Music, even vocal music, is ultimately an abstract art form. Musical ideas, even those attached to words, are inherently abstract.
Nevertheless, we all find ourselves searching for the meaning of musical ideas. Wagner went so far as to assign meanings to themes through his technique of Leitmotif. He even expected his audiences to know who or what each theme stands for, and yet, what happens when Shostakovich quotes some of those same Leitmotifs in his 15th Symphony? Do they continue to mean the same thing there as they do in The Ring? Of course not.
Some themes seem so significant to the composers that use them, that one can’t help but want to understand what they meant to them. Shostakovich is a case in point- the obvious example is his DSCH motive, which appears in several important pieces, but there are actually many specific music ideas that he used in every single piece he every wrote- common gestures that are wired so deeply in the DNA of his music that they really demand our attention.
Shostakovich learned a lot from Mahler. Both of them seemed to look at their entire life’s work as a unified single project, and Mahler also has musical ideas that appear in all his music. The interval of the perfect fourth is an obsession for Mahler, and, as Donald Mithcell rightly points out, Mahler was able to build two entire symphonies (the 3rd and 4th) out of one modest song, Das himmlische Leben.
The melodic idea which opens the second song of Kindertotenlieder (and also, as Mitch pointed out, is foreshadowed in the ending of the first song) is one of those kernels that Mahler couldn’t let go of. It may be most instantly recognizable as the theme of his famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony, but it is also possibly the most important motive of the last movement of the same piece. It’s also the main theme of the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.
Perhaps no movement of Mahler has been more argued about than the Adagietto. For years, many commentators and performers saw it as a work of mourning, and it was even played at many a famous funeral. Then, someone very correctly pointed out that he had written it for his wife, Alma. “Aha!” everyone said, “the Adagietto is a love song! It’s not about death at all!”
Well, if the Adagietto is a love song, then it stands to reason that its main theme is a love theme. We might even call it Alma’s theme, except Mahler called the second theme of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony the “Alma” theme. In fact, the Alma theme in the Sixth is based on the exact same scalar ascent of a perfect fourth, just in a different modal placement.
Of course, you can already see that we’re quickly on complicated psychological ground when you put a theme associated with love for one’s wife into a song about the eyes of a dead child. Surely it would have made more sense to use that motive as the basis of the third song, Wen dein Mutterlein (When your dear Mother), which actually deals with the narrator’s spouse?
So maybe it’s not an Alma theme at all? We know that the Fourth Symphony is also a work about the death of a child because the song which is the last movement tells us the child is in Heaven, (although people are generally less scared of it than of Kindertotenlieder because it has a more innocuous title). Is it significant that this theme appears in the first movement of the Fourth and in this song? Maybe it is a love theme in a broader sense, not Alma specific at all? Love for a child, love for a spouse, love for a friend?
The fact is, it appears in so many contexts and in so many guises we could never know what it really means. Or perhaps, Mahler wanted it to have a complexed and multilayered meaning.
In fact, I think it appears in so many contexts and so many guises that we can safely conclude that Mahler himself, like us, was trying to understand what it means- at least he may have been trying to understand what it meant to him. This gesture, as well as a few others, seemed to quite literally haunt him throughout all his life. They’re like musical ghosts, shadows that were always with him and yet which he could never pin down.
So perhaps that very un-knowability is the reason that he chose this song in which to use this iconic theme. After all, the poem is about haunting- being haunted by memories, and trying to understand what those memories, what those mental pictures, those “dark flames” really meant.
Thanks for reading, and we can move on to song 3 tomorrow.