Saturday, 13 October 2012

Mahler - Kindertotenlieder 1/5

It's about time I tried to squeeze one of these out.

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, (Songs on the Death of Children), have to be the apotheosis of a certain  conception of Romanticism in music; there's probably nothing out there more bleak, more morose, more histrionic, perhaps no more extreme example of the quintessentially romantic intertwining of natural phenomena and emotional states. But at the same time, it is also one of the first proper stirrings of musical modernism, with its introduction of the stripped down chamber orchestra at the very height of the trend towards musical gigantism, and its frequently barren, wandering counterpoint laying the seeds of the second Viennese school's sound world and texture.

Composed between 1901-04, there are five songs in the cycle, settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, on the death of his own child. The one that I have transcribed here is the first, "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n", with the text as follows:
Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn!
Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein!
Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein!

Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken,
Mußt sie ins ew'ge Licht versenken!
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!
Which translates as:
Now the sun will rise as brightly
as if no misfortune had occurred in the night.
The misfortune has fallen on me alone.
The sun - it shines for everyone. 
You must not keep the night inside you;
you must immerse it in eternal light.
A little light has been extinguished in my household;
Light of joy in the world, be welcome.
(from here) 

The music itself is of remarkable contrast, beginning with a weightless counterpoint in diminished harmony, before chromatic rises and falls lead to an emphatic D minor. There are the usual Mahlerian major to minor modulations, and a more lush, textured section with a typically romantic arpeggiated harp part. The climax is a tempestuous passage which slips sideways between chords before dropping back with resignation into the main theme.

Transcribing it for the guitar is both simple and bloody difficult. The fact that the piece is in D minor means that it's well suited to the instrument's own sonority, and didn't require transposing. However, in order for the piece to make sense on its own, and also perhaps to abstract it a little from its more 19th century connections, I have also decided to render the vocal line as part of the transcription. In the more spartan passages this is not really a problem, but in the more complex section this adds a whole extra voice on what is already quite a tricky passage, with at least three independent voices requiring expression. You can hear that it's not exactly easy to achieve, although as usual a more skilled player than I could probably get more out of it.  As with many transcriptions there are points that require artificial harmonics, in this piece more so than usual, and getting the guitar to do justice to the dynamic range of the piece is not easy either. That said, I'm quite pleased that it has been possible to play the piece without chopping huge amounts of sound from it, so it's at least a small success.

As you can imagine, the undecided straddling of the romantic and modernist views of the world appeals to me greatly, so I hope you find that I haven't butchered it too much.


eddbagenal said...

Wonderfully restrained, thanks Douglas.

kevin said...

nice! hard work indeed. I arranged the whole cycle for guitar and voice:

enjoy ~ kevin germain

Murphy said...


Thanks very much, and congratulations! Interestingly, some time after I recorded this I found and purchased your arrangement, although at this stage I haven't had time to properly look through yet.

I've worked on all five of the pieces, although the first half of 'In Diesem Wetter' I'm not quite sure how to do justice to - I'll go back and have a look at yours to see how you've attempted it.

One day, perhaps, I'll have time to do them all properly.