A good compact disc of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) should begin with Revelge (Reveille) and end with Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy) both of which concern the same person. Let me give you the alpha and the omega and we will fill in the rest later.
Now a reveille is a bugle call that is used to wake up soldiers. The two lieder follow the transformation of one of these soldiers. Every morning he marches between three and four while his girlfriend looks down from her apartment. We cannot tell if this is a complaint because of this nonsensical refrain “tralali, tralalei, tralala.” One day he is shot and calls for help but his comrade says “may the love of God help you. I have to march to my death.”
Our soldier retorts: “Ah, comrades, you pass me by as though I were done for … you march too close to where I lie.” Abandoned, lying on the dirt and bleeding he begins to play his drum “otherwise I will lose myself.” The enemy is advancing. He raises his brothers from the dead with the beat of the drum and “a terror smites the enemy! A terror smites the enemy!” They march back to their quarters.
The next morning, the skeletons stand in rank and file. The drum stands in front so “daß sie ihn sehen kann,” that is, “so it can see him,” but ‘sie’ can either mean ‘it’ or ‘she.’ The enemy was defeated but at what cost? He has returned to his girlfriend a skeleton – yes, a skeleton. Any true Romantic will realize that this whole episode happens within basic training and that no formal combat between two armies is described in this lied. All battles have already been decided in songs.
Romantic inquiry into the Science of Human Rectification has shown that this song describes a method of libido-economic engineering. A perpetually upheld tonus of the skeletal muscles is endowed by these rites, neurological adultery which prevents the body from acting rationally when on the modern battlefield. This would entail getting as far away as possible. But when a soldier fights, it is as if he believes he is still in the womb by inversion.
Der Tamboursg’sell, in my opinion, is Mahler’s greatest song. Like Revelge its lyrics hail from the collection of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Because of its pertinence to our age, it must be reproduced fully here, now:
Ich armer Tambourgesell, Man führt mich aus dem Gwölb! Wär ich ein Tambour blieben, Dürft ich nicht gefangen liegen! O Galgen, du hohes Haus, Du siehst so furchtbar aus! Ich schau dich nicht mehr an, Weil i weiß, daß i gehör dran! Wenn Soldaten vorbeimarschieren, Bei mir nicht einquartieren. Wenn sie fragen, wer i g'wesen bin: Tambour von der Leibkompanie! Gute Nacht, ihr Marmelstein! Ihr Berg und Hügelein! Gute Nacht, ihr Offizier, Korporal und Musketier! Gute Nacht! Ihr Offizier'! Korporal und Grenadier! Ich schrei mit lauter Stimm, Von euch ich Urlaub nimm! Gute Nacht! Gute Nacht!
I, poor drummer boy! They lead me from the cell! Had I remained a drummer, I wouldn't have been imprisoned! O gallows, you high house, you look so terrifying! I don’t want to look on you for I know that I am yours! When soldiers march past, who weren't quartered with me, When they ask who I was: Drum from the 1st company! Good night, you marble rocks! You mountains and hills! Good night, you officers, Corporal and musketeer! Good night, you officers! Corporal and grenadier! I cry out with a bright scream: of you I take my leave! Good night! Good night!
Our drummer has committed an unknown crime or something considered a crime by those in whose business he became embroiled. Has he fraternized with the enemy? He is led from confinement to the gallows like the hero from Symphonie Fantastique by soldiers who find his work incomprehensible. They walk at a painful larghetto. Do they fear being zapped? This pitiful wretch strangely reminds them of the general, nay, the Kaiser!
We hear a ponderous funeral march, but all of Mahler’s funeral marches are Dom Sébastien funeral marches: the King is in the coffin but still alive. His brilliance is divulged by the tenor’s melodic material found at the end of each of the first three verses. At “I wouldn’t have been imprisoned,” we have the ascending interval of the major sixth followed by a descent back down to the third scale degree on which the motif began. It’s a voice crack. Again, this same motif at “for I know that I am yours.” However, his wisdom is fully realized at the end of the third verse. Only when our soldier shouts “Drum from the 1st Company!” can his voice remain on the third scale degree. It is the orchestra, specifically the oboes and clarinets, which must produce the voice crack this time.
The key changes . . .
What? Could it be possible? That was the way out all along?
He accepts his terror which he had always held at bay. “How strange,” he must have thought, “terror is not terrifying when at last it’s entertained!” Now all fear flies from him. It turns to disgust and absolute contempt. “Look at the mockery of life they have made! How can I repay them? I will make them kill their own Kaiser and guarantee their eternal damnation! I will blot out their names!”
Meanwhile the orchestra is playing one of the most mysterious melodies of the Romantic period. In no other work is music so unpredictable yet so familiar. It oscillates between between major and minor, volkslieder and klezmer, German and Jewish at a frequency only Mahler could have been comfortable with. He sings the officers to sleep. The musketeers and grenadiers hadn’t faith enough to watch. Our hero did not do them the honor of making their hearts beat with the drum this time.
They dream of our hero being hanged, but the hanged man is the only one still awake! “Ich schrei mit heller Stimm: ‘Von euch ich Urlaub nimm!’” They dream they hear his voice cracking. One has to hear the music to understand. “Gute Nacht!” he screams, and it sounds like two men screaming. A TERROR SMITES THE ENEMY, YES, A TERROR!