Length: c. 16 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, percussion (cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 22, 1946, with soprano Dorothy Maynor, Rudolph Dunbar conducting (“Rheinlegendchen”); November 21, 1956, with soprano Irmgard Seefried, Bruno Walter conducting (“Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen”); December 17, 1970, with mezzo-soprano Josephine Veasey and baritone John Shirley-Quirk, Zubin Mehta conducting (twelve songs)
Few literary works had as big an influence throughout the 19th century as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), three volumes of German folk poetry published between 1806 and 1809. The collection’s mix of everyday experience and the supernatural and bizarre, and its connection to German places and things, made it a work perfectly attuned to the Romantic movement, which was bringing the same elements to high art.
Mahler composed two dozen Wunderhorn settings, most of them in the 1890s when he was working on his Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies. There was a steady cross-pollination between the symphonies and the songs, as the experience of composing the songs enriched the process of writing the symphonies and vice-versa. Four Wunderhorn songs, in one form or another, became movements in the symphonies.
Northern European folktales about things that get thrown into rivers, float out to sea, and come back inside fish are remarkably common. In “Rheinlegendchen,” a laborer muses about finding the woman of his dreams by throwing a ring into a river. Mahler’s setting complements the carefree idleness of the musings.
Before Mahler got to it, “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” was a dialog between two lovers. When Mahler finished rewriting the poem, it was about a meeting between a woman and the ghost of her dead soldier lover; his promise that they would be together becomes a prophecy of her death. Horns, trumpets, and strings are all muted at the beginning, giving a sense of distance and mystery to the nighttime scene. The mutes gradually come off by the end, making the sound more immediate as the mystery is resolved and we learn that one of the protagonists is a ghost.
“Urlicht” is about seeking heaven and has more than its share of celestial touches, not least of which is the hymn in the brass that greets the singer’s first line. The song became the fourth movement of the Second Symphony.
— Howard Posner