‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’: Classical Music With Roots in Folk Songs

Gustav Mahler invented a new genre of classical music with songs that celebrate the folk origins of German culture.
‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’: Classical Music With Roots in Folk Songs
Illustration of “The Boy’s Magic Horn” poetry collection, (cropped) 1845–1860, by Moritz von Schwind. (Public Domain)
11/7/2023
Updated:
12/28/2023
0:00

Greatly affected by the Prussian defeat during the Napoleonic wars in 1806, two young German writers, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, set about to revive pride in their ethnic heritage. They did this by collecting more than 1,000 German folk songs, poems, and aphorisms in an anthology, “The Boy’s Magic Horn” (“Des Knaben Wunderhorn”).  The anthology, published between 1805 and 1808 in Heidelberg, Germany, revived interest in German history and literature across the German-speaking world.

This anthology also soon interested composers of the Romantic tradition, especially Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), who set many of the poems to music.

Mahler, of Austro-Bohemian ethnicity, composed over 20 songs from the collection for voice and orchestra, and incorporated some of them into his second, third, and fourth symphonies. While based on folk traditions, these songs were very innovative for the time, and created a new subgenre in classical music.

A Distinct Mahler Sound

For such a well-read and inventive composer as Mahler, “The Boy’s Magic Horn” represented an incredible opportunity to spread his creative wings, using an important cultural heritage to create a legacy of his own.

Mahler began setting the poems to songs in 1884, when he composed his “Songs of a Wayfarer,” based on the poem, “When my Sweetheart Is Married.” Mahler set nine other poems from Arnim and Brentano’s anthology, which can be found in his song cycle “Songs and Airs from Days of Youth.” Over the next 10 years, Mahler set 12 more poems to song, under the title “Humoresques,” which form the basis of what is known as Mahler’s “Songs From ‘The Boy’s Magic Horn.’”

First page of “The Boy’s Magic Horn,” 1806–1808, by Arnim Brentano. (Attribution)
First page of “The Boy’s Magic Horn,” 1806–1808, by Arnim Brentano. (Attribution)

Originally conceived for voice and orchestra, these 12 songs, which can be sung by either men or women, are also available for voice and piano. The songs showcase an incredible range of topics, as shown in their titles: “The Sentinel’s Night Song,” “Labour Lost,” “Solace in Misfortune,” “Who Thought Up This Little Song?,” “Earthly Life,” “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish,” “Little Rhine Legend,” “Song of the Persecuted in the Tower,” “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound,” “Praise of Lofty Intellect,” “Three Angels Sang a Sweet Air,” and “Primeval Light.”

In this ambitious folk song cycle, Mahler explores wistful romances and tragic tales, combining both parody, a satirical imitation of a creative work, and tragedy. Some of the comic songs include, “Little Rhine Legend,” “Who Thought Up This Little Song?,” and “Song of the Persecuted in the Tower,” which are all deceptively simple. Mahler used the seemingly naïve expressions in these songs to create enormous musical detail and harmonic complexity. The more tragic songs, such as “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound” include martial imagery and have a more serious undertone to them.

Mahler was able to convey all this range in his songs mostly due to his orchestration. The songs shift instantly from one emotional state to another and expose states of mind by using the whole range of an orchestra, from its muted trumpets to its tenor drums, low woodwinds, and also due to rhythmic energy.

Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 by Moritz Nähr. (Public Domain)
Gustav Mahler, photographed in 1907 by Moritz Nähr. (Public Domain)

A New Subgenre

Rather than looking backward to a romanticized folk past, Mahler used this folk collection to create a new subgenre of classical music. The songs of “The Boy’s Magic Horn” transcend two different types of the German art song, known as the “lied": the Wunderhorn Lieder and the orchestral song.

Initially, “The Boy’s Magic Horn” song collection was classified within the genre of the 18th-century art song, best exemplified by Schubert. This was a popular genre in lower and middle-class households, where popular poems were set to music for solo voice and piano accompaniment. Mahler looked beyond this original interpretation of lied to create his own subgenre: the Wunderhorn style of art song (“Wunderhorn lieder”).

The harmonic shifting of the songs—meaning the songs don’t begin or end with the same key—is a major component of this subgenre. This shift of tonality became a major influence on Mahler’s fourth symphony, as well as his other compositions.

Mahler also transformed piano arrangements into orchestral ones, and orchestral arrangements into piano ones, exploring the conception of the art song as an orchestral song. This practice created dramatic intensity and expressivity, which are dominant aspects of Mahler’s symphonies. Other aspects of this subgenre include a more intimate performance setting and a folk song’s tone, far from that typically used by a trained classical voice.

There is also a great complexity in Mahler’s songs, both in terms of composition and expression. In “The Boy’s Magic Horn,” Mahler created a proximity to life, contrasting sharply with the art song tradition of the time, which idealized life experiences.

Portrait of Achim von Arnim, 1803, by Peter Edward Stroehling, (Public Domain)
Portrait of Achim von Arnim, 1803, by Peter Edward Stroehling, (Public Domain)

By returning to the roots of artistic creativity and unveiling new elements through his unique orchestration, Mahler became the pioneer of a new art song expression, where the words hold primacy over the music. Up until then, most German art songs featured musical forms that fit the elements of the chosen text, whereas Mahler wasn’t concerned with how the sound of the words fit the accompaniment, but rather what the text meant.

In Mahler’s art songs, even more important than the words was the narrative they expressed, the composer used music to clarify and portray the stories being told. His musical choices made the stories more alive for the listeners, by combining both preexisting material and new musical ideas to reveal certain aspects of the situations and the characters of a song, beyond what was said in words;

A Tribute to German Culture

Three bronze figures, on the wall of the city gate on Neuhauser Street, of boys playing horns in Munich, Bavaria. (Pictor Pictures/Shutterstock)
Three bronze figures, on the wall of the city gate on Neuhauser Street, of boys playing horns in Munich, Bavaria. (Pictor Pictures/Shutterstock)

Although philologists (linguists who study the history of a language and its literature) questioned this anthology for historical inaccuracies, the collection became a success among German Romantic writers as well as musicians like Mahler. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to whom “The Boy’s Magic Horn” was dedicated, believed that all intelligent people should possess a copy. The poet Heinrich Heine also wrote that “in these songs you can feel the heartbeat of the German people.”

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1787, by Angelica Kauffmann. Goethe National Museum, Weimar. Germany. (Public Domain)
Portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1787, by Angelica Kauffmann. Goethe National Museum, Weimar. Germany. (Public Domain)

While Mahler composed many songs based on this anthology, there is still some confusion as to when he published them. The series known as “The Boy’s Magic Horn” was mostly composed in the 1890s for solo voice with orchestra accompaniment while Mahler composed his symphonies and took breaks from his conducting work. The composer later created piano accompaniments for these songs and rewrote some of the lyrics, while retaining the folk roots of the German tradition.

Mahler’s collection of songs, “The Boy’s Magic Horn,” combine traditional elements of folk and art songs, adding a layer of the composer’s personal touch. His musical masterpieces delve into the deep confines of the human soul, and today are considered essential repertoire for any orchestra and conductor.

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Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.