The original Kindertotenlieder were a group of 425 poems written by Rückert in 1833–34 in an outpouring of grief after two of his children had died in an interval of sixteen days. Mahler selected five of the Rückert poems to set as Lieder, which he composed between 1901 and 1904.
The songs are written in Mahler's late-romantic idiom, and the mood and feeling they express is very much what their title implies. The final song ends in a major key and a mood of transcendence.
The poignance of the cycle is increased by the fact that four years after he wrote it, Mahler lost his daughter, Maria, aged four, to scarlet fever. He wrote to Guido Adler: "I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more."
2. "Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen"
"Now I see well, why in many glances you flash upon me with such dark flames, O Eyes: as if to draw all your strength together in one look. I didn't realise, because a mist woven of tangled destinies surrounded me, that your beam was already returning homewards to the place from which all rays emanate. In your bright look you wanted to tell me: 'We would gladly stay with you'. Now that is denied to us by Fate. What in this world are but eyes to you, in the coming night shall be your stars."
3. "Wenn dein Mütterlein"
"When your mother steps in through the door and I turn my head to look at her, my glance does not go first to her face, but nearer the doorstep, there, there where your dear little face used to be, as if you were bringing joy's beauty in with you as you used to, my little daughter. When your mother steps in through the door with the glowing candle, it is to me as if you came in with her as you used to, as of old hurrying behind her into the room. O you, your father's being, ah light of joy lost too soon!"
4. "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen"
"I often think: they have only just gone out, soon they will be coming back home. The day is fine! Don't be dismayed! They have just gone for a long walk! Yes indeed, they have just gone out, and now they are making their way home. Don't be dismayed, the day is fine! They have simply made a journey to yonder heights. They have just gone out ahead of us, and will not be thinking of coming home. We go to meet them on yonder heights! In the sunlight! The day is fine on those uplands!"
5. "In diesem Wetter!"
"In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out. They have been carried off. I wasn't able to warn them. In this weather, in this gale, I would never have let the children out. I feared they sickened: those thoughts are now in vain. In this weather, in this storm, I would never have let the children out, I was anxious they might die the next day: now anxiety is pointless. In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out. They have been carried off. In this weather, in this gale, they rest, they rest, as if in their mother's house: not terrified by any storm, but sheltered by the Hand of God, they rest, they rest, as in their mother's house."
The composer wrote, concerning the performance of the work, "these five songs are intended as one inseparate unit, and in performing them their continuity should not be interfered with".
The work takes about 20 minutes to perform.