A quest, a murder, and musical retribution through a dead body part that sings: these are the elements of the folktale known as “The Singing Bone,” a traditional narrative that appears in numerous versions in both oral and literary European traditions. For decades, this tale has drawn the special attention of folklorists because of the remarkable and indeed sensational role played in it by music: its narrative reflects a fascinating ideology of the cultural power of music as the voice of the oppressed, while its musical interludes, chilling spectral songs sung by the bone of the murder victim, invoke the potent and at times unsettling effects of musical performance. Gustav Mahler's first large-scale work, Das klagende Lied, takes up this extraordinary narrative and translates its exceptional features into poetry and musical sound in a manner that especially foregrounds and amplifies the effects of a performing presence in both textual and musical dimensions. Mahler's narrative ballad is a multivoiced text whose temporal and vocal shifts create oscillations between narrative and drama, telling and enactment, giving rise to a remarkable instability of utterance from which repeated evocations of sound and voice emerge. Its musical setting delivers a discourse that similarly exhibits explicit moments of performance, temporal suspension, and sonic dislocation in both voices and orchestra. This extreme volatility of utterance and its resultant effects of presence become the means of the work's embodiment of its own narrative content, such that, in performance, it evokes an experience of the radical sonic rupture that is the story's theme—a theme that reverberates powerfully throughout Mahler's oeuvre.
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