This is Mahler's first completely mature work. It is also his first full-fledged orchestral song cycle, a genre Mahler was eventually to bring to its height. Unlike its two predecessors, Berlioz's Nuits d'été (Summer Nights) and Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder (Wesendonck Songs), Mahler's cycle was intended from the beginning as orchestral. Despite the fact that it was first sketched with piano and published this way as an alternative, the orchestral version is clearly superior. The texts are all by Mahler, although they were inspired by the collection of German folk poetry entitled Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Young Boy's Magic Horn); they depict a "Spring Journey" of a young man who has lost his love to a rival. Stylistically, all the elements of Mahler's early work are present: folklike melodies, the invocation of nature through bird calls and open textures, an intensely dramatic and dark Allegro, and a grim military march. Also present is Mahler's lifelong juxtaposition of the love of life and nature with despair, emptiness, and death. Anticipating his later harmonic complexities, none of these songs end in the same key as they began -- a procedure called "progressive tonality."
In "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" (When My Sweetheart Has Her Wedding), the protagonist mourns the loss of his love to a rival and attempts to find solace in nature. The first part, in which the lover mourns, is written in a simple and moving folk-Slavic style. This gives way in a central, faster section to the invocation of nature through imitation bird calls, always incorporated into the musical fabric of the accompaniment. A return to the opening mournful music ends the song bleakly.
In "Ging heut' morgens übers Feld" (I Went Out This Morning Through the Fields), the protagonist sets out on a cheerful walk in the country, only to eventually remind himself of his lost love. This is also in a folkish style, with scale-derived melodies and hints of Austrian yodeling. The accompaniment begins with simple open textures, only to give way to a flowing and contrapuntally rich texture. Towards the end, the almost ecstatic quality of much of the song gives way to a wistful melancholy.
"Ich hab' ein glühend Messer" (I Have a Glowing Knife) describes the metaphorical knife the sweetheart plunged into the lover's breast with her betrayal. In what would become Mahler's typical diabolical style, the song features muted trumpets, tremolo strings, and snarling brass. The tortured and aggressive quality of the music perfectly depicts the lover's angst.
in "Die zwei blauen Augen" (The Two Blue Eyes), finally, the protagonist goes out in the night to find peace under the linden tree (a durable Romantic metaphor for death), to the accompaniment of a funeral march the likes of which only Mahler could compose. This march eventually fades into a more folklike style, but it remains colored by its original harmonies. A poignant and grim return to a single repeated phrase of the march concludes the song.