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Feder, S. (1981). Gustav Mahler: The Music of Fratricide. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 8:257-284.

(1981). International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 8:257-284

Gustav Mahler: The Music of Fratricide

Stuart Feder


In the autumn of 1887 the 27-year-old Gustav Mahler came across the popular anthology of German folk song Des Knaben Wunderhorn by von Arnim & Brentano (1974), a volume which was to become his musical vade mecum for many years. While many scholars (for example, de La Grange, 1973p. 171) note that this was to become 'his chief source of inspiration until 1900', it would be perhaps more precise to say that it tended to organize and further develop elements which had long since been a part of Mahler's mental life. He had creatively visited the distinctive world of the Wunderhorn more than once: the youthful Das Klagende Lied written in 1880 when he was only 20 and Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen just three years later (in 1884) were already parts of this universe. Two other elements are significant with regard to the Wunderhorn: The first is the enduring and pervasive role the world of childhood played throughout Mahler's creative life—the experiences, poetry, philosophy, products, and even musical artifacts associated with it. The second, and for our purposes the central feature of the composer's mind, relates to the core metaphor of the anthology: the Magic Horn itself.

In the title poem of the collection, Das Wunderhorn(von Arnim & Brentano, 1974p. 11), a fine youth dismounts his steed at the Empress' castle bearing a gift fashioned by the hand of a water nymph. Made from an elephant's tusk, the wondrous horn is decorated with bands of gold and precious stones.

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