Musical Murder Mystery: Mahler’s Das klagende Lied

Musical Murder Mystery: Mahler’s Das klagende Lied

On October 4, 5, and 6, Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts Mendelssohn and Mahler, a program of spooky masterpieces featuring the Houston Symphony Chorus. In this post, discover the chilling ghost story that inspired Mahler’s first mature work, Das klagende Lied. Visit for tickets and more information.

“Ever since she had taught him to read, his mother had bought him illustrated books by Nordic authors which were sold as stories for children but in reality were the cruelest and most perverse that one could read at any age. […] familiarity with them did not alleviate the terror they caused. On the contrary, it became acute.”

Gabriel García Márquez’s provocative evaluation of Germanic fairytales originally appeared in the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, but it might equally well have fit Mahler’s experience of them as a child. In later years, Mahler’s childhood friend, Theodor Fischer, recalled that the two boys would listen to Fischer’s nursemaid tell such stories. One in particular seems to have haunted the boy who would grow up to be one of the great composers of his age.

The Crime

Scholars have identified several possible written sources for the chilling ghost story told in Mahler’s Das klagende Lied (usually translated as The Song of Lamentation), including the Grimm brothers’ The Singing Bone, but Mahler’s version is unique. A proud queen declares that she will marry the man who can bring her a flower that grows deep in the forest. Two brothers—the younger fair and kind, the elder dark and cruel—set out to find it. The virtuous younger brother naturally succeeds, and he places the flower in his cap and falls asleep beneath a tree. The elder brother finds him, and in a fit of jealousy, kills him and takes the flower for himself. Later, a minstrel unknowingly stumbles across the bleached bones of the younger brother and fashions one of them into a flute. When he begins to play it, the voice of the younger brother speaks of his grisly fate. Determined to bring this injustice to light, the minstrel appears at the royal court on the day of the elder brother’s wedding to the queen. When he is invited to perform, he plays the flute and the dead brother’s voice pours forth. Shocked, the would-be king grabs the flute and plays it himself, only to have his brother’s spirit confront him directly. Horrified, the knights and ladies flee, the queen collapses, and the castle sinks into the earth.

The Motive

A young, bearded Gustav Mahler.

Whether this is the version of the story Mahler heard as a boy or his own creation is impossible to say, but as an 18-year-old student at Vienna’s Conservatory, he decided to make it the basis of what would become his first major work. Likely inspired by the example of Wagner (who wrote both the words and music for his operas), Mahler wrote the poems that would serve as the foundation of Das klagende Lied himself. He then plunged into an intense, all-consuming phase of composition, completing the work by November 1880. Years later, Mahler’s friend and confidant Natalie Bauer-Lechner reported that even “a seemingly insignificant passage” had caused him to become “profoundly shaken and overcome by intense excitement. Whenever he reached it, he always had a vision of himself emerging out of the wall in a dark corner of the room. He felt such intense physical pain, when this ‘double’ [Doppelgänger] tried to force its way through the wall, that he could not go on with his work and had to rush from the room—until one morning, while working on this same passage, he collapsed in a nervous fever.”

Natalie chalked up this extraordinary episode to Mahler’s brief experimentation with a strict vegetarian diet (in his later writings, Wagner had advocated vegetarianism, and it subsequently became all the rage among admirers of his music). Psychologizing biographers, on the other hand, have speculated that in composing this piece Mahler was processing feelings of survivor’s guilt over the death of his little brother, Ernst, who had succumbed to heart disease in 1875, aged only 13.

Alternatively, others contend that the story has political undertones, as it is fundamentally about the ability of music to speak truth to power and expose injustice. Though the word “klagende” is usually translated as “lamenting,” it also has connotations of accusation (indeed, the German word for a law suit is “Klagen”). It is interesting to note that throughout, the singers act as narrators—storytellers like Theodor Fischer’s nursemaid rather than the characters in the story—with one exception: the only character to actually speak directly to the audience is the victim, the ghost of the slain brother.

Did Mahler see himself as a victim? Mahler’s wife, Alma, would paint a picture of a violent home life for the young Mahler, although her accounts of other details of Mahler’s life have not always proved accurate. It also bears mentioning that as a man of Jewish birth, Mahler faced increasingly virulent anti-Semitism throughout the course of his life—indeed, simply pursuing a career as a composer during this era challenged anti-Semites who believed that people of Jewish ancestry were incapable of composing great music. Whatever the cause, Theodor Fischer—with whom Mahler would listen to fairytales—reported that as a child, “he was in fact characterized by a superior sense of justice, which could neither commit nor condone unfairness, while at the same time demonstrating forbearance, philanthropy and sympathy with people suffering from poverty and distress.”

The Music

Whatever Mahler’s sources of inspiration, he discovered his voice as a composer in the work that emerged from this dark night of the soul and created his first masterpiece. Mahler himself described it as “The first work in which I really came into my own as ‘Mahler,’” and it already bears many of his unmistakable hallmarks: a fine-tuned orchestral palette, evocations of nature and folksong, an uncanny sense of irony, and a theatrical, dramatic intensity.

Unfortunately, the piece’s fate was almost as tragic as the story it told. A sprawling cantata for soloists, chorus, an enormous orchestra (including six harps!), and an offstage wind band, the piece was initially divided into three parts: the first relating the hunt for the flower up until the moment of the murder; the second the minstrel’s discovery; and the third the wedding. Altogether, this original version lasts over an hour, and the time and expense necessary for a performance likely seemed a bit over-ambitious to publishers and those considering programming a work by an as yet unknown 20-year-old. Furthermore, the work was quite progressive for its time, full of adventurous harmonies and a sui generis formal structure. Perhaps the most original moment in the score occurs during the wedding scene, when the offstage band continues to play trite, celebratory music as the elder brother’s crime is revealed—a moment of echt-Mahlerian theatrical irony. The offstage and main stage ensembles play in different keys, looking forward to the harmonic language of the twentieth century:

On one occasion, Natalie reported that “[…] innumerable barrel organs [were] blaring out from merry-go-rounds, swings, shooting galleries and puppet shows […] a military band and a men’s choral society had established themselves there as well. All these groups, in the same forest clearing, were creating an incredible musical pandemonium without paying the slightest attention to each other. Mahler exclaimed: ‘You hear? That’s polyphony, and that’s where I get it from!”

Mahler submitted it to be considered for the prestigious Beethoven Prize in 1881, but the judges (who included none other than Brahms in their number) opted for a far more traditional work instead. Undeterred, Mahler sent his score to Franz Liszt, who was known for his progressive musical views, but Liszt responded curtly that “the composition which you so kindly sent to me, contains much of value. The poem, however, does not seem to be of a kind to guarantee it a success.”

The work would only receive its premiere in 1901, 21 years after it was first completed. During that time, Mahler would make significant revisions to the piece, including cutting the entire first part and refining the orchestration and choral writing. While both versions have their admirers, the revision is clearly the work of a more mature composer. In addition to shortening the work’s run time, omitting the first part of the piece creates an air of mystery as we discover the story along with the minstrel, intensifying its dramatic impact.

Whichever version one prefers, there can be no question that Das klagende Lied held great personal significance for Mahler, who fought to have it performed for over 20 years. It is the piece in which he became himself—a feast for the senses and a powerful musical drama.

Don’t miss Das klagende Lied at Mendelssohn and Mahler October 4, 5, and 6! Visit for tickets and more information.

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