Skip to page content

About this Piece


1880; rev. 1892-93 and 1898-99

Length: 60 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th = waldhorn), 4 trumpets (1st and 2nd = cornets), 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, 6 harps, strings, chorus, soprano, alto, boy soprano, boy alto, tenor, and baritone soloists. Offstage orchestra: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 E-flat clarinets, 3 bassoons, 3 trumpets (1st, 2nd, and 3rd = flugelhorn), 1 flugelhorn, 2 cornets, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals)

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In his epic biography of Gustav Mahler, Henry-Louis de la Grange paints a picture of the child Gustav as one enthralled with the acoustical and psychological elements of sound, both as music and as the spoken word. He writes: “…the child heard the sad Slav cradle songs that were to make such an impression on him and later so deeply mark his music. He also heard gay rounds sung by the peasants…and listened passionately to the stories he was told… .” As Mahler’s personal life is nearly indistinguishable from his art, it can be said that the sensual experiences of his childhood infused his song-cycles and symphonies (especially symphonies 1-4) with deep spiritual and psychological implications of the correspondence of childhood mingled with memory. In his own words: “The impressions of the Spiritual experiences of that period gave my future life its form and its content… .”

It is quite fitting then that Mahler based his first major work, the cantata Das klagende Lied, upon folktale. As is well known, especially through the work of the renowned analytical psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), folktale and myth present to us psychological archetypes embedded in the receding hinterland of the human psyche. These archetypes produce primordial images and motifs that, through the mediation of metaphor in art and religion reconnect (religio) our consciousness (both individual and collective) to our common human origins lost in oblivion. It is the power of the archetypal motif dressed in metaphor to create in us a resonance so deep as to cause recognition of ourselves in an archaic past, a past that might be likened to a “childhood” of humankind. In this light folktales are, in the words of the poet E. J. Pratt, “fables of identity”.

Whether or not one agrees philosophically with the foregoing exposé, it is clear that Mahler understood, either intuitively or consciously (it doesn’t matter which) the great potential of the metaphoric aspects of folktale to bring primeval archetypal motifs into the present. This can readily be inferred from the poem he wrote as the text for Das klagende Lied, at the center of which lies the ancient crime of fratricide, and the epiphany of a child’s soul.

The intellectual and artistic ambience out of which Mahler’s poem emerged was one dominated by a late Romanticism and historicism preoccupied with the German Middle Ages, and perhaps more importantly the influence of opera steeped in Nordic legend and mythology emanating from the pen of Richard Wagner. During the year 1877 Mahler attended the University of Vienna where he studied Middle High German, and in addition attended lectures on Old High German literature. It is apparent that he drew upon several literary works to fashion his poem. He derived motifs from the fairy tales contained in the anthology Neues deutsches Märchenbuch of 1855 by Ludwig Bechstein (1801-1860), one story of which was entitled Das klagende Lied. Another important motif was taken from a Brothers Grimm tale, Der singende Knochen (The Singing Bone).

As related in Bechstein’s story, a brother and sister search deep in a forest for a flower that will bring to one of them the succession to the throne. The girl finds the flower and is murdered by her brother as she sleeps. A peasant wandering in the forest stumbles upon a bone, makes a flute of it and is horrified to hear a child’s voice sing the story of the girl’s murder. Mahler replaces the brother and sister with two brothers (from the Grimm tale) and the resulting fratricide; the bone flute motif remains as in Bechstein’s version.

Mahler’s poem is composed in three parts: Waldmärchen (Forest Legend); Der Spielmann (The Minstrel); and Hochzeitsstück (Wedding Piece).

Waldmärchen immediately establishes a sonically ominous atmosphere and introduces a web of musical themes and motifs that weave throughout the work. It tells the story of a haughty queen who will wed only a knight who finds a red flower in the forest. The two brothers seek the flower, the younger of whom finds the flower, plucks it, and falls asleep. The older brother comes upon the younger, murders him, and absconds with the flower. In Der Spielmann a wandering minstrel comes upon a bone in the forest, fashions it into a flute and upon playing it hears the lament of the murder of the younger brother by the older. The minstrel then takes the flute to the king’s great hall. Now, in Hochzeitsstück, the minstrel comes upon the wedding of the haughty queen and the older brother. He plays the flute, which retells the story of the murder. The older brother scornfully takes the flute and plays it; the flute directly accuses him of the murder, at which point the queen falls to the ground and the walls of the castle collapse.

The history of the composition and subsequent revisions of Das klagende Lied is fascinating. Mahler composed the original three-movement version between 1878 and 1880, having completed the poem in March of 1878. In this version, the bone flute was scored for a boy’s voice and an off-stage band was used in Der Spielmann and Hochzeitsstück. Also, the orchestration boasted six harps and natural horns. Mahler never heard this original three-movement version.
In the 1893 revision Mahler dropped the first movement, deleted the off-stage band, reduced the harps from six to two, and cut the vocal soloists from eleven to four, eliminating the boy’s voices. The second revision came in 1898. He reworked the off-stage band into the orchestral fabric and rewrote the textural balances between the soloists, chorus, and orchestra. However, he never rejoined Waldmärchen to Der Spielmann and Hochzeitstück.

The version heard on this concert is the first edition of the original three-movements composed 1878-80, prepared by Rheinhold Kubik and published in March 1997 by Univesal Edition. The world premiere of this version took place at Manchester, England on October 7, 1997.

The restoration of Waldmärchen with its original instrumentation and soloists brings back to the cantata its original sequence of events, hence greater logic and meaning, especially as regards the voice of the bone flute. In each version, Mahler had kept the narration divided between soloists and even within the chorus. As a consequence these voices are not dramatic characters. He left to the bone flute the only dramatic role in the cantata. It is in this original version that a boy’s voice sings the “plaintive song” of the title. This voice emanating from the bone flute is not an embodiment of a child, not a personification of a particular being (remember that the younger brother was of marrying age), but if anything, it is a voice the quality of which is disembodied, timeless. As Rheinhold Kubik states: “A boy’s voice is intended, rather, to evoke associations of the supernatural world of life after death. Related to this is the iconographical depiction of the soul of a dead person as a child that is found in medieval sculptures from Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals.” The voice is also an archetype of the ancient lament for the violation of familial blood, a lament that recedes at least as far back as the blood of Abel crying from clots of earth.

    — Steven Lacoste is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Archivist.