Mahler’s Intentional Failure

Interestingly, what we know as the “Ruckert Lieder” by Mahler were conceived as individual songs, rather than as a cycle like the Kindertotenlieder or the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen.

Mahler orchestrated four out of the five songs, which he conducted once on a concert with a chamber orchestra in Vienna- Liebst du um Schoenheit was orchestrated in 1911 by Max Puttman. As a result, we can’t know with absolute certainty what order he would have wanted the songs sung in, and most performers agonize a fair bit about what to finish with.

Like most conductors, I can’t imagine not doing Liebst du, notwithstanding the fact that it was written a year later than the other four and wasn’t performed as part of the set by Mahler. Perhaps the fact that it was really intended as a very personal love letter for Alma left Mahler with a reluctance to share it with the wider world, but he did publish it and seemed to sanction the orchestration.

In any case, of the five songs, there are 3 which are marvelous miniatures, each from 90 seconds to about 3 minutes in length. Then, there are two much more epic settings- Um Mitternacht and Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. In a way, the whole meaning of the cycle hinges on which of these songs comes last.

For many years, performers tended to finish with Mitternacht. Why not? It has a powerful, strong, moving conclusion. We all learn early on- if you want a great audience response, end loud. Even Mahler finished with Mitternacht when he conducted the four songs he orchestrated.

My thinking about this was shaped by my very visceral reaction to the first live performance of these songs I heard (which, in fact, did end with Mitternacht). It is a remarkable song, a truly harrowing portrait of a soul at a metaphysical midnight. The oppressive atmosphere is evoked in part through Mahler’s remarkable scoring- no strings, only winds. Again and again, Mahler  exploits the extremes of the low ranges of the instruments. He makes the bassoons play several low A’s, technically a half step below their lowest note. (Some bassoonists just shove a tube of rolled up sheet music in the top of their instruments, others use paper towel rolls. One can also buy very expensive extensions that look cool and sound exactly like a paper towel roll. My favorite bassoonist described his low A technique in his inimitable English as “I think maybe I am just doing some crazy shit to my face and just making it work somehow with this shit.” Likewise, the horns are often growling in the depths of their lowest register).

However, at the end of the song, the poet puts his faith in a higher power, and suddenly the heavy brass enter and all ends joyfully.

Perhaps a more comfortably religious person would respond with greater conviction to this ending, but I always felt that this sudden epiphany was not characteristic of Mahler, and that somehow it didn’t ring true.

What experience has taught me is that very often, when a work of genius doesn’t ring true, or if it feels incomplete, it is not a mistake on the part of the composer, but is very much on purpose- part of a larger design.

In almost every other work of Mahler, there are what Adorno calls moments of “breakthrough,” but what is unusual, possibly unique, in this song is that the breakthrough comes suddenly, after suffering but without struggle and seems to “succeed” on the first try. If one knows the last movement of the First Symphony, there is a similar breakthrough, but that moment fails and collapses. Likewise, when the choral appears for the first time in the 2nd Mvt of Mahler V, it fails, and only “succeeds” at the very end of the symphony, over forty minutes later.

But perhaps, the same thing happens in these songs? Perhaps Um Mitternacht is intended to be a “failed” breakthrough. I asked my friend, the Mahler scholar Peter Davison what he thought.

Um Mitternacht – I know what you mean. The light comes from nowhere, but this is a typically Mahlerian opposition; the light is found in the heart of darkness – think of the Midnight Song from the Third! There the light comes after the movement break, as also after Nachtmusik II in the Seventh. In both these cases, you have a sense of the light bursting in after the curtains are pulled back. Mahler himself compared the end of the song with the Resurrection chorus, where transcendence erupts out of apocalyptic crisis. The eruption of transcendence also occurs in the second movt. of the fifth, which seems the most obvious parallel, because that also comes out of no where. In that instance, we discover it is a fragile victory and collapses back into gloom and despair, and we don’t return to that sense of triumph until the very end of the work. You suspect the same might happen in Um Mitternacht, because the position of hope is like someone telling themselves there’s no need to worry, when there bloody well is! It will still be a long night, even if you know the dawn will eventually come.

Adorno was skeptical, as is de la Grange, about the conviction of the conclusion of UM – which grows out of the very lowest tuba note. Mahler implies that faith in the knowledge of dawn’s approach provides reassurance in the time of trial. So the ending is not a true moment of transcendence, but only the promise of it ; which allows Ich bin der Welt to carry the resolution, because here the ego is not swinging from darkness to light (and presumably back again) but finds stillness where light and dark no longer have meaning. (all emphases added)

Peter said it better than I could, but this is exactly why I think Ich bin der Welt must come last (it’s also the best song he ever wrote, and his most personal). UM ends in catharsis, but the catharsis is not earned, in Mahlerian terms, and so, as soon as we start the next song, or even as soon as the brass finish the last chord, we are back in a world of uncertainties and insecurities. As in all Mahler, true transcendence comes at a higher price.

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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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4 comments on “Mahler’s Intentional Failure”

  1. Richard Sparks
  2. Erik K

    Great, great post. I would put the chances of me listening to the Ruckert Lieder at 100% this evening.

  3. Kenneth Woods


    Great, as always, to hear from you. I’m buying that disc today. It sounds like something I must hear….

    All best


  4. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 1, a challenge

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