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Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-99)

  • Revelge
  • Der Tamboursg'sell
  • Urlicht
  • Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
  • Rheinlegendchen
  • Das irdische Leben

The edited collection of German folk poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), first appearing between 1805 and 1808, quickly became a cornerstone of German Romantic interest in earlier folk culture and staple reading for many German children throughout the 19th century. Mahler dated his familiarity with the book to 1886, but the similarity between some of the Wunderhorn texts and his own poetry suggests that he must have encountered them earlier. Whatever the exact date, between 1888 and 1901 he set 24 Wunderhorn poems and was apparently uninterested in any other song texts. It was perhaps an odd choice for a graduate of the Vienna Conservatory, devoted Wagnerian and thus 'modernist' composer. There is a studied simplicity and naïveté to Mahler's Wunderhorn songs, quite different to the overheated emotional intensity of Wagner but that, perhaps, was their attraction. With their regular and simple metrical schemes and internal repetitions, these folk poems suggested a more detached, objective kind of material, which turned out to be ideal not only for Mahler's songs but also for his later symphonic music.

It was the disparity between the artless folksy material and the refined manner of Mahler's musical settings that bewildered the critics. Paul Bekker, one of the composer's strongest supporters, pointed to Mahler's 'woodcutter's humour' and 'populist coarseness' alongside the obvious refinement of his musical technique. Indeed, he concluded on the evidence of the Wunderhorn songs, 'it may not be wrong to say that in Mahler an operetta composer was lost.' Humour is undoubtedly the key to understanding both the songs and their extensive use in Mahler's symphonies. Mahler often uses the marking mit Humor, which he probably borrowed from Schumann if not directly from Beethoven, but it is one with a particular resonance in German Romanticism. Jean Paul Richter, one of Mahler's favourite authors, defined the term in 1804 as 'the inverted sublime'. By concentrating on the everyday, all-too-human world the artist can project a sense of the infinite by means of its opposite - as Shakespeare did, Richter argued. Mahler's mixing of high and low elements, of profound musical speech with banal or vulgar materials, which so shocked and bewildered his contemporaries, finds an explanation here. In the characters of the Wunderhorn, in their folly as much as their sufferings, Mahler found a foil for their opposite.

Revelge (Reveille) was one of Mahler's last Wunderhorn settings (1899), a sinister tale of a ghostly regiment parading through the streets. The recurrent refrain, 'Tralali, tralaley, tralalera', in which the singer imitates the trumpet fanfare, becomes more and more bitterly ironic, as the suffering of the poor foot soldier finds expression only in the deformation of his military language.

It is hard to believe that Der Tamboursg'sell (The Drummer Boy), Mahler's last Wunderhorn setting, was written at the same time as four of his gentle Rückert-Lieder. Like Revelge, it is a grim military march, over which is narrated the tale of a drummer boy about to be hung on the gallows for desertion. Mahler carefully controls the tone of the singer, asking him to sing, 'with horror', 'shrieking' and, finally, 'in a broken voice'.

Urlicht (Primal Light) is best known as the penultimate movement of the Second Symphony. It provides a good example of how Mahler found in the Wunderhorn texts something at once utterly simple and yet offering a vehicle for deeply-felt emotion - here, the longing for heaven.

Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Fair Trumpets Sound) is a kind of ghost story. Mahler understood the poem to denote that the soldier and the dialogue were real, prior to him going to war, but many listeners (including some of his close friends) have taken the voice of the soldier to be a spectral one. Certainly, the eerie open-fifth chords suggest the latter.

The humour of Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend) has to do with the mismatch of character and situation. Mahler described it as 'at once childish, mischievous and heartfelt.' The protagonist is a fool, but one whose folly demands our sympathy, and the infectious dance rhythm and affectionate word setting is completely disarming.

Das irdische Leben (Earthly Life), a setting of a poem titled Verspätung (Too Late), uses one of Mahler's moto perpetuo accompaniments, consisting of a constantly turning semiquaver figure. In his symphonies these are frequently associated with the empty, purposeless bustle of life but here it suggests a negative version of a homely spinning song. Mahler spoke of the 'eerie sonorities of the accompaniment, with roars and whistles like a storm' as background to 'the tortured and anguished cries of the child and the uniform, monotonous reply of the mother.'

© Julian Johnson