The death of a child is one of those fundamental human horrors too awful to think about. It’s also an all-too easy emotional trigger: nothing is more guaranteed to win the tears of an audience or readership. As result, it’s a subject that artists usually approach with caution. The emotional impact may be big, but it needs to be earned.
Despite its brevity, Schubert’s Erlkönig (1815) certainly does that. It is based on a poem by Goethe that tells the story of the possession and killing of a child by the supernatural Erlking. Schubert’s setting turns it into a technically dazzling opera in miniature. A solo voice ‘plays’ the parts of narrator, the Erlking, the boy and his father by singing in different registers, while the accompanying piano describes the frantic gallop of the father’s horse through the night. Schubert saves the child’s death until the very last moment, and dashes it off in just a few seconds of music. He leaves no room for sentimentality, but loses nothing in shock value.
In Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes, the death occurs before the opera begins. What actually happens is a mystery. All we know is that Grimes, a Suffolk fisherman, has returned from sea without his young apprentice. Assuming murder, the finger of the community points to the awkward, short-tempered loner. An almost complete breakdown of social order is the result. The boy’s death is not part of the story – he is never even named. Instead it serves as a trauma through which Britten can turn a critical eye on the fragility of human society.
As a closeted homosexual living in oppressive mid-century England, Britten will have identified with Grimes, and his opera asks difficult questions about the relative values we place on the lives of children and adults, and how much we are prepared to sacrifice in their defence. They are still relevant today.
Not many musical works confront childhood death face on. But Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (1901–4), a truly harrowing setting of five poems by Rückert, is one of them. Written nearly a century before Mahler’s song cycle, the poems are shot through with hope for religious transcendence, the children “sheltered by the hand of God”. But the fin-de-siècle irony of Mahler’s writing introduces a heart-breaking uncertainty. The second of 14 children, Mahler knew something of child death himself, having lived through the passing of six of his siblings. With children of his own, he had superstitious doubts about setting the poems himself. (Indeed, his own daughter, Maria, died four years after they were finished.) But only by going all the way to the dark heart of his subject is Mahler able to treate it appropriately.