Mahler’s Lieder: Paces in Modernity

A discussion of the Wunderhorn texts and their development under Mahler

This essay explores and analyzes Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lieder. Have a quick listen here:

Or watch a live recording here:

Although I go through many songs in detail, this essay is meant to paint a broad picture of Mahler’s style & technique, and prove insightful to the many ‘why’s’ his compositions raise among his listeners.


The horn throughout history has been an instrument used both in daily life and battle. Used by shepherds, hunters and soldiers, the dichotomy of the horn’s primary functions gives it the ability to surpass barriers and thereby function in both war and peace. Mahler’s interpretation of Des Knaben Wunderhorn affords the content of the collection similar capabilities, transcending between two different identities of the Lied, or the ‘art song’.

The Wunderhorn collection initially was classified within the genre of the eighteenth-century Lied, and revolves around the world of lower- and middle-class households in content and delivered experience, both of which are a social process. The development of the Lied or ‘the art song’, came about in households through the modest pass time of a small but growing middle class[i]. By communicating the origins of German history through song and poem rather than story, the text shaped by its structure and sound can easily be learnt and reproduced solely by ear. Moreover, the figures and motifs of the collection give its singers and listeners the ability to empathize with the subject. The accessibility of the Wunderhorn collection is socially charged due to its ability to dissolve barriers and open a channel between the world of the common folk and the world of classical music studies.

Mahler’s interpretation of the Wunderhorn collection is in itself an exploration between the already established eighteenth century Lied and the newly forming late-nineteenth century Lied. Mahler saw the inability of a proper musical description depicted through the folk-song and looked beyond Schubert to explore raw natural sound[ii]. This exploration led to the contrast of the two Lied aesthetics, and through the selection of key aspects, Mahler prompted the creation of his own sub-genre: the Wunderhorn style of art song or the Wunderhorn lieder. Ambiguity, a sense of distance and deliberate avoidance of selective facets of modern expression, are three prominent characteristics of the lieder, which upon further exploration, also reveal the social tensions within each characteristic.

Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs have an air of ambiguity both harmonically and metaphorically. In his interpretations of the song Das iridische Leben, the intensity in Mahler’s Lied equals its harmonic ambiguity- many have mistaken the song’s E-flat minor to be a B-flat minor[iii]. In Das himmlische Leben, the song doesn’t begin or end with the same key. The shift of tonality from G-major to E-major is a major influence on the way Mahler’s fourth symphony finale is composed and further influences the entirety of the composition. This ambiguity of the lieder further extends to the various versions of their compositions.

Mahler usually composed lieder for different pairings such as voice and piano or voice and orchestra. These couplings usually intertwined themselves with one another during performances and furthered the sense of ambiguity in his lieder and/or his Wunderhorn symphonies. He often chose to transform piano arrangements into orchestral ones and orchestral arrangements into piano versions, and thereby without deliberate intension, obtained dual versions of almost all his compositions, except for just one group of nine songs, composed exclusively for the piano.

In the fifth movement of the third symphony, the piano version of the song Es sungen Drei Engel (1895) appears after its orchestral version. The study of the song Urlicht (1895) explores the modern concept of construction through the integration of orchestral song into the fourth movement of Mahler’s second symphony4. The introductory eleven bar chorale marked with ‘sehr feierlicht, aber schlicht’ is pushed further into the background of the orchestral body representing the separation between the world of music from the world of lyrical self-expression. The first line: ‘O Röschen rot!’ rings out like a motto, wind chorale fills the vacant space with an ‘aura of religiosity’, only after whose fading does the voice sing the next line ‘Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!’ The song movement is integrated into the cyclic nature of the second symphony. However, that does not ensure consistency or flow caused by the absence of overlap and the absence of interaction between the two worlds. The movement is crucial to the finale by functioning as a dramatic high point, containing both expressive and recessive elements, with the latter dominating the finish of the second symphony.

Beyond ambiguity, the complexity of the new aesthetic Mahler attempts to explore is in the selection and avoidance of key elements within two prominent facets: Volkstümlichkeit: the studied avoidance of the sophistication of the later-nineteenth century Lied which was to be destined for the same performance space as the salon or the concert hall, and Volkston: the distancing of key elements of Mahler’s lieder from the idea of a subjective, lyrical voice. The combination of the two terms results in the aforementioned Wunderhorn-style art song.

The use of specific instrumental characters for decisive roles simplified the musical construction in many of the Wunderhorn songs. In the song Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz[iv] (1887–90) the signal-like gesture of the unison, beginning in the form of a nostalgic call of the alphorn, symbolizes the realm of nature. It causes one soldier to break apart from not only his duty but also the rigid world of military, and serves as the cause of his desertion. The military drum and march vocabulary that represent the military world, as in Revelge (1901) and Der Tramboursg’sell (1901), contrast with the nature-like motives inducing a sense of yearning and nostalgia within the soldier. Both the horn and drum roll are sounds at odds with one-another and symbolic of the human condition: Within the former is a longing for the freedom to go home and through the latter, the prevention of any emotional sentiment in the military code. Also, the nature of the orchestral song performed by soloists and the orchestra calls for a more intimate setting. Despite the intimacy, there is a misalignment between Mahler’s Wunderhorn style lieder and the actual eighteenth-century lieder when performed in large performance spaces such as concert halls, creating friction between what is presented to an observer and what is actually being conveyed by the subjects of the text. The observer or the audience here are metaphorically removed from the performance due to the lack of understanding on the observer’s part, and a lack of inclusivity of the observer on the character’s part. The inability by the two entities to interact or communicate can be attributed to the social friction caused. Moreover, at the time of their performance, Mahler’s use of borrowed materials, which might now be associated only with the term ‘Mahler’, would have sounded more stylistically ‘imitative’ and lacking flow and continuity to the audiences of his time[v]. This disjointed nature of his music can be expressed between the vocal orchestral pairings of songs where the overly abundant orchestra didn’t align with the simple naïve nature of the text. The two conflicts discussed indicate a shift away from the subjective idea of self expression by establishing distance or a sense of loss.

The sense of yearning and loss is reflected in Lied des Verfolgtem im Turm (1898), a dialogue song with a prisoner and a maiden both singing in a manner of urgent expression. The text raises a contrast between the two worlds of repression and freedom, represented by the prisoner and maiden respectively, as the prisoner sings out fervently and expresses the sophisticated contrast between the repression of his body and the everlasting freedom his thoughts. The maiden, in stark contrast, sings about a much more naïve understanding of freedom. The two parties appear distinct; the prisoner whose dialogue is restricted to the rigidness of the drumbeat and trumpet, is found to use fanfare sounds such as in lines 6 and 7 in the first verse, “kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen…” where the last words are stretched out to sound like a long note on a brass instrument. The maiden however, has a more free-flowing melody with the flexibility to modulate her verses and resorts to using vocables such as yodelling “Bergen […] auf hohen, wilden Bergen,” in verse 4, lines 2 and 4. The use of nature motifs such as air, bird, mountains and the colour green strengthen the maiden’s association with the realm of nature, and/or weakens her relation to the world of war, thereby further highlighting the naïve nature of her expression, as well as the contrast between her and his worlds.

A common misrepresentation of the dialogue songs are their allocation through gender roles. In another light, the sons can be interpreted as inner dialogues within independent individuals about their own various states of emotion, manners of expression and experiences of conflicts[vi]. Under this argument, the song speaks out on the essential nature of the world: sentimentality, coarseness and ordinariness of life on one hand, and pain, suffering and brutality of existence on the other.

The sense of loss and distance can be discussed through two other songs, Revelge (1901) and Der Tambourgsg’ sell (1901). The dynamics of the orchestra in Revelge experience a gradual decrease, with loud, momentary bursts of sound. The gradual decrease is accompanied by a gradual loss of presence within the subject of the song: a soldier. In the penultimate verse, the voice is modulated over the ‘Trallali, Trallaley, […]” to appear almost ‘ghost-like’, which supports the final verse of the song to describe the now dead soldier and others as “Des Morgens stehen da die Gebeine; in Reih’ und Glied, sie steh’n wie Leichensteine; in Reih’, in Reih’ und Glied.; Die Trommel steht voran[…].” The end to Revelge, with the gradual fading of sound symbolizes the fading of life. Der Tambourgsg’ sell also encompasses a similar sense of loss and remorse in the young boy on his way to the gallows. The sound of the drum roll is played in a cycle where it diminishes and fades quickly, and then accentuates at the height of emotional expression.

The first verse of Der Tambourgsg’ sell is a good example of diminishing drumroll. At the beginning of the second verse, the first two lines “O Galgen, du hohes Haus; du siehst so furchtbar aus![…]” are at the peak of lyrical expression and the drumroll is loud.

Mahler’s use of borrowed text in his compositions further heightens the sense of distance in relation to his individuality. By using the Wunderhorn texts, Mahler creates an intentional distance, the lack of an authorial voice in his music, heightening their ambiguity. Some have come to view this ambiguity as an extension of his inauthenticity in these works- which is an area where much discussion is yet to be had.

The Wunderhorn songs are a collection for the masses. Although Mahler explores social conflict (between Lied-aesthetics) in the Wunderhorn lieder, his journey of exploration revolves around the identity of the folk song, admirably uniting the identity of the young boy Gustav from Iglau in Bohemia with the successful conductor Mahler, a Vienna Conservatoire graduate and composer. This duality in Mahler’s character echoes the Wunderhorn style he tried to develop and refine further. His childhood self is represented by the simple naïve, folk-sounding segment of the song and his trained self finds a symbolic representation through the concept of modern construction within the songs. Through the exploration of conflict between Lied-aesthetics we arrive at the gateway into the the Wunderhorn collection, where social conflict persists and revolves around identity. Earlier what was contrasted on the basis of a timeline (eighteenth-century Lied vs late nineteenth-century Lied), is now contrasted on the basis of perspective between the actual and observed. Social conflict was also apparent in the the ambiguity encased within folk-tunes and the Wunderhorn song, the size and grandeur of the performance spaces and finally the conflict between the performer and the observer.


Works Cited

[i] Parsons, James. “Introduction: Why the Lied?” The Cambridge Companion to the Lied. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 1–11. Print.

[ii] Parsons, James. “Beyond Song: Instrumental Transformations and Adaptations of the Lied from Schubert to Mahler.” The Cambridge Companion to the Lied. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. 223–42. Print.

[iii] Zychowicz, James L. “The Lieder of Mahler and Richard Strauss.” The Cambridge Companion to the Lied. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 2004. 243–72. Print.

4.5 Revers, Peter. “Song and Song-symphony (I). Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies: Music of Heaven and Earth.” The Cambridge Companion to Mahler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 89–107. Print.

[iv] Mahler, Gustav, Robert Heger, Lothar Windsperger, Anny Felbermayer, Alfred Poell, Felix Prohaska, Viktor Graef, Lorna Sydney. Rückert Lieder: Lieder Aus Der Jugendzeit ; Des Knaben Wunderhorn. New York: Vanguard Classics, 2004. Internet resource.

[v] Johnson, Julian. Mahler’s Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. E-Book.

Hampson, Thomas. “Hampsong Foundation » “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” Texts and Translations.”Hampsong Foundation. Trans. Renate Stark-Voit. Hampsong Foundation, 2002. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.