Composing Irony

“How the animals laid the hunter to rest” (woodcut, Moritz von Schwind)

The round tune “Frère Jacques” (Brother John) is known across cultures and languages in Europe. In German, it’s called “Bruder Martin” or “Bruder Jakob.”

In the third movement of his Symphony no. 1 in D minor, Gustav Mahler presents us with a sardonic, funeral-march like version of the song in minor. He was inspired by a work of visual art, the woodcut “The Hunter’s Funeral,” by Moritz von Schwind (above), an illustration of an ironic Austrian folktale about the burial of a hunter by the animals he would, in life, have preyed upon. In von Geschwind’s image, the animals at the rear of the procession are weeping dramatically into large handkerchief’s while the ones in the lead appear to be celebrating with music and banners.

How is this image an expression of irony?

In the middle of Mahler’s sonic funeral march, however, a village band, sounding very much like klezmerim — musicians hired to play Jewish weddings, with whom Mahler would have been very familiar from growing up in the Bohemian shtetl, or segregated Jewish village — breaks in, almost giving the effect of life interrupting death.

A scene of a klezmer band playing at a shtetl wedding, from the movie Fiddler on the Roof:

What does Mahler mean by this? Is the klezmer music also an illustration of irony?

The music reminds me of the art of Mahler’s younger contemporary Marc Chagall, whose fantasy-like paintings of people flying above his hometown of Vitebsk, Belarus, suggests a freedom denied to the Jews who actually lived there.

Mahler himself wrote, in 1901, that this movement “is heart-rending, tragic irony and is to be understood as exposition and preparation for the sudden outburst in the final movement of despair of a deeply wounded and broken heart.”

In the first and second movements of the symphony, Mahler quotes from an earlier work of his own, the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Mahler wrote his own texts for this piece, and they expand greatly upon the Romantic themes of nature, wandering, loss, nostalgia, and grief familiar to us from the works of Schubert and others.

In fact, the song “Die zwei blauen Augen,” which Mahler reuses in Symphony no. 1, alludes to Schubert’s song “Der Lindenbaum,” from his own song cycle Die Winterreise, which is similarly about a man wandering on foot through nature away from his rejected love. Here is our old friend Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it.

Note that the term “lime tree” is the British term for what we, in North America, call the linden or basswood tree; it’s a tree that has long had significance in Germanic folklore as an emblem both of love and death.

Linden or lime tree (tilia cordata)

Why do you think Mahler re-used this music? What meaning does it have in its new context?

This 1970 poem by Alice Notley captures and distills the failure of Romanticism’s program:

“I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, …”
I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, 
& every time the moment has conquered me. 
I’m strangely unhappy 
                                  because the pattern of my life 

is complicated, 
because my nature is hopelessly complicated; 
& out of this, to my sorrow, pain to you must grow. 
The centre of me
                          is always & eternally 
                                                            a terrible pain- 


a curious wild pain—a searching 
beyond what the world contains, something 
transfigured & infinite—I don’t find it, 
I don’t think it is to be found.

It’s like passionate love for a ghost. 
At times it fills me with rage,
                             at times with wild despair. 
It’s the source of gentleness & cruelty & work