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.
April 3, 2006 10:49 AM   Subscribe

Kindertotenlieder. In 1833-34, Frederich Rückert wrote 425 poems after two of his children died within 16 days of each other; seven decades later, Mahler set five of them to music. Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children, has been recorded by both male and female singers, in both orchestral and piano-vocal arrangements. The song cycle is a powerful meditation on grief and loss, which is somewhat surprising since we think of the 18th, 19th, and even early 20th centuries as being a time when people -- especially young children -- lived closer to death and had a different relationship with grief than we do today. Mahler, who was one of 14 children, eight of whom died in infancy and one of whom died at 12, had much personal experience to bring to the Kindertotenlieder; indeed, just three years after the song cycle's completion, his own daughter died of scarlet fever. But some musicians dismiss the idea that the music is premonitory, or indicative of Mahler's personal tragedy, and posit instead that Mahler's intent was not to showcase his own grief but capture the intensity of Rückert's first-person text. Modern works on the topic of Kindertoten range from mixed media and text to dance to film, and even to modern stage works. And there is, of course, music -- the most famous contemporary work in this tradition might just be the Grammy-award winning song inspired by real-life tragedy, Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven.
posted by mothershock (23 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen

Often I think that they have only stepped out -
and that soon they will reach home again!
The day is fair - O don't be afraid!
They are only taking a long walk.

Yes: they have only stepped out
and will now return home!
O don't be anxious - the day is fair!
They are only taking a walk to those hills.

They have simply gone on ahead:
they will not wish to return home.
We'll catch up to them on those hills
in the sunshine!
The day is fair on those hills.

posted by mothershock at 10:50 AM on April 3, 2006

Brilliant post.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:57 AM on April 3, 2006

Awesome. Very interesting. I had not heard of Kindertotenlieder before.
posted by dios at 11:02 AM on April 3, 2006

This just makes me think of "Kindertotenlieder, or Who Puts the Creamy White Filling in the Krap-Snax?" a science fiction story in the very first issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, about a couple of kids who fake their own death.

On review: written by Jonathan Fast.
posted by jenovus at 11:02 AM on April 3, 2006

Which is an entirely inappropriate parallel. This post is incredible.
posted by jenovus at 11:04 AM on April 3, 2006

Of all the people to have sock puppet accounts... I never suspected matteo.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:09 AM on April 3, 2006

Fascinating post—thank you mothershock; I’d heard of the Kindertotenlieder, but knew nothing of their background until now.
posted by misteraitch at 11:20 AM on April 3, 2006

This is sure to win me the love and admiration of my peers:
A hipster was reading through the reviews section of his local alternative weekly when he came across a review for a band that was playing at his favorite dive that evening. He was always into checking out new bands and found the reviewer's critique to be quite persuasive so the guy called up some friends to accompany him to the show.

They arrive at the venue, anticipating a glorious evening of indie-rock rawk. The curtain rises and their excitement quickly turns to disappointment as the band begins its first song consisting entirely of what seems to be the tortured screams of a child falling from a great height, puncuated by the sound of bones crunching in a cacophonous splat. This gruesome sonic assault continues for another half-hour before the friends leave the music hall in disgust.

Outside the theatre, the guy apologizes for subjecting his friends to such awful music. "I'm so sorry! That's the last time I ever listen to that critic. He must've been smoking crack when he saw them because he described their sound as Clapton-meets-Pavement!"
posted by BoatMeme at 11:24 AM on April 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh my dear sweet God.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:29 AM on April 3, 2006

Excellent post, and not just because Ruckert is my great-great-great-etc grandpa.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:31 AM on April 3, 2006

Sombody has been taking Matteo lessons. Great stuff!!
posted by wheelieman at 11:35 AM on April 3, 2006

whoa. is this where the langoliers show up?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:35 AM on April 3, 2006

There should be a word for the phenomenon of a poster's screen name being appropriate to their post.

Also, more inside is your friend!
posted by asok at 11:37 AM on April 3, 2006

That was beautiful, thank you.

More like this, please.
posted by empath at 11:41 AM on April 3, 2006

The great thing about the German proclivity for compound words is that once you've stuck them together they become this new thing that has a life of its own. Now a poem written for the death of a child could be nothing else but a Kindertotenlieder to me, where as before it would never have stood out to me as it's own phenomena, deserving of a name.
posted by empath at 11:50 AM on April 3, 2006

Thanks, everyone. I've been thinking about this work a lot, and about Ruckert's original texts, as we had a scare recently with my three-year-old son. He's fine, but it made me think about grief, and whether or not grief is made more poignant when it's a young child you are grieving.

Empath, the "lieder" in kindertotenlieder means song, so "kinder" (children) "toten" (dead) "lieder" (songs) is specifically songs on the death of children. "Kindertoten" was the name of the collection of poems by Ruckert.

(Arcticwoman, how cool that you are a distant relation!)
posted by mothershock at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2006

And jenovus, thanks for pointing out that SF story!
posted by mothershock at 11:59 AM on April 3, 2006

I am thinking of Kochanowski's Treny, and of the Gawain poet's Pearl.
posted by pracowity at 2:34 PM on April 3, 2006

"Kindertoten" was the name of the collection of poems by Ruckert.

Are you saying that the original poems were Kindertoten, and that they only became Kindertotenlieder when they were set to music? I don't think that's right. The first selection of the poems was published in 1838 under the title Nachträge zu den ungedruckten Kindertodtenliedern ('Additions to the unpublished Kindertotenlieder'). So they were 'songs' even before they were set to music.

The closest equivalent to the Kindertotenlieder that I know of in contemporary literature is A.S. Byatt's remarkable poem 'Dead Boys' -- too long to quote in full, but here's an extract:

One son is many sons.
A bundle, a putto, a grave
Boy with kind eyes. One blow
Cracks all their bones at once.
Pastes all the gold hair red.

Soft lip and toothless mouth
Drop blood on the breast.
A white-haired crawler on grass
Head like a dandelion-clock
Above daisy faces that come,
Yellow and white and green
Year after year after year
Stops like a toy wound down.
Like a doll dropped in the wet.

I am a cold grey house.
In every room a boy
Gestures and halts and falls
Again and again and again,
A boy with his hamster curled
On his trembling extended palm,
Like a rigid ammonite,
'Is he dead, is he asleep?'
And the boy who leaned his head
On my shoulder in a bus.
He slept so deep, he jerked
And lolled as the bus ground on
Like a puppet, like a sack,
But he was warm that week --
My cheek was damp with his warmth --
And five days later cold.

Byatt's son was killed in a traffic accident when he was eleven.
posted by verstegan at 3:57 PM on April 3, 2006

Yes, you are right. And that Byatt poem is just haunting. Thanks for posting that.
posted by mothershock at 4:15 PM on April 3, 2006

Eric Whitacre's When David Heard is a choral work on this topic. I have not heard it, but I bookmarked it because of the harrowing emotional power described in the reviews.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:08 PM on April 3, 2006

This is what Mefi is all about. Brilliant.
posted by dejah420 at 6:15 PM on April 3, 2006

Fantastic post - absolutely perfect.

Please disregard my above comment - it was in response to a creepy, wordless blue screen that contained naught but a comment box after I clicked on the "comments" link.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:05 PM on April 3, 2006

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