Geert Woltjer, Analysis of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

The cycle of songs

The Kindertotenlieder are a clearly thought as a cycle. The first song is in d minor and major, and the cycle ends in d minor and major. In between the tonality only deviates a little bit: c minor in songs 2 and 3, Es major in song 4. The first song is the statement of the emotional problem. The development is in songs 3 till the first part of song 5. The second part of song 5 gives the conciliation in the tonic major (See Mitchell, 2002: 76). The harmony is very clear in the first song and the second part of the fifth song, while it is very unstable in song 2 and to a lesser extent in the first part of song 5. The D major in this song suggests a moment of light, that will become more important later on. Also the fourth song has some harmonic lack of stability.

The second characteristic is the consistency in some motives. We have seen that in most songs motives from the song before we transformed into motives for the new song. The process is especially clear in the transformation from the first part to the second part of the fifth song, where the storm motive is transformed into a lullaby motive.

The form differs a lot between the songs, although all have some strophic variation. The first song has the sonata form. Presentation of theme in the first strophe, varied repetition in the second, development in the third symbolizing the transformation of awareness and a recapitulation of the theme in the fourth song. The structure is polyphonic, perhaps suggesting the discussion between the darkness and light.

The second song is a very free form, with only the second part of the two strophes repeated. The structure is homophonic. The third song is strophic, with the second strophe having relatively small variations. The song is polyphonic in the description of the mother coming in and homophonic in where the emotion comes in. The pain is deeper in the second strophe, and the postlude fades out the main motive in a slow way ending on an unfinished point, the dominant.

The fourth song is strophic again, where the lack of rest is felt throughout, but the transformation from the unrealistic feeling that the child only has gone out and will come back gradually transforms to the idea that the father will meet him in heaven again. The reaching of the tonic at the very last note of the song gives an uneasy feeling of quietness. The unrest of the start of the song in the cellos is back in this postlude which also suggests a lack of solution.

The last song has a clear division in two parts. The first part is clearly strophic, with increasing tension. The last strophe is in the second part and is a complete transformation of the storm. The first part is homophonic, the second part polyphonic.

We didn't discuss the orchestration much yet. But if you look at the orchestration through the cycle, it starts with only two instruments in song 1, and then gradually becomes a full orchestra in the first part of song 5 and then suddenly becomes a relatively small orchestra in the second part of song 5. Within the songs there is in many cases also a clear structure in the orchestra. The first song starts with two wind instruments, and alternates passages with mainly wind and mainly string instruments. The oboe has a very central role in this song. In each strophe more strings are added. In the first strophe only lower strings are used, in the second strophe the second violins are added and in the third strophe the first violins are added and the lower strings are skipped (suggesting heaven), and in the restatement, the fourth strophe, all strings are included.

The second song has a focus on strings, harp and wood instruments, especially clarinets and flutes.  In the third song there are only low strings, where the (wood)wind instruments have a very important role, especially the English horn. Song 4 is colored by the horns.

Updated 24-03-2006 by G.B. Woltjer