Childhood, Nature, Light and Sound:
Wordsworth and Mahler

by Fred Blick

There is a rewarding connection between William Wordsworth’s literary work and Gustav Mahler’s musical compositions. They were both important exponents of Romanticism. Romantic artists throughout the nineteenth century were identifiable as being concerned with the pleasures, fears and pains of individuals and their relationship with Nature. I intend to show that the philosophical and artistic legacies of the fundamentally like-minded Wordsworth and Mahler are very relevant to the twenty-first century.

Sadak in search of the waters of oblivion, by John Martin (1812)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was an Austrian, late Romantic conductor and composer of music, born about ninety years after the births of the English literary pioneers of Romanticism, Wordsworth and Coleridge. The most powerful influences upon Mahler and his preceding composers of the 19th century were the 5th and 6th Symphonies of the early Romantic, Beethoven (both these symphonies were premiered in 1808). These works symbolised dramatically the struggles, anxieties and joys of the individual in the ‘one’ environment of Nature.


Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler


The phrase ‘the one Life was used by Coleridge in ‘The Eolian Harp’, a poem in his 1796 Poems On Various Subjects. The sensing of motion, light, sound and music were for him key factors of that ‘one Life’. Coleridge wrote:

O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light, ….
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument. ( ll. 26-33)

A most striking idea in these lines is “A light in sound, a sound like power in light” which implies a bond between motion, light and sound. Wordsworth had already adopted this combination in Descriptive Sketches (1791-2) when he wrote “He views the sun uplift his golden fire, / Or sink, with heart alive like Memnon’s lyre”. He was probably recalling Erasmus Darwin’s recent note of 1791, “The statue of Memnon …. is said for many centuries to have saluted the rising sun with cheerful tones, and the setting sun with melancholy ones”. The profound influence of light can be observed in Coleridge’s ‘Shurton Bars’, his ‘This Lime Tree Bower’ as well as in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘Rainbow’ and his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, and elsewhere in their works.

Recollections of early childhood’s first instinctive impressions, both joyful and fearful, were seen by both Wordsworth and Mahler as part of a continuity or infinitude, in either pantheistic pre-existence and renewal, or in birth and Resurrection. In The Prelude (ll. 604-5) Wordsworth asserted “Our destiny, our being’s heart and home, / is with infinitude and only there”. Further, both were interested in the combination of childhood, music and light. In 1806 Wordsworth wrote ‘The Power of Music’ about a street musician who is “a centre of light”, charming all who hear him (including a mother who “dandles her Babe to the sound”), but whose music is ignored by the passing and roaring traffic. More generally, in 1828 he wrote ‘On the Power of Sound’. He seems to assert there, through aspects of the myths of Orpheus, Amphion, and Pan, how the power of the mind’s response to music becomes a means to conquer time, space and death i.e. as a key to infinitude. Connecting sound with Light, he writes:

A Voice to Light gave Being; ….
The trumpet (we, intoxicate with pride,
Arm at its blast for deadly wars)
To archangelic lips applied,
The grave shall open, quench the stars.

He had shown in the preliminary Argument of this same poem his interest in and understanding of Pythagorean musical theory. It commences “Thy functions are ethereal.” and he goes on to summarise the theme of Stanza 12 as “The Pythagorean theory of numbers and music, with their supposed power over the motions of the universe.” Speaking of music’s ‘one life’, the stanza reads:

By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled, ….
With everlasting harmony (ll. 177-184, my bolding).

In ‘Tintern Abbey’ the “one life” is seen associated with harmony, joy and light:

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things. ….
…. a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (ll. 40-50 and 97-104)

There is ample evidence that Mahler’s music was much concerned with childhood, Nature and light. His work is filled with childhood recollections, both pleasant or fearful. In a psychiatric session with Sigmund Freud the traumatised Mahler recalled that as a child he ran screaming into the house in agony to the strains of a hurdy-gurdy playing outside. He endured the deaths of eight of his own siblings, which experience, not unexpectedly, made him conscious of the deaths of children generally. This led him to compose in 1901-4 his orchestral song settings of five of Ruckert’s 1833-4 Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). In a more cheerful vein, he recalled from childhood bugle calls and military bands from a military garrison near to his home in Iglau, as well as coach horns or post-horns, folk songs and dances in the town square.

The first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (1887-8) is full of the sounds of Nature and of seeming bursts of light which were to persist in his later symphonic works. Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) is a set of folk poems, two dozen of which Mahler set to music or incorporated as movements in his Symphonies No.s 2, 3, and 4. Drawing on Das Knaben Wunderhorn , Symphony No. 2 (also known as ‘The Resurrection Symphony’, 1888-94) ends with “Urlicht!”, a child’s fervent hope for the light of everlasting, transcendent renewal:

‘Urlicht!’ (Primal Light)

O little red rose,
Man lies in greatest need,
Man lies in greatest pain.
Ever would I prefer to be in heaven.
Once I came upon a wide road,
There stood an Angel who wanted to turn me away.
But no, I will not be turned away!
I came from God, and will return to God,
The loving God who will give me a little light,
To lighten my way up to eternal, blessed life!

Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder, Volume 1 (1806)

Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder, Volume 1 (1806)

This idea of the child’s view of the Light of Heaven is similar to the uplifting view in Wordsworth’s ‘Rainbow’ and the “glory” sensed by the “Child of Joy” in his ‘Immortality Ode’:

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore: (‘Ode’, 1- 6)

The sequence of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (1896) centres on the place of “Me”, in Nature:

‘Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In’
‘What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me’
‘What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me’
‘What Man Tells Me’
‘What the Angels Tell Me’
‘What Love Tells Me’

He originally envisioned a seventh movement, ‘Heavenly Life’ (alternatively, ‘What the Child Tells Me’), but he eventually dropped this. He used it instead in his Symphony No. 4 which, again, is much concerned with Nature and the joys and fears of childhood. The last movement in Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900), ‘The Heavenly Life’,” is another song from ‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’ – ‘Das himmlische Leben’ – a child’s vision of danger and of the eternity of Heaven in which laughing and dancing and joy (like that described in Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’) play a prominent part. Clearly, Mahler portrayed childhood’s recollections of light, joy, fear and pain in his music, just as Wordsworth had done in the Prelude and other poems.

Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ (‘The Song of the Earth’, 1908/9) is one of his last and greatest works. It is a song-symphony, a setting of ancient Chinese verse, which captures a vision of natural, earthly beauty and of Man’s pleasures and pains, enhanced or alleviated by the company of friends drinking together amidst music, light and water-mirrored scenes. The moving and more personal last section, ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’), is not only about parting and death but also hope, envisioned in eternal light and infinitude:

The dear earth everywhere blossoms in spring and grows green anew! Everywhere and forever blue is the horizon!
ever … ever … (the last words of “Abschied”).

The parallels between Mahler’s and Wordsworth’s Romantic themes and motivations, as set out above, are now clear. Further, both Wordsworth and Mahler were traumatised in childhood by fearful experiences and by the deaths of children and adults. The works of each were affected thereby.

One may fairly ask whether such parallels and motivations are particularly relevant to our own times. I suggest that they are for the following reasons. The factors at play in the early 1800s, the early 1900s, and in the first two decades of the 2000s, are similar in many ways. The late 1700s and the early 1800s were times of rapid change and progress in science, technology and industrialisation, which many, including Wordsworth and Coleridge, found very disturbing. Their friend Humphry Davy had been deeply involved in new, electro-chemical experiments and discoveries involving Light as the suspected motive-force of life. Davy had said “A worshipper of Nature is a worshipper of Light”. Oxygen, a product of light had, with photosynthesis, been discovered about two decades earlier.

Mahler also lived in a time of fast-developing technology. Before he died in 1911, the gramophone and the cinema had captured lifelike sounds and light. Motor vehicles trundled the roads. Aeroplanes and Zeppelins zoomed overhead. Skyscrapers pierced the sky in New York while he was conducting there. Weapons of death and destruction, such as gas, machine-guns, long-range guns and searchlights had been perfected, soon to wreak havoc in the dreadful war which was to break out in just over three years. Like Wordsworth in his own time, many of Mahler’s fellow intellectuals feared what was just around the corner.

Today, digital technology has speeded up communication and discovery in all the sciences and engineering, in previously undreamt-of ways, bringing new individual joys and conveniences, but terrible, overarching mass anxieties about global control and destruction.

In such fast-changing times individuals, and especially artists, tend to cling to and recollect the continuities of Nature, as did Wordsworth, Mahler and other Romantics.

The final scene of Death in Venice (1971)


In 1971 Luchino Visconti directed a film of Thomas Mann’s 1911/12 novella Death in Venice, adapting it controversially to Mahler’s music. Mann had written about the death of a writer named Aschenbach, though it is clear he had Mahler in mind. It is striking that Mann and Visconti should both end their pieces with their heroes’ tortured and dying visions of a beautiful boy, standing alone in the sea and beckoning towards the light of the sky; like an ancient statue of Memnon responding to the eternal music of light – an Adagietto of love and infinitude.



Fred Blick is an independent scholar from a multi-disciplinary background. He has published a number of essays over the past twenty years; not only ‘Wordsworth’s Dark Joke in ‘The Barberry-Tree’’ in Romanticism journal in October 2014 and ‘Flashing Flowers and Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’’ in the Wordsworth Circle Journal in 2017, but also innovative essays in peer-reviewed academic journals worldwide on the subjects of the sonnets of William Shakespeare and of Edmund Spenser.