Kindertotenlieder I- Tempo?

I had an email from a very gifted composer friend the other day which seemed fodder for a blog post……

Hey Ken,

I recently turned on some Korean and Japanese composers to western dramatic music, and directed them specifically to Mahler. Interestingly, I told them to start with Kindertotenleider, and they all ran into your recordings.

While checking out your performance in Mexico City, I couldn’t help notice the tempo on the first movement. Its more brisk/slightly-faster than other recordings I’ve heard. I found an unexpected anxiety that comes form the music at that pace, which was unexpected….but I wonder what what guides your impulses for that movement? Anything you do that is out of the ordinary for most??

I ask because of an ever growing curiosity in Mahler’s perplexing music, and how its led….

Hope all is well!!



Great to hear from you, as always.

I can’t claim too much for my tempo in Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n- I’m sure there are even faster performances as well as many that are slower. I suppose Jesus Suaste and I arrived at that tempo through a mixture of artsy-fartsy deep thinking, simple obedience and mundane practicality.

On the “mundane practicality” front, we had to consider that Toluca (where this was filmed- we did it again in Mexico City the next day) is more than a mile above sea level (2,667 m (8,750 ft))  , and Jesus lives on the sea, which means there were places were we couldn’t go as slowly as we might have at a lower altitude. In this case, our preferred tempo was the one we ended up at, which gave him plenty of air for the phrase even at that altitude. However, there were other spots where we had to be more cautious, especially early in the week- in some instances, after a few days and a bit of acclimatization, we could take more time.

Then, there is simple obedience- Mahler makrs the movement “Langsam und schwermutig” (slowly and melancholy), but also “nicht schleppend” or “not dragging.” What is the threshold of “schleppend.” It’s hard to define the threshold of schlepping as a scientific matter, but I know it when I feel it. Often in Mahler, when we advises us to not do something, it is his way of gently suggesting we do the opposity. “Nicth eilen,” or “not hurried,” can mean to relax, “nicht schleppend” can mean to move it along. In this instance, I wanted to be true to Mahler’s instruction by avoiding any hint of stasis.

There are interesting features in the opening that hint at why Mahler asks us not to schlep- the long sequences need to hang together, the harmonic rhythm is fairly slow, and we need to hear the phrases as coherent units.
Also, the text of the song and its setting is telling. The narrator sings “Now will the sun brightly rise as if no misfortune came in the night.” However, the musical line does not rise- it is a descending sequence. It seems that the poet is not simply melancholy, but still deeply conflicted- trying to assert some sense of hope and failing. This friction, this tension between what the poet says (now the sun will brightly rise) and what we know the truth of his situation to be, all of this seems to argue for a slightly more agitated mood at the beginning.

Readers can check out the performance in question here-

There is lots more on Kindertotenlieder around the blog-

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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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