The words of the songs are poems by Friedrich Rückert. Karen Painter describes the poems thus: “Rückert’s 428 poems on the death of children became singular, almost manic documents of the psychological endeavor to cope with such loss. Mahler selected five of Rückert’s poems to set as Lieder, which he composed between german children poems with translation and 1904.
The songs are written in Mahler’s late-romantic idiom, and like the texts reflect a mixture of feelings: anguish, fantasy resuscitation of the children, resignation. The final song ends in a major key and a mood of transcendence. There followed a long break, and the remaining songs were composed in the summer of 1904. The work was premiered in Vienna on 29 January 1905.
Friedrich Weidemann, a leading baritone at the Vienna Court Opera, was the soloist, and the composer conducted. Concerning the performance of the work, the composer wrote “these five songs are intended as one inseparate unit, and in performing them their continuity should not be interfered with”. The work takes about 25 minutes to perform. At the time he wrote the work Mahler was no stranger to the deaths of children.