

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Iglau countryside
The young Gustav loved to ramble in the ravine just outside the town walls. His father often found him there in rapt attention to the sounds around him.
  • What Mahler Heard Sounds of Nature
  • What Mahler Wrote First Symphony, first movement
Fanfares and Funerals

Mahler's Iglau

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Fanfares and Funerals

Soldiers in Iglau
The Mahler family lived just a half block from the Parade Ground, where the boy Gustav could hear the sounds of military bands from regiments throughout the Empire playing a full range of repertoire: fanfares, quick marches, and more solemn funeral marches.
  • What Mahler Heard A Local March
  • What Mahler Wrote First Symphony, fourth movement
Religious Heritage

Mahler's Iglau

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Religious Heritage

Iglau synagogue
The Mahlers were an observant Jewish family during a period of rapid change for the Jewish population in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1860, Emperor Francis Joseph I issued a decree permitting Jews to own property. The town soon boasted a Jewish religious association, a synagogue, and a Jewish cemetery.
  • What Mahler Heard The Kaddish
  • What Mahler Wrote Lines from "I Have a Burning Knife" from Songs of a Wayfarer
Love and Loss

Mahler's Iglau

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Love and Loss

Jewish cemetery in Iglau
Mahler's childhood was marked by many losses. Six siblings died, including his younger brother Ernst. Later, his wife Alma wrote: “He loved his brother... and suffered with him all through his illness up to the end. For months he scarcely left his bedside and never tired of telling him stories.”
Sacred Traditions

Mahler's Iglau

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Sacred Traditions

St. Jacob's Church
A Mahler family friend was music director at a local church, St. Jacob's, and it is possible that the young Gustav was part of the church choir. While at school in Vienna, he wrote of his longing for Iglau: “A breeze as of heavenly wings blows through me when I see the peasants in their finery at church. They kneel in prayer before the altar, and their songs of praise mingle with the sound of drums and trumpets.”
  • What Mahler Heard A Local Choir
  • What Mahler Wrote First Symphony, fourth movement
Street Music

Mahler's Iglau

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Street Music

A barrel organ
Life with the mismatched Mahler parents was stormy. One day young Gustav fled the house and ran out into the street where an organ grinder was playing “Ach, du lieber Augustine.” The contrast of despair and gaiety became a signature emotional quality of his music. Much later, Sigmund Freud described how “the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was … inextricably fixed in his mind.”
  • What Mahler Heard Ach, du lieber Augustine
  • What Mahler Wrote First Symphony, third movement

Mahler's Iglau

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The road to Prague
Gustav's father arranged for him to attend the Neustadte Gymnasium in Prague. The experiment lasted only a year, as Gustav received poor grades and poor treatment in the home of the family with whom he stayed. He returned to Iglau to complete his studies at the local Gymnasium.
Conservatory Training

Mahler's Iglau

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Conservatory Training

Mahler as a university student
Gustav left Iglau to attend the Vienna Conservatory, where he became friends with Hugo Wolf and Hans Rott, and was heavily influenced by Richard Wagner and his teacher Anton Bruckner. He attended Vienna University for lectures in philosophy, literature, art history, and harmony. He completed his conservatory studies with a diploma but with no medal for achievement, putting him at a disadvantage in getting his career launched.
Early Works

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Early Works


The scores of many of Mahler’s early compositions have been lost. One of these is his first work, composed around 1867: a “Polka with a Funeral March as Introduction” (Polka mit einen Trauermarsch als Einleitung) for piano. (Clearly, Mahler anticipated the emotional range of his later music!). We also know that he worked on an opera Herzog Ernst vom Schwaben (Ernst, Duke of Swabia, to a libretto by his friend Josef Steiner) and Rübezahl (Fairy Tale), parts of which found their way into Das klagende Lied. A set of three songs for tenor and piano on his own texts as well as a collection of five songs on various texts (Lieder und Gesänge), all composed in 1880-1, are still performed.

Piano Quartet

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Quartet for Piano and Strings in A minor


  • Quartet for Piano and Strings in A minor

Assessing his early compositional efforts, Mahler singled out an 1876 Piano Quartet: “The best of [my early works] was a piano quartet which I wrote at the end of my four Conservatory years and which proved a great success.” It is not clear how much Mahler composed of the piece, but only the first movement survives.

Songs of a Wayfarer

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen)


  • “On My Love’s Wedding Day” (Wenn mein Schatz Hockzeit macht)
  • “This Morning I Walked across the Field” (Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld)
  • “I Have a Burning Knife” (Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer)
  • “My Love’s Blue Eyes” (Die zwei blauen Augen)

Details of the genesis of the Songs of a Wayfarer are not clear. Most probably, Mahler composed them for voice and piano with the title Geschichte eines fahrenden Gesellen (Story of a Wayfarer) in 1883-84, using themes from two of them in his Symphony No. 1, which was begun at about the same time and completed in 1888. The orchestration was completed in 1896, and the first performance of the cycle with orchestra took place on March 16 of that year in Berlin; the singer was Dutch baritone Anton Sistermans, and the composer conducted the Berlin Philharmonic.

The work is scored for vocal soloist and an orchestra consisting of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes (both doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, 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 left his Songs of a Wayfarer as a marker to what may have been no more than an infatuation with Johanna Richter. She was a soprano at the opera house in the Hessian city of Kassel, where, at twenty-three years old, Mahler served as second conductor. He was already the composer of an amazing cantata, Das klagende Lied, as well as of a number of songs. With experience as a conductor in small theaters, he had made his start on the path to celebrity.

Most of the little we know about Mahler and Johanna Richter’s love affair we gather from letters from Mahler to Fritz Lohr, a friend from student days in Vienna. Gustav and Johanna seem to have been the sort of lovers who spend much of their time down in the dumps, New Year’s Eve 1884 being a particularly fraught occasion. The next day Mahler wrote to Lohr that he had spent the night in tears but also that he had written a cycle of songs dedicated to Johanna. “She does not know them. What could they tell her beyond what she knows already? … The songs are planned as though a traveling journeyman who has suffered some sort of fate sets out into the world and wanders musingly and alone.”

So the Songs of a Wayfarer are autobiography in poetry and music; one does well, however, to recall what Mahler wrote about his First Symphony—“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. That experience is the work’s point of departure but not its content.”

Mahler was a skillful writer of verse, and the songs his Wayfarer verses inspired are a miracle. We think of them as coming from the world of the First Symphony (itself the most amazing First Symphony this side of the Fantastique), and that is true of their thematic substance; we should, however, remember that by the beginning of 1896, when the Wayfarer songs were put into their final form, Mahler had finished six of his orchestral Wunderhorn settings, had composed his Second Symphony, and was close to completing his Third.

Mahler begins with a scurrying figure, quietly unsettling. Transformed into something slow, heavy, and mournful, it becomes the melody to which the young wandering journeyman expresses his dread of his former love’s wedding day. With a touching change of musical gait and mood, he turns to nature in hope of consolation, just as Mahler himself would all his life, only to realize that for him spring is over and that there is no escaping his suffering. As Schumann sometimes liked to do, Mahler has the singer finish in mid-phrase so that the musical thought is completed in the accompaniment.

The second song opens with a theme happily familiar from the Symphony No. 1. How extraordinary is the effect of the pianissimo timpani roll when the forlorn boy realizes that none of nature’s springtime rejoicing is for him.

The opening of the third song, the one in which the journeyman gives the most open expression to his pain and despair, introduces music of a force and fury not heard before in this cycle.

In the last of the Wayfarer songs, we encounter one of Mahler’s first funeral marches, a kind of music he would write all his life. This is also, as those who love their lieder will recognize, a “walking song” in the manner of the similar melancholy songs in Schubert’s Winterreise. Like Schubert, Mahler knew how to use the pathos of major/minor alterations. The injunction “Ohne Sentimentalitat”—Without sentimentality—at the beginning of the song, and repeated twice more as “Nicht sentimental,” is of extreme importance. The orchestral writing is unforgettably beautiful, especially in the subtle ways in which the instruments double or almost double the voice. The words at the end speak of consolation in nature. The music concludes on a question mark.

— Michael Steinberg


Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht

Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht,
Fröhliche Hochzeit macht,
Hab' ich meinen traurigen Tag!
Geh' ich in mein Kämmerlein,
Dunkles Kämmerlein,
Weine, wein' um meinen Schatz,
Um meinen lieben Schatz!
Blümlein blau! Verdorre nicht!
Vöglein süß! Du singst auf grüner Heide.
Ach, wie ist die Welt so schön!
Ziküth! Ziküth!
Singet nicht! Blühet nicht!
Lenz ist ja vorbei!
Alles Singen ist nun aus.
Des Abends, wenn ich schlafen geh',
Denk' ich an mein Leide.
An mein Leide!

Ging heut morgen übers Feld

Ging heut morgen übers Feld,
Tau noch auf den Gräsern hing;
Sprach zu mir der lust'ge Fink:
"Ei du! Gelt? Guten Morgen! Ei gelt?
Du! Wird's nicht eine schöne Welt?
Zink! Zink! Schön und flink!
Wie mir doch die Welt gefällt!"
Auch die Glockenblum' am Feld
Hat mir lustig, guter Ding',
Mit den Glöckchen, klinge, kling,
Ihren Morgengruß geschellt:
"Wird's nicht eine schöne Welt?
Kling, kling! Schönes Ding!
Wie mir doch die Welt gefällt! Heia!"
Und da fing im Sonnenschein
Gleich die Welt zu funkeln an;
Alles Ton und Farbe gewann
Im Sonnenschein!
Blum' und Vogel, groß und klein!
"Guten Tag, ist's nicht eine schöne Welt?
Ei du, gelt? Schöne Welt?"
Nun fängt auch mein Glück wohl an?
Nein, nein, das ich mein',
Mir nimmer blühen kann!

Ich hab' ein glühend Messer

Ich hab' ein glühend Messer,
Ein Messer in meiner Brust,
O weh! Das schneid't so tief
In jede Freud' und jede Lust.
Ach, was ist das für ein böser Gast!
Nimmer hält er Ruh', nimmer hält er Rast,
Nicht bei Tag, noch bei Nacht, wenn ich schlief.
O Weh!
Wenn ich in dem Himmel seh',
Seh' ich zwei blaue Augen stehn.
O Weh! Wenn ich im gelben Felde geh',
Seh' ich von fern das blonde Haar
Im Winde wehn.
O Weh!
Wenn ich aus dem Traum auffahr'
Und höre klingen ihr silbern' Lachen, O Weh!
Ich wollt', ich läg auf der schwarzen Bahr',
Könnt' nimmer die Augen aufmachen!

Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz

Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,
Die haben mich in die weite Welt geschickt.
Da mußt ich Abschied nehmen vom allerliebsten Platz!
O Augen blau, warum habt ihr mich angeblickt?
Nun hab' ich ewig Leid und Grämen.
Ich bin ausgegangen in stiller Nacht
Wohl über die dunkle Heide.
Hat mir niemand Ade gesagt.
Ade! Mein Gesell' war Lieb' und Leide!
Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum,
Da hab' ich zum ersten Mal im Schlaf geruht!
Unter dem Lindenbaum,
Der hat seine Blüten über mich geschneit,
Da wußt' ich nicht, wie das Leben tut,
War alles, alles wieder gut!
Alles! Alles, Lieb und Leid
Und Welt und Traum


On my Love’s Wedding Day

When my love
has her wedding-day,
I will have my day of sorrow!
I will go into my little room,
my dark little room,
and cry, cry for my love,
for my dear love!
Little blue flower! Don’t wilt!
Sweet little bird, you sing in the green meadow!
Oh, the world is so beautiful!

Don’t sing. Don’t bloom.
Spring is past!
All singing stops!
At night when I go to sleep,
I think of my sorrow,
of my sorrow!

This Morning I Walked Across the Field

This morning I walked across the field.
Dew still clung to the grass.
The happy finch spoke to me:
“Hey you! Hey! Good morning!
Isn’t it? You!
Isn't it a beautiful world?
Beautiful world?
Beautiful and bright!
How I love the world!”
And the bluebells in the field
rang out their morning greeting:
and happy, good tidings
with their little tinging bells:
“Isn’t it a beautiful world?
Ding, dong! Lovely thing!
How I love the world!”
And in the sunshine,
the world began to sparkle;
all music and color encompassed
in the sunshine!
Flowers and bird, big and small!
“Good day, isn’t it a beautiful world?
Beautiful world?
Isn’t it? Beautiful world?”

Will I also be happy now?
No! No! For me, happiness can never bloom!

I Have a Burning Knife

I have a burning knife,
a knife in my breast.
The pain! The pain!
It cuts so deeply into every happiness and joy, so deep!
What a cruel visitor it is!
It doesn’t rest, it doesn’t stop,
Neither by day, nor by night when I sleep.
The pain!
When I look into the sky
I see a pair of blue eyes!
The pain! When I walk through the golden fields,
I see from afar the blond hair
waving in the wind.
The pain!
When I start from the dream
and hear her silver laughter ringing – the pain!
I wish I were lying on the dark bier
And could never again open my eyes!

My Love’s Blue Eyes

My love’s blue eyes
sent me wandering in the wide world.
I had to take leave of the place I loved most.
O blue eyes, why did you look at me?
Now I’m left with endless sorrow!
I went out into the quiet night
Into the quiet night, over the dark meadow.
No one bade me farewell.
My companions were love and sorrow!
On the road stands a linden tree,
There I slept peacefully for the first time,
Under the linden tree
which dropped its blossoms over me like snow.
And I didn’t know what life was doing.
Everything, everything was good again.
Everything, everything.
Love and sorrow
and world and dream!

Translations: Larry Rothe

Song of Sorrow

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Song of Sorrow (Das klagende Lied)


  • Part I: Waldmärchen (Forest Legend)
  • Part II: Der Spielmann (The Minstrel)
  • Part III: Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece)

Having written his own text, which he completed on March 18, 1878, Mahler promptly began the composition of Das klagende Lied, completing the score at the end of October 1880. In 1892-93 he revised the score, his most radical amendment being to cut Waldmärchen (Forest Legend), the first of the three sections and amounting to a good two-fifths of the work. Some further changes were made in 1898-99. The abbreviated two-part version was performed in Vienna on February 17, 1901, by which time Mahler was about to begin work on his Symphony No. 5. He conducted the Vienna Singakademie and the Vienna Philharmonic, and the soloists were Elise Elizza, Anna von Mildenburg, Edyth Walker, and Fritz Schrödter. The first performance of the three-movement version of Das klagende Lied, sung in Czech, was given as a broadcast over Radio Brno, Czechoslovakia, on November 28, 1934; the conductor was Mahler’s nephew, Alfred Rosé.

The score calls for a mixed chorus (sometimes elaborately divided); soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone soloists; and an orchestra consisting of two flutes and piccolo (doubling third flute), two oboes and English horn (doubling third oboe), two clarinets and bass clarinet (doubling third clarinet), three bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, two to six harps, 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”.

The earliest music by Mahler we are likely to encounter in concert is the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), which were probably composed in 1883-84. Das klagende Lied takes us back to a span of time that begins with the seventeen-year-old as a student both at the Vienna Conservatory, from which he would graduate a few months later, in July 1878, and at the University of Vienna, and which ends with the young man back in Vienna after a summer of conducting operettas at Bad Hall in Upper Austria. Bad Hall was hardly a stimulating artistic experience; nonetheless, it changed Mahler’s life. He loved conducting. In later years, when he had become, with Toscanini (a bit younger) and Nikisch (slightly older), one of the greatest conductors of his generation, he sometimes railed against the life that obliged him to confine his composing to the summer months, but the fact was that the bug that bit him in the summer of 1880 never released him, and if he did not give up conducting it was not only for financial reasons.

Of course Mahler hoped for a performance of Das klagende Lied, but as an unknown twenty-year-old he had no leverage with which to organize such a huge undertaking. His next plan was to submit the score in 1881 for the Beethoven Prize, given annually to a Conservatory student or alumnus. Winning that would have brought welcome publicity, to say nothing of 600 florins; however, the prize that year was awarded to Robert Fuchs for his Symphony No. 1. Mahler was embittered for years about that decision.

When at last he was able to get Das klagende Lied performed, twenty years after completing the score, Mahler was a conductor at the Vienna Court Opera and of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he was able to enlist some of the outstanding singers of the day, notably the three women, Elizza, von Mildenburg, and Walker. The thorn in his side was the Singakademie, a mediocre chorus that was not professional in literal fact or in attitude and which was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. But Mahler enjoyed a warm public success, a relatively rare event for him. The reviews were mostly so-so to negative. The critics who were generally sympathetic to Mahler were disappointed because his four symphonies and recent songs had set their expectations at a higher level than this impressive student work—but student work nonetheless—was able to meet, and the writers in the anti-Mahler camp heard nothing to make them change their minds.

Another muddle concerning Das klagende Lied has been the assertion that Mahler originally intended the work as an opera. The biographer and critic Ernst Decsey, who wrote his recollections of Mahler at the time of the composer’s death, seems to have been the first to put that non-fact into circulation, but aside from his 1911 article in Die Musik, published in Norman Lebrecht’s 1987 compilation Mahler Remembered and in most respects exceedingly interesting, there is nothing to back it up.

The title Das klagende Lied is not easy to translate, and many writers don’t even try; nor am I am really satisfied with my suggestion of Song of Lament. The primary meaning of “klagen” is to complain, to lament; however, one of its secondary meanings in the world of jurisprudence is to go to law, to bring action, to sue. "Klagen" also brings to mind its derivative, “anklagen,” which means to accuse. These other meanings and associations are germane to Das klagende Lied, for here is the tale told in the cantata:

Part I, Waldmärchen (Forest Legend) A beautiful, proud, and man-hating queen has conceded that she will give herself as wife to whichever knight finds a certain red flower in the forest, a flower as lovely as herself. Two brothers set out to find the flower; the younger one is sweet in manner and handsome, the elder “could only curse.” The younger brother finds the flower, sticks it in his hat, and lies down in the forest to sleep. Finding him thus, the older brother kills him, takes the flower, and claims his prize.

Part II, Der Spielmann (The Minstrel): A musician wandering through the same forest finds a gleaming white bone and fashions a flute from it. The first time he plays his new instrument, it sings the tale of the murder. The minstrel decides he must seek out the queen.

Part III, Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece): At court there is a great feast in honor of the impending wedding of the Queen and the murderer-knight. The minstrel arrives and plays his flute, which once again tells its dark tale. The new king seizes the flute and puts it to his own lips, where it accuses him directly: “Ah brother, dear brother mine, it was you who struck me dead, and now you play upon my whitened bone.” The Queen falls in a faint, the guests flee in terror, and the walls of the castle collapse.

When Mahler came to set five of Friedrich Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children) in 1901-04, he came to the task as an expert, so to speak, for of his thirteen siblings, seven died in infancy (his one older brother, Isidor, had died before Gustav’s birth), and in 1874 his favorite brother, Ernst, died of hydrocardia at the age of thirteen. One might also imagine that Mahler was an expert on sibling rivalry, and that the painful last illness and death of Ernst, one year younger than himself and his closest childhood companion, brought on a severe case of survivor’s guilt.

Where Mahler got the story has been much argued. Bruno Walter cited “The Singing Bone,”of the fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, as an important source. Walter overstated the case when he called Das klagende Lied Mahler’s versification of the Grimm tale, but otherwise the idea is not farfetched. It is true that in “The Singing Bone” the issue is the killing of a gigantic boar that has become a peril to the kingdom rather than the finding of a red flower, but the reward is the hand in marriage of a beautiful princess, the two brothers are contrasted Cain-and-Abel style as rough and gentle with “Cain” killing “Abel,” and the singing bone-flute corresponds perfectly.

We know that a verse play by Martin Greif, the pen-name of a Bavarian poet, Friedrich Hermann Frey, and titled Das klagende Lied was performed by drama students at the Vienna Conservatory in 1876, so that is a possible source for the title; however, the play itself does not survive and we know nothing about it, so that is a dead end. But there is another and more relevant source, a tale collected by the nineteenth-century folklorist Ludwig Bechstein and titled by him Das klagende Lied. The striking difference between Bechstein”s version and Mahler”s (and, for that matter, the Grimms”) is that in Bechstein the rival siblings are brother and sister, the sister being killed. In any event, as we know well from a whole succession of works from his early songs right up to Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler was never one to leave a text alone, and Das klagende Lied may well be understood as a conflation of Bechstein, Grimm, and Mahler’s own excited imagination. In December 1896, Mahler wrote to Max Marschalk, the critic whom he felt “understands my work better than anyone,” that Das klagende Lied, “a fairy tale for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, is the first work in which I found myself as ‘Mahler.’ This work I designate as my Opus 1.”

Yet inevitably we sense the ghosts of other composers—Wagner most of all, which will surprise no one. We may even be reminded of a great work yet to be written by a composer who was a close cousin in spirit to Mahler, the Gurrelieder of Arnold Schoenberg. I do not know whether Schoenberg knew Das klagende Lied, but he certainly could have known it. One aspect of Das klagende Lied that brings Gurrelieder to mind is the manner of Romantic story-telling that informs both works. Another of course is the grand scale of Das klagende Lied, and immense and fearless ambition is one aspect that makes the twenty-year-old Mahler so unmistakably recognizable as Mahler. This is truly the beginning of a chain of works that continues coherently right up to the unfinished Tenth Symphony. All through his life, Mahler’s works are remarkably linked, quoting their predecessors or taking them as points of departure. Another feature of Das klagende Lied, then, is that it constantly anticipates the Songs of a Wayfarer, and in startling detail.

I will not offer a point-by-point guide to the cantata. I do, however, want to make a couple of brief general remarks about Mahler’s accomplishment here. One is that his feeling for the orchestra is absolutely extraordinary and individual, and this is the more amazing as it comes from someone his age, who had never heard a note of his own orchestration. The other is that he commands a remarkable sense of atmosphere. From the first moments of the prelude to Waldmärchen, we believe without hesitation that this is music by the composer who will go on to write the Last Trump with its picture of a desolate earth in the finale of his Second Symphony and that most amazing of all his pictorial achievements, the prelude to the mountain gorge scene in the Faust portion of his Eighth Symphony (which Michael Tilson Thomas conducts at our concerts of June 6-10). One cannot help feel that Mahler still had much to learn about pacing, both in actual swiftness and variety, but again, this is a teenager with no practical experience. He would become a master of this in excelsis, and one of the many impressive things about Das klagende Lied is that each of its three parts is strikingly more assured and inventive than the one before. It is fascinating and moving to get a glimpse of a younger Mahler than the one we are accustomed to meeting and to hear the rightness of his proud claim that this is the work where the real Mahler is first discerned.

— Michael Steinberg



I. Waldmärchen

Es war eine stolze Königin,
gar lieblich ohne Maßen;
kein Ritter stand nach ihrem Sinn,
sie wollt’ sie alle hassen.
O weh, du wonnigliches Weib!
Wem blühet wohl dein süsser Leib!

Im Wald eine rote Blume stand,
ach, so schön wie die Königinne.
Welch Rittersmann die Blume fand,
der konnt’ die Frau gewinnen!
O weh, du stolze Königin!
Wann bricht er wohl, dein stolzer Sinn?

Zwei Brüder zogen zum Walde hin,
sie wollten die Blume suchen:
Der Eine hold und von mildem Sinn,
der Andre konnte nur fluchen!
O Ritter, schlimmer Ritter mein,
O ließest du das Fluchen sein!

Als sie so zogen eine Weil’,
da kamen sie zu scheiden:
das war ein Suchen nur in Eil’,
im Wald und auf der Heiden.
Ihr Ritter mein, im schnellen Lauf,
wer findet wohl die Blume?

Der Junge zieht durch Wald und Heid’,
er braucht nicht lang zu gehn:
Bald sieht er von ferne bei der Weid’
die rote Blume stehn.
Die hat er auf den Hut gesteckt,
und dann zur Ruh’sich hingestreckt.

Der Andre zieht im wilden Hang,
umsonst durchsucht er die Heide,
und als der Abend herniedersank,
da kommt er zur grünen Weide!
O weh, wen er dort schlafend fand,
die Blume am Hut, am grünen Band!

Du wonnigliche Nachtigall,
und Rotkehlchen hinter der Hecken,
wollt ihr mit eurem süssen Schall
den armen Ritter erwecken!
Du rote Blume hinterm Hut,
du blinkst und glänzest ja wie Blut!

Ein Auge blickt in wilder Freud’,
des Schein hat nicht gelogen:
ein Schwert von Stahl glänzt ihm zur Seit’,
das hat er nun gezogen.
Der Alte lacht unterm Weidenbaum,
der Junge lächelt wie im Traum.

Ihr Blumen, was seid ihr vom Tau so schwer?
Mir scheint, das sind gar Tränen!
Ihr Winde, was weht ihr so traurig daher,
was will euer Raunen und Wähnen?
“Im Wald, auf der grünen Heide,
da steht eine alte Weide.”

II. Der Spielmann

Beim Weidenbaum, im kühlen Tann,
da flattern die Dohlen und Raben,
da liegt ein blonder Rittersmann
unter Blättern und Blüten begraben.
Dort ist’s so lind und voll von Duft,
als ging ein Weinen durch die Luft!
O Leide, weh! O Leide!

Ein Spielmann zog einst des Weges daher,
da sah er ein Knöchlein blitzen;
er hob es auf, als wär’s ein Rohr,
wollt’ sich eine Flöte draus schnitzen.
O Spielmann, lieber Spielmann mein,
das wird ein seltsam Spielen sein!
O Leide weh! O Leide!

Der Spielmann setzt die Flöte an
und lässt sie laut erklingen:
O Wunder, was nun da begann,
welch seltsam traurig Singen!
Es klingt so traurig und doch so schön,
wer’s hört, der möcht’ vor Leid vergehn!
O Leide, Leide!

“Ach, Spielmann, lieber Spielmann mein!
Das muss ich dir nun klagen:
Um ein schönfarbig Blümelein
hat mich mein Bruder erschlagen!
Im Walde bleicht mein junger Leib,
mein Bruder freit ein wonnig Weib!”
O Leide, Leide, weh!

Der Spielmann ziehet in die Weit’,
lässt’s überall erklingen.
Ach weh, ach weh, ihr lieben Leut’,
was soll denn euch mein Singen?
Hinauf muss ich zu des Königs Saal,
hinauf zu des Königs holdem Gemahl!
O Leide, weh, o Leide!

III. Hochzeitsstück

Vom hohen Felsen erglänzt das Schloss,
die Zinken erschalln und Drometten.
Dort sitzt der mutigen Ritter Troß,

die Frauen mit goldenen Ketten.
Was will wohl der jubelnde, fröhliche Schall?
Was leuchtet und glänzt im Königssaal?

O Freude, heiah! Freude!

Und weißt du’s nicht, warum die Freud’?

Hei! Daß ich dir’s sagen kann!
Die Königin hält Hochzeit heut’
mit dem jungen Rittersmann!
Seht hin, die stolze Königin!
Heut’ bricht er doch, ihr stolzer Sinn!
O Freude, heiah! Freude!

Was ist der König so stumm und bleich?
Hört nicht des Jubels Töne!
Sieht nicht die Gäste stolz und reich,
sieht nicht der Königin holde Schöne!

Was ist der König so bleich und stumm?
Was geht ihm wohl im Kopf herum?
Ein Spielmann tritt zur Türe herein!
Was mag’s wohl mit dem Spielmann sein?
O Leide, weh! O Leide!

“Ach Spielmann, lieber Spielmann mein,
das muss ich dir nun klagen!
Um ein schönfarbig Blümelein
hat mich mein Bruder erschlagen!
Im Walde bleicht mein junger Leib,
mein Bruder freit ein wonnig Weib!”

O Leide, weh! O Leide!

Auf springt der König von seinem Thron
und blickt auf die Hochzeitsrund’.
Und er nimmt die Flöte in frevelndem Hohn

und setzt sie selbst an den Mund!
O Schrecken, was nun da erklang!
Hört ihr die Märe, todesbang?

“Ach Bruder, lieber Bruder mein,
du hast mich ja erschlagen!
Nun bläst du auf meinem Totenbein,
des muss ich ewig klagen!
Was hast du mein junges Leben
dem Tode hingegeben?”
O Leide, weh! O Leide!

Am Boden liegt die Königin,
die Pauken verstummen und Zinken.
Mit Schrecken die Ritter und Frauen fliehn,
die alten Mauern sinken!
Die Lichter verloschen im Königssaal!

Was ist wohl mit dem Hochzeitsmahl?
Ach Leide!


Song of Sorrow

I. Forest Legend

Once there was a proud queen,
lovely beyond measure.
No knight pleased her—
she despised them all.
Oh woe, lovely woman!
For whom will your body bloom?

In the forest grew a red flower,
as beautiful as the queen.
The knight who found this flower
would be able to win the woman!
Oh woe, you proud queen!
When will your spirit bend?

Two brothers went into the forest
in search of the flower.
One was noble and sweet-tempered;
the other could only utter curses.
Oh knight, my evil knight,
Ii you could just let the cursing be!

After a while, as they proceeded,
they parted ways.
They were impatient in their search
in the forest and the meadows.
My knights, rushing ahead,
who will find the flower?

The younger trudges through forest and meadow.
He doesn’t have to go far:
Soon, from a distance, he sees
the red flower blooming near a willow.
He pinned the flower to his hat,
then stretched out to rest.

The other is growing desperate,
searching the meadow in vain.
And as evening fell
he came to the green willow.
Oh woe to him, whom he found asleep,
with the flower pinned to his green hat-band!

You lovely nightingale,
and robins in the hedges:
If only your sweet songs
would wake the poor knight!
Oh, red flower on the hat,
you gleam like blood!

An eye spots it and rejoices—
the gleam did not lie.
At his side is a sword of glistening steel,
which he has drawn.
The older one laughs under the willow.
The younger smiles, as in a dream.

You flowers, why so heavy with dew?
It seems those are tears!
You winds, why do you rustle so sadly?
What do your murmurs mean?
“In the forest, in the green meadow,
is an old willow.”

II. The Minstrel

By the willow, amid the cool pines,
where the crows and ravens hover,
lies a fair-haired knight
buried beneath leaves and buds.
The air there is gentle and vaporous,
as though it were weeping!
Oh sorrow, woe! Oh, sorrow!

A wandering musician hiking the path
saw the glint of a tiny bone.
He picked it up, as though it were a reed,
and from it carved a flute.
Oh minstrel, dear minstrel,
the melody will be very strange!
Oh sorrow, woe! Oh, sorrow!

The musician put the flute to his lips.
The sound was loud and clear.
A miracle, what now began—
what strange and sorrowful singing!
It sounds so sad and yet so beautiful—
whoever hears it wants to lose himself in sorrow!
Oh sorrow, sorrow!

“Ah, musician, dear musician!
I must sing my lament to you:
For a beautiful little flower,
my brother murdered me!
My young body decays in the forest
while my brother marries a lovely bride!”
Oh sorrow, sorrow, woe!

The musician wanders far and wide,
and the sound is heard everywhere.
Oh woe, oh woe, dear people,
what does my song mean to you?
I must go up to the king’s palace,
to the king’s gracious wife!
Oh sorrow, woe, oh sorrow!

III. Wedding Piece

From the high cliff the castle is gleaming,
the cornets and trumpets peal.
The brave knights are gathered,
the women are adorned in gold.
Why this jubilant noise?
What glows and gleams in the king’s chamber?

Oh, happiness!

Don’t you know what this celebration is about?

Well, I can tell you!
Today the queen will be married
to the knight!
Look at her, the proud queen!
Today her proud spirit bends!
Oh, happiness!

Why is the king so quiet and pale?
He does not hear the sound of the festivities!
He does not see the proud, rich guests
or the beautiful queen!

Why is the king so quiet and pale?
What is he thinking?
A wandering musician walks in the door!
Why is he here?
Oh sorrow, woe! Oh, sorrow!

“Ah, musician, dear musician!
I must sing my lament to you:
For a beautiful little flower,
my brother murdered me!
My young body decays in the forest
while my brother marries a lovely bride!”

Oh sorrow, woe! Oh, sorrow!

The king leaps from his throne
and gazes at the wedding party.
With disdain the takes the flute
and puts it to his own lips!
Horrible, the sound that now was heard!
Are you terrified by the story?

“Oh brother, my dear brother,
you murdered me!
Now you play a flute made of my dead bones,
and I must lament forever!
Why did you deliver
my young life to death?”
Oh sorrow, woe! Oh, sorrow!

The queen has fainted and slumps on the floor.
The drums and cornets are silent.
Terrified, the knights and their ladies flee.
The old walls are crumbling!
In the king’s chamber the lights are extinguished!

What is to be done with the wedding feast?
Oh sorrow!

—Trans. Larry Rothe

First Symphony

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

Select another composition: 

Symphony No. 1 in D major


  • I. Langsam, Schleppend (Slowly, dragging)
    Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout)
  • II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell
    (Moving strongly, but not too quickly)
  • III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen
    (Solemnly and measured, without dragging)
  • IV. Stürmisch bewegt - Energisch
    (Stormily agitated - Energetic)

Mahler began sketching his Symphony No. 1 in 1884, drawing substantially on melodies he had written some years earlier. He did most of the composition in February and March of 1888 and conducted the Budapest Philharmonic in the work’s premiere, in Budapest, on November 20, 1889. He continued to revise the symphony until as late as 1906. Mahler also led this work’s first American performance when he conducted it with the New York Philharmonic on December 16, 1909; this symphony and the Kindertotenlieder were the only ones of his compositions that Mahler conducted during his tenure as music director of that orchestra.

This symphony is scored for a large orchestra of four flutes (two of which double piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet, at least two doubling E-flat clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani (two players), bass drum, cymbals, Turkish cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, 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”.

Once, contemplating the failures of sympathy and understanding with which his First Symphony met at most of its early performances, Mahler lamented that while Beethoven had been able to start as a sort of modified Haydn and Mozart, and Wagner as Weber and Meyerbeer, he had the misfortune to be Gustav Mahler from the outset. He composed this symphony, surely the most original First after the Berlioz Fantastique, in high hopes of being understood, even imagining that it might earn him enough money so that he could abandon his rapidly expanding career as a conductor—a luxury that life would never allow him. But he enjoyed public success with the work only in Prague in 1898 and in Amsterdam five years later. The Viennese audience in 1900, musically reactionary and anti‑Semitic to boot, was singularly vile in its behavior, and even Mahler’s future wife, Alma Schindler, whose devotion to The Cause would later sometimes dominate a concern for truth, fled that concert in anger and disgust. One critic suggested that the work might have been meant as a parody of a symphony. No wonder that Mahler, completing his Fourth Symphony that year, felt driven to mark its finale “Durchaus ohne Parodie!” (With no trace of parody!).

The work even puzzled its own composer. No other piece of Mahler’s has so complicated a history and about no other did he change his mind so often and over so long a period. He changed the total concept by canceling a whole movement, he made striking alterations in compositional and orchestral detail, and for some time he was unsure whether he was offering a symphonic poem, a program symphony, or just a symphony.

When Mahler conducted the first performance with the Budapest Philharmonic in November 1889, he billed it as a “symphonic poem” whose two parts consisted of the first three and the last two movements. (At that time, the first movement was followed by a piece called Blumine, which Mahler later dropped.) A newspaper article the day before the premiere outlined a program whose source can only have been Mahler himself and which identifies the first three movements with spring, happy daydreams, and a wedding procession, the fourth as a funeral march representing the burial of the poet’s illusions, and the fifth as a hard‑won progress to spiritual victory.

When Mahler revised the score in January 1893, he called it a symphony in five movements and two parts, also giving it the name Titan after a novel by Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763‑1825), a key figure in German literary Romanticism and one of Mahler’s favorite writers. But by October he announced the work as TITAN, a Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony.

Before the Vienna performance in 1900, Mahler again leaked a program to a friendly critic, and it is a curious one. First comes rejection of Titan, as well as “all other titles and inscriptions, which, like all ‘programs,’ are always misinterpreted. [The composer] dislikes and discards them as ‘antiartistic’ and ‘antimusical.’” There follows a scenario that reads much like an elaborated version of the original one for Budapest. During the nineties, when Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben had come out, program music had become a hot issue. Mahler saw himself as living in a very different world from Strauss, and he wanted to establish a distance between himself and his colleague. At the same time, the extra‑musical ideas would not disappear, and he seemed now to want it both ways. There was no pleasing the critics. In Berlin he was faulted for omitting the program and in Frankfurt for keeping it.

Mahler writes “Wie en Naturlaut” (like the sound of nature) on that first page, and in a letter to the conductor Franz Schalk we read, “The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!” Fragments detach themselves from the mist, become graspable, coalesce. Among these fragments are a pair of notes descending by a fourth, distant fanfares, a little cry of oboes, a cuckoo call (by the only cuckoo in the world who toots a fourth rather than a third), a gentle horn melody.

Gradually the tempo quickens to arrive at the melody of the second of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs (one of the most characteristic, original, and forward‑looking features of this movement is how much time Mahler spends not in tempo but en route from one speed to another). Mahler’s wayfarer crosses the fields in the morning, rejoicing in the beauty of the world and hoping that this marks the beginning of his own happy times, only to see that no, spring can never bloom for him. But for Mahler the song is useful not only as an evocation but as a musical source, and he draws astounding riches from it by a process, as Erwin Stein put it, of constantly shuffling and reshuffling its figures like a deck of cards. The movement rises to one tremendous climax, and the last page is wild.

The scherzo is the symphony’s briefest and simplest movement, and also the only one that the first audiences could be counted on to like. Its opening idea comes from a fragment for piano duet that may go back as far as 1876, and the movement makes several allusions to the song “Hans und Grethe,” whose earliest version was written in 1880. The central section contrasts the simplicity of the rustic, super‑Austrian material with the artfulness of its arrangement.

The funeral music that follows was what most upset audiences. The use of vernacular material presented in slightly perverted form (the round we have all sung to the words “Frère Jacques,” but set by Mahler in a lugubrious minor); the parodic, vulgar music with its lachrymose oboes and trumpets; the boom‑chick of bass drum with cymbal attached; the hiccupping violins; the appearance in the middle of all this of part of the last Wayfarer song, exquisitely scored for muted strings with a harp and a few soft woodwinds—people simply did not know what to make of this mixture, how to respond, whether to laugh or cry or both. They sensed that something irreverent was being done, something new and somehow ominous, that these collisions of the spooky, the gross, and the vulnerable were uncomfortably like life itself, and they were offended.

Mahler likened the opening of the finale to a bolt of lightning that rips from a black cloud. Using and transforming material from the first movement, he takes us, in the terms of his various programs, on the path from annihilation to victory, while in musical terms he engages us in a struggle to regain D major, the main key of the symphony, but unheard since the first movement ended. When at last he re-enters that key, he does so by way of a stunning and violent coup de théâtre, only to withdraw from the sounds of victory and to show us the hollowness of that triumph. He then goes all the way back to the music with which the symphony began and gathers strength for a second assault that does indeed open the doors to a heroic ending and to its celebration in a hymn in which the horns, now on their feet, are instructed to drown out the rest of the orchestra, “even the trumpets.”

— Michael Steinberg