From the YouTube Music Video Archives: Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) by Gustav Mahler, sung by Kathleen Ferrier

Last week I wondered about the influence that Gustav Mahler might have had on Walker Percy, especially the Kindertotenlieder, and promised to post them this week. These recordings by Kathleen Ferrier are incredibly beautiful, and if you aren’t familiar with them … prepare yourself.

A little history:

The original Kindertotenlieder were a group of 425 poems written by Rückert in 1833–34 in an outpouring of grief after two of his children had died in an interval of sixteen days. Mahler selected five of the Rückert poems to set as Lieder, which he composed between 1901 and 1904.

The songs are written in Mahler’s late-romantic idiom, and the mood and feeling they express is very much what their title implies. The final song ends in a major key and a mood of transcendence.

The poignance of the cycle is increased by the fact that four years after he wrote it, Mahler lost his daughter, Maria, aged four, to scarlet fever. He wrote to Guido Adler: “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.” (Wikipedia)

The words for No. 1 above, “Nun will die Sonn'”

Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn,
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn!
Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein!
Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein!

Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken,
Mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt!
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!

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.

You must not keep the night inside you;
you must immerse it in eternal light.
A little light has been extinguished in my household;
Light of joy in the world, be welcome.

Here are the rest of “the lovely tunes of Mahler”: [No. 2 “Nun seh’ ich wohl”][No. 3 “Wenn dein Mütterlein”][No. 4 “Oft denk’ich”][No. 5 “In diesem Wette”]

Regarding the influence the Kindertotenlieder on Walker Percy, I can only point to the quotation above and importance of the death of children in the novels. At the end of The Moviegoer, Binx’s half-brother, Lonnie dies a brave death. He’s a good kid, a religious child (he tells Binx that he has overcome an “habitual disposition” in one of the final scenes), and it is his death that prompts the other cousins to ask Binx about the resurrection. In what is certainly a conscious imitation of the final pages of The Brothers Karamozov, Binx replies that no, Lonnie won’t be confined to a wheelchair, to which the children self-consciously cheer “Hurray!”

There’s a similar scene at the end of The Last Gentleman, when Jamie requests baptism before he dies. Tom More’s daughter, Samantha, though dead before the beginning of Love in the Ruins, is nevertheless an important character. Here is one of my favorite passages in all of Percy:

“Papa, have you lost your faith?”
Samantha asked me the questions as I stood by her bed. The neuroblastoma had pushed one eye out and around the nosebridge so she looked like a Picasso profile.
“Then why don’t you go to mass anymore?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because you don’t go with me.”
“Papa, you’re in greater danger than Mama.”
“How is that?”
“Because she is protected by Invincible Ignorance.”
“That’s true,” I said, laughing.
“She doesn’t know any better.”
“She doesn’t.”
“You do.”
“Just promise me one thing, Papa.”
“What’s that?”
“Don’t commit the one sin for which there is no forgiveness.”
“Which one is that?”
“The sin against grace. If God gives you the grace to believe in him and love him and you refuse, the sin will not be forgiven you.”
“I know.” I took her hand, which even then still looked soiled and chalk-dusted like a schoolgirl’s.

I wonder: did it break my heart when Samantha died? Yes. There was even the knowledge and foreknowledge of it while she still lived, knowledge that while she lived, life still had its same peculiar tentativeness, people still living as usual by fits and startes, aiming and missing, while present time went humming, and foreknowledge that the second she died, remorse would come and give past time its bitter specious wholeness. If only – if only we hadn’t been defeated by humdrum humming present time and missed it, missed ourselves, missed everything. I had the foreknowledge while she lived. Still, present time went humming. Then she died and here came the sweet remorse like a blade between the ribs.

But is there not also a compensation, a secret satisfaction to be taken in her death, a delectation of tragedy, a license for drink, a taste of both for taste’s sake?

It may be true. At least Doris said it was. Doris was a dumbell but she could read my faults! She said that when I refused to take Samantha to Lourdes. Doris wanted to! Because of the writings of Alexis Carrel and certain experiments by the London Psychical Society, etcetera etcetera. The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to got to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life?

Samantha, forgive me. I am sorry you suffered and died, my heart broke, but there have been times when I was not above enjoying it.

Is it possible to live without feasting on death?

That was too long a quote, I realize. But I think it’s one of the best passages in all of Percy, and I do see the shade of Mahler there.

Anyway, to continue: in Lancelot, Lance’s child Siobhan, his daughter-who-really-isn’t-his-daughter from his second marriage to Margot, very likely suffers sexual abuse from her grandfather, Tex.

Will Barrett discovers that he himself was once almost a murdered child in The Second Coming. In Lost in the Cosmos … nothing comes to mind. But in The Thanatos Syndrome, a ring of do-gooders is also responsible for the sexual abuse of children, and even taking photographs.

It must be said that Percy was keenly aware of the ways children can suffer from his own experience. Whether it be from the cruelty of nature or the cruelty of adults, it seems to me likely that he was drawn to the music of Mahler because of this sensitivity. His younger brother almost died in a car accident that many think was a suicidal act of desperation by his mother. Percy’s own daughter, Anne, was deaf from birth.

If you listen to the clips above, you’ll understand that it certainly is great music, sickness in the soul or not, and it isn’t hard to see (for me, anyway) how they’ve found a way into some of the most wrenching passages in Percy’s novels.


  1. Rufus McCain says

    Nicely Done, Quin. You’ve got the outlines of scholarly article that would be an interesting contribution to Percy studies.

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