Kindertotenleider 1- snapshots of a first rehearsal

As promised, I would like to try to backtrack to the time this film was shot and just throw in a bit of a performers perspective on the first song of the cycle.

It’s quite common for non-musicians to say things along the lines of “you must feel so lucky to get to do something you love… to get to perform music you love.” Of course, they’re right, but as I get older I find that the best thing about being a performer is not getting to perform, but getting to experience music in so many different ways. I suppose I would have to say that the conductor is extremely lucky in this respect- we can here the music in our head, work on it one line at a time, rehearse just this bit or that bit.

I wrote several months back something to the effect that Mahler, being a great conductor, had all but conductor-proofed his scores. I’ve also written about score marking, but Mahler basically marks your scores for your- he’s always calling things to your attention and giving very specific guidance about how things should be played.
The flip side of this is that he has conceived his music as conducted works, something Mozart and even Beethoven didn’t do. Mozart never expected his symphonies to be conducted in the sense we understand the word today, and Beethoven would have seen the roll of a conductor as purely a facilitator. Mahler, conductor that he was, write music where conducting is really a part of the music. This is maybe most obvious in things like the offstage music from Mahler 2, where alternating and overlapping meters, keys and sound stages can only be managed with a very specific conducting technique.

However, when we first read through this first song with the orchestra alone, I was amazed just how conductor-y it felt. Mitch rightly pointed out that this song in particular is largely an exercise in binary opposition- major versus minor, oboe versus horn, string versus wind. Considering this cycle was composed during the period of his career when he was writing some of his most contrapuntally intricate music, the starkness of this movement’s texture is striking.

The spare quality of the music means that every note, every color, every inflection is heard, and, interestingly, can be controlled and shaped in the moment. Mahler’s purely musical achievement in this movement is that it creates such a sense of empowerment for each musician involved. Right away in those first few bars everyone can here how the tension in the two overlapping lines and the intense separation of color between the solo horn and solo oboe mean that everything one of them does instantly effects how the other must respond. It’s true chamber music, except that somehow the conductor gets to participate in the collaboration instead of dictating from on high.

Finally, Mitch also pointed out how the text and the music are often in conflict- hopeful text set in despairing music an despairing text set more hopefully. Of course, part of what Mahler is getting at is the inner conflict of the poet who is constantly shifting back and forth between speaking to the lost child and speaking to himself. Throughout the whole song cycle, Mahler maintains this tension, as if the parent can only console himself through consoling the child. These songs are not about loss- the loss is already a fact when the first note is played. They are about coming to terms with lost, even about healing from loss, and by the end of the cycle we’ll see where Mahler feels that consolation can be found.

Again, you can see the song in WMV format here and in QuickTime here. For those of you who’ve been caught up in some of the annoying technical difficulties here over the last 36 hours, I apologize. Hopefully this will work more smoothly from now on.

This series continues with the second song, “Nun seh’ ich wohl…” here.

If you’re enjoying this series, you may want to visit my series on the Second Symphony, which begins here.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Kindertotenleider 1- snapshots of a first rehearsal”

  1. Stereophileblog:wes Phillips

    What the Conductor Told Me, Part One

    Posted Tue Jan 9, 2007, 10:22 AM ET

    Conductor Kenneth Woods guides us through Mahler’s Kindertotenleider. Articles like this ‘un are why the web was invented.

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » Kindertotenlieder 1: Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n…

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