Kindertotenlieder 3- Spot the ghost

If this is your first visit to this thread, you may wish to start from the first song of the cycle, which you can read about and listen to here.

One of the recurring literary themes of Kindertotenlieder is the notion of haunting. Wenn dein Mutterlein is the poem that deals most directly with this idea.

These songs, and particularly Wenn dein Mutterlein, slightly turn the notion of haunting on its head- it is the narrator’s wife, the still living mother of his children, who is described as a ghostly figure who he never really sees, and it is the child who is vividly described. He says “when your dear mother comes in the door, and I turn my head, look at her, my glance falls first not on her face” Later, he again says that when she “comes in the door with her candle’s glimmer,” it is again as if he is unable to see his wife, as if she is no longer real.  Candles are of course, often associated with ghosts in literature.

On the other hand, the daughter’s “dear little face” is “bright with joy.” He describes how she would “enter with her, slip into the room behind her as usual.” He is more able to see the person not there than the person still there, and the song ends with him alone “You, too quickly extinguished gleam of joy in your father’s cell.”

Mahler has constructed the whole cycle as an exercise in coming to terms with tragedy, and the cycle ends hopefully, and yet the healing that occurs only occurs in relation to the welfare of the children. There is never any sense in which the narrator of the family seems to recover. In fact, as we will see in the final song, the narrator’s wife ceases to be a figure of the living world at all. She has instead become a divine caretaker “They are sleeping as though in their mother’s house.”

Interestingly, Mahler’s own associations with the deaths of a child in his youth seem to be all connected to his mother. His relationship with his mother seemed to be decisively shaped by the death of his older brother. How interesting then that in these songs, the mother is never allowed to grieve, and that there is no relationship between the parents, only two parents trying to connect to the lost children.
 You can listen again here in WMV, here in QuickTime and on YouTube here.

If you’re interested in Mahler’s music, you may want to visit this earlier series on Mahler 2, complete with extensive audio samples.

 c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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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.

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