Mahler – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

by Max Derrickson

Gustav Mahler
(b near Iglau, Bohemia (now Jihlava, Czech Republic), July 7, 1860; d Vienna, May 18, 1911

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

  1. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my beloved is married)
  2. Ging heut Morgen übers Feld (I went this morning over the field)
  3. Ich hab’ein glühend Messer (I have a gleaming knife)
  4. Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The two blue eyes of my beloved)


Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesallen has come to be recognized by its English translation, Songs of a Wayfarer, but that translation is a bit misleading.  The German term fahrenden gesellen means something more akin to traveling apprentice, and in Mahler’s day this was the term for craftsmen who had completed their apprenticeship but who were not yet a master, and so they would travel from town to town offering their artisanship while honing their craft.  The original and true meaning is significant here because at this time in Mahler’s life in 1884, when he began composing his Songs, he was just 24 years old and indeed such a fahrenden gesellen, a travelling apprentice, [. . .]

Kassel was a smallish town in 1884 and the opera was a Royal Prussian Theater which equated to being incredibly stuffy.  Already in Mahler’s young career he had established his artistic mark for excellence and fidelity to the composer’s score from both singers and orchestra.  And already, at Kassel, his exuberant and physical conducting style, as well as his passionate  [. . .]  What followed into the new year of 1885 were four songs of immense beauty underlined by deep emotional intensity – his Songs of a Wayfarer.

Having suffered a difficult rejection for an earlier cantata, Das Klagende Lied,  however, Mahler stuffed the Wayfarer songs in his traveling trunk, and as Mahler-expert Norman Lebrecht said, it was as though “Mahler [was] storing up materials and experience for a big statement.”  That big statement was his First Symphony (1889) where the Wayfarer’s second song, Ging heut Morgen, [. . .]    Mahler came back to the Songs and orchestrated them early in the 1890’s, and revised them for the next few years until their premiere in 1896.

Although Mahler’s works are indeed autobiographically infused, the abstract expression of the grander picture of life was how Mahler felt he could best communicate.  The Songs of a Wayfarer, then, is not as much about Mahler [. . .]

The Songs’ narrative, with its words written by Mahler, is not especially profound until put with music – making a unitary whole whose sum is greater than its parts.  Such was Mahler’s genius.  Musically, he struck out on a new path – purposefully abandoning much of the musical tradition he knew as the conductor of the classic operas.  The voice and instruments are treated symphonically, the melodies are raw, occasionally even wild.  But mostly, there is an uncanny “insideness” to them, expressly [. . .]

In fact, all four of the songs possess these intellectual compositional marvels, yet they speak to us with great emotional force, and they transport us, as Mahler hoped, to a world beyond our ordinary perception.  Listen, for example, for the extraordinary [. . .] then morphing again into a very grounded duple arpeggiation in the cellos, all within the space of a few measures – [. . .] retreating strums of the harp . . . the bleating of flutes . . . stillness.