Das klagende Lied is a unique work in Mahler's output. It is also, as Mahler himself described it, his Schmerzenkind (child of sorrow). In genre it is an extended cantata, a type of composition he never again attempted. In later years he recognized it as the work in which he had first achieved his own voice: "The first work in which I really came into my own as‘Mahler' was a fairy-tale (Märchen) for choir, soloists and orchestra: Das klagende Lied. I number that work Opus 1." And in fact in its mastery of large-scale structure, command of motivic transformation, and evocative orchestration, Das klagende Lied is a most remarkable youthful composition.
Mahler wrote his own text for the work, and a fair copy of the complete original three-part version of the work is dated March 18, 1878, when Mahler was not yet eighteen years old. At that time its individual parts were titled "Waldmärchen" ("Woodland Tale"), "Der Spielmann" ("The Minstrel"), and "Hochzeitsstück" ("Wedding Piece"), headings which were eventually eliminated. Musical composition seems to have begun the following year, and was accompanied by moments of great turmoil. Speaking to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he reported in later years that in trying to work out
a seemingly insignificant passage...he could never get through it without being profoundly shaken and overcome by intense excitement. whenever he reached it. he always had a vision of himself emerging out of the wall in a dark corner of the room. He felt such intense physical pain, when his "double" (doppelganger) tried to force its way through the wall the he could never go on with his work and had to rush from the room-until one morning, while working on the same passage, he collapsed in a nervous fever. (Admittedly, he had been working for weeks under the utmost pressure, and at the same time had undermined his strong constitution by a strictly vegetarian diet.)
The earliest surviving manuscript, a preliminary draft of "Hochzeitsstück," belongs to late October or early November of that year. The work was thus probably completed, orchestrated, and a fair copy prepared, in 1881.
In that year, it was submitted in a competition for a composition Prize–the Beethoven Prize–sponsored by the Gesellschaft Der Musikfreunde in Vienna. The judges included Brahms and Goldmark, among others, and they awarded the prize to a work by Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) rather than to Mahler's cantata. Less known is the fact that Mahler in 1883 also submitted the work to Liszt for consideration and a possible performance at the festival of the Altgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein. Again it was turned down, with the devastating comment that the text of"Waldmärchen" was not likely to bring the work success.
Thus the composition has the distinction of rejection by two of Mahler's most outstanding older contemporaries, representing both conservative and radical compositional tendencies of the time. Such rejections may well, as Mahler later claimed, have influenced him to turn to conducting for his livelihood; after them, until 1888, he composed only a handful of songs.
Apparently stimulated by the publication of three volumes of his early Lieder und Gesange by Schott in 1892, and the potential for further publications and performances, Mahler undertook a full-scale revision of Das klagende Lied in 1893-4, when he was in Hamburg. Curiously, in writing of this revision in his correspondence, Mahler fails to mention the most important change, the elimination of the entire first part, "Waldmärchen." Other changes revolved largely around orchestration and performance markings. Most notably, in revising the scoring for "Hochzeitsstück," for the sake of practicality Mahler removed his original highly distinctive use of an offstage band. These modifications, however, brought neither publication nor performances of the work.
In Vienna in 1898, once more with a view to publication, Mahler undertook a final revision, in which he retained the two-part format and the majority of the changes in orchestration that he had made in Hamburg. He realized, however, that the offstage orchestra in "Hochzeitsstück" was essential even if impractical, and prepared a new version of it, which appeared in the published score issued by the firm of Josef Weinberger in 1902. The first performance took place under Mahler on February 17, 1901 in Vienna.
Mahler drew on several sources for his version of Das klagende Lied, principally the story of the same name by Ludwig Bechstein and "Der singende Knochen" ("The Singing Bone") by the Brothers Grimm, and possibly an oral version of the story that Mahler reportedly heard as a boy. In Mahler’s version of the story, the older of two brothers kills the younger in order to obtain the hand of a proud young queen. A minstrel (rather than a shepherd, as in the Bechstein story) discovers the bones of the victim, and fashions a flute from one. The 'singing bone' recounts the story of his murder. The minstrel then sets off to confront the assassin. In the midst of an apparently jubilant wedding celebration, the murderer faces the accusation of the bone played by the minstrel, and then by the murderer himself. The exposure of the crime brings about the destruction of the guilty brother, the proud queen, and their court. Much has been made of the fact that Mahler substitutes a rivalry between two boys for one between a boy and a girl that appears in Bechstein; but in the Grimm story, two boys do appear. Mahler's elimination of "Waldmärchen," in which the story of the murder of the young and innocent brother by the ambitious, evil one has also led to speculation about Mahler's desire to suppress his own possible sense of guilt about the death of his younger brother Ernst.
However one may feel about the loss of some remarkably beautiful and evocative music with the elimination of "Waldmärchen," and the network of motivic references that go with it, one must also recognize the logic of Mahler's decisions. The account of the murder in the original Part I is essentially redundant, since the story is told again in "Der Spielmann" by the dead victim. And with the elimination of the redundancy, the true nature of the story comes much more clearly into focus. The tale is not just one of fratricidal rivalry and murder, but one of bringing a murderer to justice, and destroying both him and the society that sustains him. In German, klagen means not only "to lament" to "to accuse" or "to indict." And who is the agent of this justice? A musician, the minstrel. One could hardly find a clearer example of Wagnerian notions about the power of music to transform society.
Musically, the structure of the work is built up through a complex pattern of leitmotives and skillfully varied recurring refrains associated with the repeated phrases of the poetic text, such as "O Leide, weh, o Leide!" ("O sorrow, woe, sorrow!") in both parts, and "O Freude, heia! Freude!" ("O joy, heia! Joy!") in the second. This distinctive voice of the dead boy, for which Mahler calls "if possible a boy's voice" in parallel passages, provides another major link between the two parts. This instruction was part of a few late emendations that Mahler made in the published score in 1906.