Mahler’s use of the contralto voice in his Second and Third Symphonies and in Das Lied von der Erde is commonly observed but little examined. The contralto sound in the “Urlicht” movement of the Second Symphony and the “Midnight Song” of the Third remains to be thought through; so does the return of the contralto a decade later in Das Lied. Why this voice? What expressive and cultural force does it bear? And why does Mahler in the Third Symphony and again in Das Lied explicitly assign a female voice to a male narrator? The starting point for answers to these questions is the unique status of the contralto voice in Mahler’s musical world. Between roughly the 1820s and the 1920s, this rarest of all voice types enjoyed a transcendental mystique. Traces of its elevation, linked to its rarity, persist into the present, as does the descriptive language that the voice attracts. The transcendental character of the contralto, however, did not lead from the earth but to it. This is the case even in the “Urlicht” movement, which might seem to go the other way. And “lead” is a key term: the voice belongs to an unforeseen guide who leads the listener to a more acute sense of earthly existence. Mahler’s model here was almost surely the contralto role of Erda—a guide who loses her own way—in Wagner’s Ring cycle. But Mahler changes the contralto’s gender, or, more exactly, makes the contralto guide a hybrid being who belongs to no gender, much like the angels in Rainer Maria Rilke’s near-contemporaneous Duino Elegies of 1912–22.

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