Mahler's self-composed text for the first of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ('Songs of a Travelling Journeyman', regularly translated as 'Songs of a Wayfarer'; 1884–1885) is clearly based on theWunderhorn poem 'Wann mein Schatz'; his first genuine settings of Wunderhorn texts, however, are found in the Lieder und Gesänge ('Songs and Airs'), published in 1892 and later renamed by the publisher asLieder und Gesänge aus der Jugendzeit ('Songs and Airs from Days of Youth'). The nine Wunderhorn settings therein were composed between 1887 and 1890, and occupied the second and third volumes of this three-volume collection of songs for voice and piano.
Mahler began work on his next group of Wunderhorn settings in 1892. A collection (not a 'cycle') of 12 of these was published in 1899, under the title Humoresken ('Humoresques'), and formed the basis of what is now known simply (and somewhat confusingly) as Mahler's 'Songs from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn"'. Whereas the songs in the Lieder und Gesänge collection were conceived for voice and piano, with no orchestral versions being produced by the composer, the Humoresken were conceived from the first as being for voice and orchestra, even though Mahler's first step was the production of playable and publishable voice-and-piano versions.
'Urlicht' (composed ?1892, orch. July 1893) was rapidly incorporated (with expanded orchestration) into the 2nd Symphony (1888–1894) as the work's fourth movement; 'Es sungen drei Engel', by contrast, was specifically composed as part of the 3rd Symphony (1893–1896): requiring a boys' chorus in addition to an alto soloist, it is the only song among the twelve for which Mahler did not produce a 'singer-with-orchestra' version and the only one which he did not first publish separately. (Other songs found themselves serving symphonic ends in other ways: a singer-less version of "Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt" forms the basis of the Scherzo in the 2nd Symphony, and "Ablösung im Sommer" is adopted in the same way by the 3rd.)
An additional setting from this period was "Das himmlische Leben" ('The Heavenly Life'), of February 1892 (orch. March 1892). By the year of the collection's publication (1899) this song had been re-orchestrated and earmarked as the finale of the 4th Symphony (1899–1900), and thus was not published as part of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, nor was it made available in a 'voice-and-piano' version.
Shortly after Mahler's death, the publisher (Universal Edition) replaced Mahler's own piano versions of the Wunderhorn songs by 'piano reductions' of the orchestral versions, thus obscuring the differences in Mahler's writing for the two media. In spite of this, voice-and-piano performances, especially of the 'lighter' songs, are frequent. The original piano versions were re-published in 1993 as part of the critical edition, edited by Renate Hilmar-Voit and Thomas Hampson.