Kindertotenlieder

Script by Matthew Brown and Th. Emil Homerin

Interlude I      Why did so many children die in 1900?                         

Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder underscores a terrifying fact of 19th- and early 20th-century life: extremely high rates of child mortality. Inadequate health care, poor nutrition, bad sanitation, overcrowded housing, and minimal education meant that in 1900 about 150 European and American children died per thousand births.  

Often, the only records that these children ever existed are the post-mortem and paranormal photographs commissioned by their parents and the markers on their graves.

Growing up in a poor minority community, Mahler was well aware of the situation. 

Eight of his thirteen siblings died in childhood. 

Their deaths cast a shadow over many of Mahler’s early works: his first opera, Ernest, Duke of Swabia (1879) recalls the death of his younger brother Ernest in 1874, his early orchestral work Funeral Rites (Totenfeier, 1888) resurfaced in his 2nd Symphony (1888-1894), and his 1st Symphony (1887-88) includes a funeral march based on the children’s tune “Frère Jacques.” 

Mahler’s sister Justine was especially traumatized by the losses: as a child, she apparently glued candles around her bed, lit them, lay down, and almost believed that she was dead.

I           Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n (I: 370)

Now the sun will rise as brightly
as if the night had brought no cause for grief, no cause for grief.

The grief was only mine alone, 
while the sun shines for one and all.

You must not enfold the night within you; 
you must let it drown in everlasting light.

A little light went out in my tent.
Bless, bless, the light that brings joy the world,

The light that brings joy to the world!

Translation by Th. Emil Homerin: italics indicate Mahler’s changes and/or additions to Rückert’s original.


II         Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen (I: 69)

O eyes, O eyes, now I see clearly
why you often flashed such dark flames at me,

As if to draw all your power
into one, single glance.

But, because blinding fate
had shrouded me in mists,

I could not guess your brightness was already
to return home, there to the source of all light.

Your shining eyes wished to tell me:
“We long to stay with you, but fate will not allow.

“Look at us!
For soon, we will be far away.

“These eyes you see today
will be your stars in nights to come.”

Interlude 2     What was life like for Rochester’s children in 1900?

In 1900, Rochester was a world leader in efforts to reduce rates of child mortality.

Spearheading the fight was Dr. George W. Goler, the City’s Chief Public Health Officer (1896-1932).  Goler tackled the issue from several directions because he recognized that rates of child mortality were closely connected to those of poverty: “The problems of health and poor relief are very closely allied, in fact inseparable. Poverty is as often the cause as the result of ill health, and any plan for the prevention or relief of poverty must consider primarily the health of the individuals concerned.” 

He campaigned for compulsory/free vaccinations against cholera, small pox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and other infectious diseases.

He combated poor nutrition by supplying nursing mothers with carefully tested milk from the nation’s first publicly funded milk stations.

He improved the quality of Rochester’s drinking water and sewage system with help from city engineer Edwin A. Fisher. 

He opened the nation’s second free dental dispensary at School No. 14 and he supported Dr. Edward Mott Moore’s Infant’s Summer Hospital in Charlotte.

In 1911 Goler reported to the City government that child mortality had dropped precipitously in the last fifty years. 

He was optimistic that rates would drop even further in the years to come. 


III        Wenn dein Mütterlein (I: 56.2)

When your dear mother steps through the door
and I turn my head to look at her,

My glance does not fall on her face at first,
but on the place near, so near, to the door step

There where your dear face would be
when you, bright with joy, would enter, would enter, too,

As you used to do,
my dear daughter.

When your dear mother comes through the door
holding a shimmering candle

It seems to me that you always enter too
slipping behind her into the room,

As you used to do,
you, you, refuge for your father,

All too soon, too soon, the light of joy extinguished,
the light of joy extinguished!

 

Interlude 3     Why did Mahler write Kindertotenlieder?  

Mahler’s song cycle Kindertotenlieder uses five poems from a massive collection of the same name by the German poet Friedrich Rückert. Rückert wrote the set in 1834 following the deaths of his two youngest children—three-year old Luise and five-year old Ernst.

Mahler first “heard” some of the poems in the summer of 1901, not long after experiencing a near fatal hemorrhage and while sketching the funeral march from the 5th Symphony.

He completed the 1st, 3rd, and 4th songs in the fall of 1901 and the 2nd and 5th in 1904.

A few years later, tragedy again befell Mahler: his four-year old daughter Maria Anna died of scarlet fever in 1907. Mahler was so devastated he admitted that he could no longer have written Kindertotenlieder.

Mahler died soon after on 18 May 1911.

He was buried at the Grinzing Cemetery in the northern outskirts of Vienna. 

Arnold Schoenberg, who attended the funeral, memorialized the event in his painting The Burial of Mahler and in his short piano piece Op. 19 no. 6.


IV.       Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (I: 302)

I often think they’ve just gone out,
and will soon be coming home.

It’s a beautiful day, don’t worry,
they’ve only gone for a hike.

Yes, they’ve only just gone out,
and are coming home again!

Oh, don’t worry, it’s a beautiful day;
they’ve just taken a hike to those hills.

They’ve just gone out ahead of us,
with no thought of coming home.

We’ll catch them in those hills in the sunshine,
for it’s a beautiful day in the heights.

Interlude 4     What is life like for Rochester’s children in 2015?

Although child mortality rates have fallen dramatically since Mahler’s death, there is still cause for concern. In 2010, US rates were 34th lowest in the world, behind Europe, Japan, Canada, Israel, Singapore, and Cuba.

These figures are, however, deceiving: children born to white college-educated, married US mothers have similar rates to those of advantaged women in Europe. Such data indicate that high rates of child mortality stem from profound inequalities in US society.

This is precisely the case in Rochester. Currently at just over 10 per thousand, the city’s rates increased 9% from 2004 to 2010 and are 43% higher than the rest of New York state.

Rochester also ranks 5th poorest among the top 75 major metropolitan areas in the country: its overall poverty rate rose from 31% to 33% in 2011-2013.

Childhood poverty is especially high. Over half of Rochester’s children live below the poverty line: 59% of Hispanic and African-American children; 51% of Asian; and 39% of Caucasian.

The rates are worse in only three major US cities: Cleveland, Dayton, and Detroit.


V.        In diesem Wetter (I: 338)

In this weather, in such a raging wind,
I never would have sent the children out.
But someone carried them, carried them away,
I had no say!

In this weather, in such a storm,
I never would have let the children out.
I would fear they might fall ill.
These are idle thoughts, now.

In this weather, this cruel weather,
I never would have let the children out,
I would have worried they might die tomorrow.
No need to fear now.

In this weather, in this cruel weather,
I never would have sent the children out.
But someone carried them away,
I had no say!

In this weather, in such a storm, in such a raging wind,
they are at rest, at rest, as if in their mother's house,
their mother’s house,

Where no storm can frighten them,
sheltered by the hand of God,
As if in their mother's house,
As if in their mother’s house.

Epilog             What must we do for the future?   

Efforts to combat this disaster are, of course, underway, initiated by institutions such as the Golisano Children’s Hospital, the Hillside Family of Agencies, the Rochester Childfirst Network, and the United Way.

Earlier this year, The Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative, a coalition of about 100 agencies and organizations, was formed to develop a comprehensive approach to eliminate poverty in Monroe County.

Echoing the sentiments of George Goler, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state have recently pledged over $1,000,000 to support the initiative: “By investing in community organizations that help those in need with everything from child care to job training, we are taking a crucial step forward in the fight against poverty.”