Geert Woltjer, Analysis of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder

Analysis of song 2

The poem is perhaps the most complicated of the cycle. It is a Petrarchan sonnet (see: Russell, 1991), consisting of two quatrains followed by two tercets. The first quatrain is about the dark eyes of his child, that concentrate as flames the whole power of the child. The word "Augenblicke"  has a double meaning: moment and look of the eyes. The "dunkle Flammen" seem to be paradoxical till you know that it is about the eyes, that can flame and at the same time be dark.

The second quatrain contrasts with the motive of "seh" and "Augen" in the first quatrain. This one is about blindness, mist. The dark flames wanted to go back to where they came from, and the poet didn't see this. The essence is in the last sentence, about the mystical source of all rays. Agawu(1982) calls this the main statement of the poem. Lines 9-10 then give a contrast, where lines 11-14 are a restatement.

In the first tercet the meaning is made more explicit: the eyes tried to say that they like to stay nearby but that this was not possible because of misfortune. The last tercet tell that what are eyes now will be far stars in future nights.

The form of the music is the least strophic from all Kindertotenlieder. The fourth strophe is a variation of the second strophe, where the second line of the second strophe is replaced by an orchestral line without words. Maybe this helps to remember the words "gewoben vom verblendenden Geschicke"  of the second  strophe (see Gerlach, 1983: 33). The last line of the third strophe is a variation of the first line of the first strophe, with the second line only in the orchestra, and going into the fourth strophe immediately after that.

The harmonic structure of the song is by far the most complex of the whole cycle. It starts in c minor, changes in C major in m. 15, goes back to c minor in m. 22, and to C major in m. 29. But in m. 41 it goes to a clear D major, comparable with the d minor of the first song and goes into g minor during m. 49-60. Then it goes back to C major and finally, in the postlude, to c minor. So, the harmonic structure can be seen as I-II-V-I, but is much more complicated, because the tonic is not very visible during most of the song. For example, in bar 72 the seventh chord on as in the harp suggest a solution towards Des, that was already heard in bar 70, or maybe a solution towards Es, but it solves into a clear c minor chord, that as a consequence hangs a little bit in the air at the end of the song.

Let us analyze the song from the start. The first four bars are an orchestral prelude, with clear motivic relationships with the first song. It starts with material from the first song. In bar 81 of the first song, on "licht der Welt" the voice uses D-E-F-F, and this resembles the Bes-C-D-D at the start of the second song. Also the half-tone rise D-Es refers clearly to the central motive of the first song. The motive in bar 3-4 is a variation of the first motive, with the start faster and the long notes lengthened. But the motive also has the same notes as "Heil-Heil" in bar 74-75 of the first song. If we have a look at the whole prelude in bar 1-4, we see a rising line from Bes till Bes an octave higher, where in the first half the first three tones have whole tone steps, while in the second figure they have chromatic steps.

The melody of the first phrase is build of elements of the basic motive, rising and declining. The same is true for the second line (bar 9-10) that refers to the first line as does in the orchestral introduction the second motive relate to the first motive: eighth instead of quarter notes, giving a faster dynamics. Also this line can be seen as buil of the basic three-note motive, in this case downwards, relating it with the downward movement in "dunkle Flammen". Finally, the motive of the repeated Augen refers clearly to the  repetition in the orchestra introduction.

With respect to harmony, the first bar of the second song seem to fit in well into the harmony of d minor of the first song. But although the g chord at the second bar is the Cis in the second bar creates a tension that gives its solution towards an Es7 chord in the second half of bar 2. This transformation may symbolize the opening of the eyes. According to this interpretation, at the end of the second motive the eyes see something different than in the first motive. And when the voice enters at the same pitch as the orchestral introduction and tells about the eye, the perspective is already clear at the first bar: an As chord, the resolution of the Es7 chord in bar 2; there is no repetition of the D in the voice, although the short G in the bass colors the chord a little bit with the g chord, the chord of bar 5. The rise from the g to the As chord gives an atmosphere of optimism, consistent with the word "wohl". Below the word " dunkle" the Fis suggest a transformation, a transformation back to the g minor, that is heard as a ninth chord on bar 8, although it could also be interpreted as a seventh chord on Bes, with the G only has an appoggiatura. This double interpretation is consistent with the word "Flammen". Then the harmony continues with a c7 in bar 9, a Bes7 in bars 10 and 11, a c at the end of bar 12, to transform in a Des7 in bar 13. So, the harmony of the first quatrain is not well-defined, although the suggestion is more or less c minor, it starts with its major parallel Es with a destabilizing seventh, takes then the dominant of c, followed by the IV and V of Es, to go back to c as a dominant, then going to the V of Es, having only a one-note moment of being in the tonic (but not in its root position) to go surprisingly to a completely different harmony, the Des7 chord. This creates another world on the repetition of "Augen", given extra attention by pp after a crescendo. The change in harmonic perspective during these first 13 bars may symbolize the flickering of the flames, and at the same time the change in view. And the change in perspective is especially visible under the second "Augen".

The orchestral bar 14 transforms with the basic motive the harmony towards C major, a very open sound, that may symbolize the power of the eyes concentrated in the eyes, but immediately changes in a minor, followed by d minor and finally f minor. Recognize that the motive on "Blicke"  in bar 17 is the same as on "blicke" from "augenblicke" in bar 10. The concentration of the power is symbolized by the increase in speed of the line of the notes in the voice combined with the harsh sound of the sforzando triad in bar 18 with only major third intervals. As in the rest of the voice line, the voice follows carefully the way you would tell it when speaking instead of singing. It seems that Mahler did rewrite this passage at least nine times before finding its final form!

The second quatrain gives a contrast. The repetition of the basic motive in bar 19-21 gives a transformation, where you have to wait a full bar before the chord E is resolved to the F in bar 21. The contrasting word " Doch" is on the last beat of bar 21 with a G not fitting into the chord of f minor in the orchestra, giving extra accent to this contrasting word. The voice is rather diatonic in nature, in contrast to the last part of the voice line in m. 26-28. The harmony is G7-As-Large thirds-Es-Des-Fis-b7-7-Des. The horn motive in bar 26 resembles the first part of the voice in song 1, while the whole line of the voice has a lot of non-harmonic notes. In bar 28-30 the voice rises till its climax on the ray of light that goes home, using the basic motive at the end of bar 28 and the development towards "Schicke". The harp figures may symbolize light, while the fast movement upwards may symbolize the movement of the "Strahl". The oboe (?) melody below "dorthin" is the same as at the start of song 1. Very interesting is also the procedure on m. 33-34. The harmonic development in bar 31-34 is F-(b-)e-(a-)b7-f7-C, where the last one is a 6-4 chord on the major tonic C, that creates a very open sound below "Strahlen", and suggests a very clear tonic solution through G to C root. But it goes to "stammen" first with a very cluttered chord, although with G as its root, then creates a G7, as it should, but goes to Des7 in bar 37. So, there is a moment where you see the ray, but then it is confused as it was.

Then in bar 38 a new theme starts with the basic motive that is repeated in half speed and goes into a complete transformation in bar 41. The "leuchten" is symbolized by the change towards D major and its IV (G), the harp movement, and the optimistic flute sound. But in bar 44 the optimism is ended by unclear harmonies, a reappearance of the basic motive, where the harmony changes to A7, g minor and finally Es in bar 49. A short version of a variation of the first theme is repeated in bar 48-53, followed by a smaller variation of the second theme, where the voice has the high notes on "Sterne" in bar 66 in contrast with the "Strahlen" in bar 34. The way the unresolved pain is symbolized by the coda has already been discussed.

If we compare the first song with the second song, the difference is enormous. The first song had a clear d-D harmony, while the harmony in the second song was very confused. The first song was clearly strophic and very well-structured, the second song has a more rhapsodic structure, although there is also some form like A-BA-C-A-BA (see Odefey, 1999). While the first song had a strong counterpoint, the second song is mainly homophonic in character. The use of the orchestra is also completely different. In the first song there is a contrast between wind and string instruments, in the second song strings, clarinets and flutes are also more important, horns are less important. But there is also much the same, such as tempo, some motives, the duration of the song, the minor start and end with major parts in between.