The evening of music theatre conducted by Lorenzo Viotti and staged by Calixto Bieito in a space designed by Rebecca Ringst combines two key works by Gustav Mahler. The 19-year-old's early fairy-tale cantata Das klagende Lied (1879/80) is followed by the late Kindertotenlieder from the first half of the last decade of his life (1901/04).
In Das Klagende Lied, a hybrid of lied, symphonic music and choral cantata, a series of opera plans never realised by the conservatoire graduate also came to fruition in a creative confrontation with Richard Wagner's music drama. Thus the young composer drew on the two most advanced Ring scores, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, in terms of harmony and instrumentation, as well as on the archaic intonations of Meistersinger, and created, also as his own librettist, a far-reaching fairy-tale cosmos full of open and hidden allusions to Wagner's world of myths. Mahler wove motifs from the Brothers Grimm's Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812-1858) and Ludwig Bechstein's Neuem deutsche Märchenbuch (1865) into the ballad »vom singenden Knochen«.
In the first movement, the forest fairy tale, it is reported that the pride of the man-hating queen can only be broken by the discovery of a red flower. Two brothers set out to find it. The younger lucky finder is slain by the elder in his sleep under a willow tree. In the second movement, The Minstrel, a travelling minstrel finds a bone of the dead man, from which he carves a flute; when the minstrel puts it to his lips, it begins to sing the murdered man's lament and accusation:
Ah minstrel, dear minstrel mine,
I must now lament
For a pretty little flower
My brother has slain me
In the woods my young body is bleaching!
My brother frees a blissful wife!
In the third movement, the wedding piece, the minstrel makes the singing bone sing his song at the queen's wedding feast with the elder brother. The unmasking of the murderer brings down the walls of the gleaming castle.
Mahler regarded the Klagendes Lied as his actual, fully valid »Opus 1«, in which he had found his unmistakable tone and for whose performance he strongly advocated even after the score was rejected by the jury of the Beethoven Prize offered by the Vienna Society of Friends of Music:
He revised his score in several stages until he was able to give the world premiere of the work, which originally featured six harps and a long-distance orchestra, in a version shortened by the first movement, on 17 February 1901 in Vienna under his personal musical direction. Within the framework of our project, the complete one-hour original version will be heard.
The collapse of the world built on lies and murder in the Klagendes Lied, which - unlike the burning of Valhalla in Götterdämmerung - is not transfigured by any musical motif of hope, is followed by the cycle of Kindertotenlieder. Mahler selected five texts from Friedrich Rückert's collection of 428 poems of the same name (1833 / 34) and condensed them into the intimate and harrowing lament of a father for his lost children. In the first four songs, this lament is presented in an abysmal, piercing chamber-musical reduction. The fifth and last Kindertotenlied, the only one to rise to the level of symphonic-orchestral texture, also returns to the beginning of our evening in terms of content; its conclusion is to be played »slowly, like a lullaby«: as an attempt to replace the proud, rejecting queenly figure, whose refusal was symptomatic of a cold world in decline, and at least to let the deceased rest »as in their mother's house«.