Mahler grew up under the spell of the German folk songs collected in ‘Das Knaben Wunderhorn’. In these songs dead soldiers answer the roll-call, St Anthony preaches to fishes, a magic ring journeys from the Rhine to the King’s table, nightingales sing to lovers, deserted lovers die of broken hearts, songs arrive on the wings of three geese (two grey and one white) and all the while the trumpet summons young men to a soldier’s death. They alternate between a childlike fairy-tale delicacy and a grimly ironic commentary on the realities of war and power. The five Rückert Songs were composed several years later and are more deeply personal with one of them composed for his wife Alma. Above all else these songs capture the heart with their sheer beauty. At a rehearsal of the Eighth Symphony, a child from the Boy’s Chorus approached the composer: ‘Mr Mahler, the song is beautiful’.
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