Visions of Childhood – The Conductor’s Perspective

15 Oct 2020

Conductor Kenneth Woods shares his thoughts about our concert : “Visions of Childhood.”
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The Orchestra

As a name, “The Society for Private Musical Performances” may not roll off the tongue, but it is surely easier to say for most of us than the German original “Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen”. The Society was founded by the composer Arnold Schoenberg with the intention of making carefully rehearsed and comprehensible performances of newly composed music available to genuinely interested members of the musical public. In the three years between February 1919 and 5 December 1921 (when the Verein had to cease its activities due to Austrian hyperinflation), the organisation gave 353 performances of 154 works in 117 concerts involving a total of 79 individuals and pre-existing ensembles. Devoted to fostering new discussion of emerging works, the Society did not welcome critics and audience members had to join the Society in order to attend.

Works performed in the Society’s concerts reflected a huge range of the best of late 19th and early 20th Century works, but nothing by Schoenberg himself. Orchestral works were played in arrangements for small ensembles like the one you will hear tonight. Schoenberg himself made many of these arrangements, including the whimsical arrangement of the Strauss Emperor Waltz which opens our concert tonight, and he oversaw the work of other composers and arrangers including Erwin Stein, who arranged the Fourth Symphony of Mahler for a Society concert in 1921.

There was no standard instrumentation for these concerts, but most of the arrangements that have come down to us from the Society are for some combination of solo strings, a few solo winds, piano and harmonium. This sort of salon orchestra was often augmented by the liberal use of percussion, which can greatly enhance the range of colour the ensemble can produce.

For much of the 20th Century, the arrangements of the Society were largely forgotten. In an affluent age, there seemed to be little need for arrangements of Mahler symphonies and songs for 10-15 players.

However, in the last twenty years or so, these arrangements have seen a real resurgence, and have become recognised as being artistically interesting in their own right. From a listener’s point of view, they offer a more intimate view of the music, one that perhaps allows the creativity and artistry of the individual performances to shine through. In the age of Covid-19, these arrangements have taken on a new importance in our musical life.

I’ve conducted and recorded a lot of the arrangements from the Society and have become thoroughly seduced by their unique sound world. I hope those of you new to this kind of ensemble leave tonight suitably enchanted.


Given that this programme was to be an exploration of childhood, I thought the obvious place to start would be with a baby. Wagner wrote his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima, just after the birth of their son, Siegfried. Wagner, who in life was a selfish, narcissistic anti-Semitic monster, expresses in this work some of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience and some of the most precious qualities of the human character. Nowhere else in music is there so tender an evocation of those fragile, precious and fraught first days and weeks of life. One can hear the overflow of parental love, the gentle sounds of a traditional cradle song (Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf“), and visions of the child’s future life.

The work is unique in Wagner’s output. It is his only mature masterpiece of instrumental music, having written some early symphonic works of marginal quality, and is written for a small ensemble, far from the gigantic forces he called for in his epic operas. It was premiered at dawn on Christmas morning, 1870, with the small group of musicians stealing into the house to gentle awake Cosima with the magical opening. It was originally performed by an ensemble of just 13 solo players, among them the great conductor Hans Richter, who taught himself to play the trumpet just for the 13 bar solo at the Idyll’s climax. In order to bring this work into the same soundworld as the rest of the programme, I’ve had to sacrifice Richter’s trumpet part and the two beautiful horn parts, as well as the second clarinet and bassoon, but have been able to add piano and harmonium. Where possible, I’ve kept the parts from Wagner’s original unchanged in the instruments which carried over, but no single part in my arrangement is exactly the same as in Wagner’s.

The Songs

Having decided to programme the last movement of Erwin Stein’s orchestration of Mahler’s 4th Symphony on this concert, I had to give careful thought to what else should be on the programme. Because of their sheer scale, the question of what, if anything, should be on the same concert as a Mahler symphony, is not always an easy one to answer. The Fourth is the shortest and slightest of Mahler’s eleven symphonies, but it is still nearly an hour long. In the past, I’ve coupled it with everything from a Haydn symphony to the Grieg Piano Concerto, but since we were doing Stein’s reduced orchestration of the Mahler, it seemed silly to programme something for vastly different forces on the first half of the concert.

However, not that many arrangements of the Society for Private Musical Performances survive, which made my programming options limited until it occurred to me that, if the arrangements didn’t exist to do the repertoire we wanted to do, we could simply make new orchestrations for the same forces as the Stein Mahler Four. Once I had steeled myself to the challenge of making the arrangements you will hear tonight, anything was possible.

In a compete performance of the 55 minutes of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, our wonderful soprano, April Fredrick, only sings for about five minutes, so it seemed obvious that the rest of this concert programme should include a selection of songs whose themes resonate with those of the symphony. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is primarily a meditation on nature and childhood. It explores, in very profound and sophisticated ways, the complexity of a child’s view of the natural world, with its mixture of threat and wonder.

Humperdinck’s great children’s opera, Hansel und Gretel, a quasi-Wagnerian setting of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, tells the story of two children in peril. The opera was composed in 1891-2. Richard Strauss conducted the first production in 1893, Gustav Mahler the second production in Hamburg in 1894. The adventures of Hansel and Gretel balance moments of deprivation and hardship with wonder, of horror with hope. The two selections I have adapted come from Act II, Scene 2.

April Fredrick as Hansel… and Gretel

Having become lost in the forest, Hansel tries to find the way back, but he cannot. As the forest darkens, Hansel and Gretel become scared and think they see something coming closer. Hansel calls out, “Who’s there?” and a chorus of echoes calls back, “He’s there!” Gretel calls, “Is someone there?” and the echoes reply, “There!” Hansel tries to comfort Gretel but, as a little man walks out of the forest, she screams. In the first section you hear tonight, the Sandman (sung by a soprano), who has just walked out of the forest, tells the children that he loves them dearly, and that he has come to put them to sleep. He puts grains of sand into their eyes, and as he leaves, they can barely keep their eyes open. Gretel reminds Hansel to say their evening prayer and, after they pray, they fall asleep on the forest floor. My arrangement of this scene is essentially a reduction – wherever possible, I have kept true to Humperdinck’s original, with flute parts on the flute and string parts on the strings, and the harmonium standing in heroically for absent bassoons and horns. In the Evening Blessings, April changes roles the from Sandman to Gretel…. and Hansel. Something are only possible in a virtual concert.

Der kleine Sandmann bin ich – st!

Und gar nichts Arges sinn ich – st!

Euch Kleinen lieb ich innig – st!

Bin euch gesinnt gar minnig – st!

Aus diesem Sack zwei Körnelein

Euch Müden in die cugelein;

Die fallen dann von selber zu,

Damit ihr schlaft in sanfter Ruh.

Und seid ihr fein geschlafen ein,

Dann wachen auf die Sterne,

Und nieder steigen Engelein

Aus hoher Himmelsferne


I shut the children’s peepers, sh!

and guard the little sleepers, sh!

for dearly do I love them, sh!

and gladly watch above them, sh!

And with my little bag of sand,

By every child’s bedside I stand ;

then little tired eyelids close,

and little limbs have sweet repose.

And if they’re good and quickly go to

sleep, then from the starry sphere above

the angels come with peace and love,

and send the children happy dreams,

Franz Schubert was, and always will be, the greatest exponent of the art song in human history. His output is without match in breadth, beauty, originality and importance. His songs were to be a huge influence on the creative development of Gustav Mahler. Mahler’s first masterpiece, the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, or Songs of a Wayfarer, are hugely Schubertian in both their musical language and their subject matter.

Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) is one of Schubert’s simplest and most  popular songs, composed in 1817, when Schubert was just 20, to words by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. The song later formed the basis of a set of variations which gave Schubert’s 1819 work for violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano, its name: the Trout Quintet. The song’s three verses tell the story of a child observing a fisherman at work, and her outrage when the fisherman muddies the water, driving the trout from the safety of the rocks onto the waiting hook. The fourth stanza, which Schubert didn’t set, makes clear that the song is, in part, a parable of innocence lost and a cautionary tale for young girls:

You who tarry by the golden spring
Of secure youth,
Think still of the trout:
If you see danger, hurry by!
Most of you err only from lack
Of cleverness. Girls, see
Seducers with their tackle!
Or else, too late, you’ll bleed

Heard in its context tonight, I think the song speaks again to the child’s view of our complex relationship with food and comfort, and the cost of that food and comfort. One couldn’t blame the father of the starving child in “The Earthly Life” for muddying the waters in order to feed his family. The child is outraged for the trout, but only because she clearly doesn’t yet know the pain of hunger.

Both Mahler’s 100-minute Third symphony and his Fourth, heard tonight, grew out of the musical material in The Heavenly Life, the short, beautiful song which forms the final movement of the Fourth Symphony, “Das himmlische Leben”. In the first half of this concert, we hear his song “The Earthly Life” (“Das irdische Leben”) which forms a sort of bleak mirror to the song that will end this concert. Where “The Heavenly Life” tells  us of a world of eternal peace and plenty, the Earthly Life speaks of a world of terror and hunger. As with the Humperdinck, I have essentially stuck as closely as possible to Mahler’s own orchestration of the song, which is a model of clarity and economy, but also full of extreme, even grotesque, colours.

Schubert’s setting of “The Trout” is a compact masterpiece, barely more than a minute long. Given the sonic possibilities of expanding the accompaniment from piano to miniature orchestra, I decided to be more interventionist in arranging and expanding Schubert’s song. I have combined the three verses of the song with several, but not all, of the variations in the Trout Quintet, choosing to alternate strophes of the song with variations from the quintet that I thought suited the mood of the lyrics. In addition to knitting together the song and the quintet, I’ve had to transpose the song from its original key (D-flat major) to the key of the variations (D major) and I’ve performed a bit of harmonic surgery on the variations to make sure the new work flows in a logical way.

The most drastic change, which will probably upset the purists and go unnoticed by everyone else, is that I have changed the key of the lovely cello variation from B-flat major to D major. Unlike the Humperdinck and the Mahler, there was no orchestral original to work from here, so I’ve orchestrated the piano accompaniment of the song and gently, and sometimes playfully, expanded the instrumentation of the Quintet as needed.

Finally we come to another combination of song and variations by  Schubert, both known as “Der Tod und das Mädchen” or “Death and the Maiden.” The song is based on a poem by Matthias Claudius and was written in 1817, the same year as “The Trout.” It has only two verses – one in which the Maiden pleads with Death to pass her by, and one in which Death assures her that he is a friend.

In 1824, Schubert used the song (in particular, the introduction of the song), as the basis of a set of variations which would become the slow movement of his String Quartet in D minor, one of his greatest chamber music works. Mahler’s love for the Quartet was enormous – it was one of two string quartets (the other was Beethoven’s “Serioso” Quartet) that Mahler orchestrated for performance by the full strings of the Vienna Philharmonic. This arrangement, like the others for flute (doubling alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), percussion, harmonium, piano and solo strings, starts with an exact lifting of the beginning of the slow movement of the Death and the Maiden Quartet, but wanders pretty far from the soundworld of Schubert’s two originals.

It’s not uncommon these days for one to hear a performance of the Lied, Der Tod und das Mädchen (“Death and the Maiden”). as a prelude to a performance of the complete quartet. I’ve chosen a different approach. As I alluded to above, the entirety of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (and much of his Third) can be viewed as a development of the ideas in the song that concludes it. Rather than weave together song and variations of Death and the Maiden as I have with The Trout, I’ve orchestrated the entire slow movement of the string quartet except for the last bar, then orchestrated the song to come at the end. Structurally, it’s not all that different than the Mahler symphony – we hear the basis of all the musical material at the end instead of at the beginning of the musical journey.

Das Mädchen:

Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!

Geh, wilder Knochenmann!

Ich bin noch jung! Geh, lieber,

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Und rühre mich nicht an.

Der Tod:

Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild!

Bin Freund, und komme nicht, zu strafen.

Sei gutes Muts! ich bin nicht wild,

Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen!

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!

Go, fierce man of bones!

I am still young! Go, rather,

And do not touch me.

And do not touch me.


Give me your hand, you beautiful and

tender form!

I am a friend, and come not to punish.

Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,

Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

Death tells the Maiden to “Be of good cheer!” Does he speak the truth? Schubert’s tender coda is a hopeful clue that consolation awaits her.

The Symphony

Mahler composed his song, “Das himmlische Leben” or “The Heavenly Life” in 1892. It is one of his many songs based on the collection of folk poetry, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). The folksy fairy-tale world, not so far from that of the Brothers Grimm, of these poems and the songs they inspired Mahler to compose permeates the musical world of his Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies, but after the Fourth, Mahler would leave the world of Des Knaben Wunderforn behind.

He originally intended this song to be the Finale of the epic Third Symphony, and began composing the Third Symphony backwards from the idea of the song in 1896. It was only as he was finishing the enormous first movement of the 3rd that he realized that the song no longer belonged in the symphony, and instead he made the great Adagio, originally called “What Love Tells Me” the Finale. By this point, he had sprinkled the entire Third Symphony with obvious references to the song, using the song to extract a huge wealth of motivic material that is not obvious to the casual listener, but which gives the huge piece a tremendous sense of structural cohesion. The intended effect was to make the appearance of the song be the logical culmination of all the musical ideas in the piece.

It just never appears. So, when Mahler started work on the Fourth Symphony in 1899, he essentially started the same, very unusual process, all over again, of composing backwards from the end of the symphony, using the same song.

The implications of this for a performer are really interesting. It means we have two symphonies which could hardly be more different which are made of the same musical DNA – it’s like a pair of siblings, or even fraternal twins- they are made of the same genes, but they grow up to be completely dissimilar people. This is just the first of many, many of these paradoxes present in Mahler’s 4th Symphony. It’s often described as his simplest and most straightforward work, and on some levels it is, but it is also his most multi-layered, most contradictory, most enigmatic, most paradoxical work. Nothing in this piece is as it seems.

The end of the piece is the most gentle and understated in any of the symphonies, yet Mahler called the Fourth the culmination of all his early works – Das himmlishce Leben is not just the finale of this symphony, but of the entire first half of Mahler’s creative life. That gentle song had more significance for the composer as an arrival point than any of the amazing, epic, cathartic, heaven-storming Finales of the first three symphonies.

The symphony seems to stand apart from the rest of the Mahler cycle by virtue of its brevity, the modesty of the orchestration and its general avoidance of the grand gesture, yet it is the most central to understanding Mahler – it is the work with the most diverse, important and profound connections to his other works. It introduces important themes we’ll hear again in the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the  Kindertotenlieder.

The Fourth is about innocence and danger, about youth and mortality, about serenity (what could be more serene than the end of the symphony) and menace (what could be more menacing than the second movement, in which the devil himself fiddles away on an out-of-tune violin?). The first movement is folksy and rustic with a middle section that seems to find us lost in a great forest. The second movement is menacing Totentanz with the solo violinist taking the role of Freund Hein, a devil of a fellow. The third movement is one of the most beautiful things in all music, a soulful Adagio which Mahler said was inspired by memories of his mother’s face.

The slow movement ends with a grand fortissimo, as if the very gates of heaven are opening. In fact they are, and so it is that after one of the greatest journeys in music, through ten years of composing and two epic symphonies, we experience heaven through the eyes of a child.

Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,

d’rum tun wir das Irdische meiden!

Kein weltlich’ Getümmel

hört man nicht im Himmel!

Lebt Alles in sanftester Ruh’!


Wir führen ein englisches Leben!

Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben!

Wir tanzen und springen,

wir hüpfen und singen!

Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu!


Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset!

Der Metzger Herodes drauf passet!


Wir führen ein geduldig’s,

unschuldig’s, geduldig’s,

ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod!

Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten

ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Trachten!

Der Wein kost’ kein Heller

im himmlischen Keller!


Die Englein, die backen das Brod!

Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten,

die wachsen im himmlischen Garten,

gut’ Spargel, Fisolen

und was wir nur wollen,

ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit.

Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ und gut’ Trauben!

Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben!

Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen?

auf offener Straßen sie laufen herbei!


Sollt ein Fasttag etwa kommen,

alle Fische gleich mit Freuden


dort lauft schon Sankt Peter

mit Netz und mit Köder

zum himmlischen Weiher hinein!

Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein!


Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,

die unsrer verglichen kann werden.

Elftausend Jungfrauen

zu tanzen sich trauen!

Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht.

Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,

die unsrer verglichen kann werden.

Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten

sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!

Die englischen Stimmen

ermuntern die Sinnen!

Daß Alles für Freuden, für Freuden erwacht!

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures,

so can dispense with earthly things!

No worldly turmoil

is to be heard in heaven!

Everything lives in gentlest repose!


We lead an angelic life!

We are, however, at times quite merry!

We dance and jump,

we skip and sing!

Saint Peter in heaven looks on!


Saint John drains the blood of the little lamb!

Herod, the butcher looks out for it!


We lead a patient,

innocent, patient,

a lovable lamb to its death!

Saint Luke slaughters the ox

without giving it thought or mind!

Wine costs not a penny

in heaven’s cellars!


The angels, they bake the bread!

Tasty herbs of every kind

grow in heaven’s gardens,

good asparagus, beans

and whatever we desire,

Whole dishfuls are ready for us.

Good apples, good pears and good grapes!

The gardeners, they let you have anything!

Do you want roebuck or hare?

In the middle of the street they come running to us!


Should, per chance, a day of fasting occur,

all the fish immediately swim up to us with


there’s Saint Peter already running

with his net and bait

to the heavenly fishpond!

Saint Martha must be the cook!


No music on earth

can compare with ours.

Eleven thousand maidens

are bold enough to dance!

Even Saint Ursula herself laughs at the sight.

No music on earth

can compare with ours.

Cecilia with her relatives

are excellent court musicians!

The angelic voices

delight the senses!

So that everything for joy awakens