Parsing Mahler's Poetic Songs
Christmas saw the release of Mr. Hampson's superb recording of Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" ("The Youth's Magic Horn"), a series of enchanting lieder with orchestral accompaniment—Mahler also wrote a version with piano—based on folk verses collected by the early 19th-century German poets Clemens Brentano and Ludwig Achim von Arnim. This week, Mr. Hampson joins the New York Philharmonic for three performances of "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"), Mahler's moving settings of verses by the German Orientalist poet Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866). Then on Monday, Mr. Hampson will present for a studio, radio and Internet audience a recital and discussion of songs by Mahler, Schubert, Schumann and several Americans at the Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in New York.
Mr. Hampson credits Mahler's Wunderhorn songs with "drawing me into the study of early Romantic German literature." He explains that the taproot of German Romanticism was "the folk-spirit promoted by the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder and taken up by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It influenced lieder composers like Franz Schubert and Karl Loewe, poets Wilhelm Müller and Heinrich Heine, and culminated, if you will, with Mahler."
In our conversation we touch on the fact that, apart from their beauty, their expressive urgency, and often their sly humor, Mahler's songs and the poetry that inspired them occupy a central position in his orchestral music. In various ways, his Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies relate, through quotation and inspiration, to "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," while, in addition to "Kindertotenlieder," his Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies are variously linked to Rückert's poetry.
In light of Mahler's strong literary bent—he wrote the text for his early cantata, "Das Klagende Lied" ("Song of Lamentation") and continued to write lyric poetry throughout his life—it should come as no surprise that, whenever he felt it necessary, he revised the "Wunderhorn" texts he set. In fact, Mahler was only doing what the brothers-in-law Arnim and Brentano themselves had done in their three-volume collection published between 1805 and 1818, where they sometimes refined the folk tales' original language and occasionally completed and added verses to the many unfinished fragments they collected. The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Arnim and Brentano's contemporaries, held to a more purist philosophy and criticized their friends for tampering.
"Folk-lore collecting was a very complex process," notes Mr. Hampson, who hosted a scholarly seminar on this subject in Heidelberg, Germany, in 2006. "I think that the Grimms' chief complaint about the 'Knaben Wunderhorn' collection was that Brentano, in particular, often invested the old poetry with a moralistic, even semireligious tone." Yet, he notes, "while the most recent research clearly reveals that Arnim and Brentano reworked and completed more of the collected poetry than was previously thought, in early-19th-century terms they were performing an honest—indeed unprecedented—job of gathering folk material from a wide variety of sources and making it suitable for publication."
Mr. Hampson emphasizes the importance of understanding this when approaching Mahler's "Wunderhorn" series. "Mahler realized how Brentano had worked, and he recognized that these poems were themselves assembled from many different sources. So he honestly felt it necessary to his creative process to work on these poems as a sculptor carves living stone. Sometimes Mahler's carving was more cosmetic, sometimes rather extensive. But it is wrong to assume that he was in any way cavalier with his textual sources."
Turning to the rest of Mahler's song oeuvre, Mr. Hampson says that the composer's often unexpected juxtaposition of humor with drama, pathos and spiritual exultation "represents for me a world view along the lines of Dante's 'Divine Comedy,' with its presentation of metaphysical and profane ideas back to back—the sacred with the grotesque."
Mr. Hampson says that "certainly the humor in his songs is not really broad comedy as we Americans often understand it, but more the subtle twinkle of an eye as the adult recognizes the follies of immaturity." That passage from immaturity to wisdom, effectively the death of naïveté, is the underlying theme of an earlier Mahler cycle, "Songs of a Wayfarer" (1884 and revised thereafter). But with "Kindertotenlieder" the atmosphere is entirely different. Composed from 1901 to 1904, the intention of its five songs is often misunderstood by audiences. "The title is deliberately provocative," says Mr. Hampson, "but it has absolutely nothing to do with the death of his own daughter." (Maria "Putzi" Mahler died, age 4½, in 1907.) Hence, when Mr. Hampson performs the songs this week, he hopes "to invite the audience to consider why Mahler selected these five poems out of the 428 poems written by Rückert in his grief over the deaths of his two children from scarlet fever."
These poems, he says, "are full of references to stars, to light, to darkness and to other natural phenomena closely linked to the symbolism of German Romanticism. So while 'Kindertotenlieder' does not reflect a personal loss on Mahler's part, it is nevertheless his very beautiful, tightly woven contemplation of the process of grieving." Indeed, Mr. Hampson has lectured on this cycle as possibly representing Mahler's Requiem. By this he doesn't ally it with the Latin Mass for the Dead as set to towering, even terrifying music by Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. Instead, he sees the gentle philosophy of Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" as more closely akin to the comforting message of Brahms's German Requiem. As Mr. Hampson says, "It is nonliturgical, intended not for the dead but for us, the living."
Mr. Scherer writes about music and the fine arts for the Journal.