There is plenty of mournful music out there, and a lot of it gets mocked. But I can’t imagine anyone making fun of Kindertotenlieder, one of the bleakest pieces of music ever conceived.
Inspired by poems written by Friedrick Rückert after the death of two of his children from scarlet fever, Mahler took five of Rückert’s 428 poems and set them to music that matched the intense grief found in his words. The piece — whose title translates to “Songs on the Death of Children” — is divided into five “songs” intended to be played in order, starting with mournful melodies executed by an orchestra and a vocalist. The music goes through passages of solace and frustrated rage, but eventually culminates in a sort of splendor of major keys that reflect hope and acceptance.
The subject matter is one of true sorrow and agony. Even doom metal doesn’t compare to this; however, it’s worth noting that KTL — the band Stephen O’Malley (the guitarist not only in Sunn O))) but also in one of the bleakest groups of all time, Khanate) formed with Peter “Pita” Rehberg — takes its name from this piece. In theory Kindertotenlieder is what doom and other devastating musical styles attempt to capture, but it touches on something very difficult to write about and embodies it with melodies of equal emotional impact.
The best thing about this piece is how Mahler wrote it in subtle tones, keeping it very close to the chest to make it sound almost like a personal dirge. The listener isn’t led by the hand to know what to feel; instead, the music slowly reveals itself, blossoming on the ear canal of anyone who encounters it, a composition that encloses order to the chaotic nature of one of the most distressful and agonizing situations one can experience in life.