Mahler set a total of fourteen large-scale songs with orchestral accompaniment to texts from the folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
- Lied 11: Urlicht was rapidly incorporated (with expanded orchestration) into the 2nd Symphony (1888–1894) as the work's fourth movement.
- Lied 12: Es sungen drei Engel einen Sussen Gesang, by contrast, was specifically composed as part of the 3rd Symphony (1893–1896): requiring a boys' chorus in addition to an alto soloist, it is the only song among the twelve for which Mahler did not produce a 'singer-with-orchestra' version and the only one which he did not first publish separately. (Other songs found themselves serving symphonic ends in other ways: a singer-less version of Lied 6: Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt forms the basis of the Scherzo in the 2nd Symphony, and Lied 6: Ablosung im Sommer" is adopted in the same way by the 3rd.
- An additional setting from this period was Movement 4: Lied: Das himmlische Leben (Sehr behaglich) ('The Heavenly Life', 1892). By the year of the collection's publication (1899) this song had been re-orchestrated and earmarked as the finale of the 4th Symphony (1899–1900), and thus was not published as part of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection, nor was it made available in a 'voice-and-piano' version.
The remaining songs are usually grouped together under the banner of Wunderhorn-Lieder, yet they do not form a unified song cycle. They are, however, highly effective when performed together. In general, the songs can be divided into two types: songs of a military nature and those of a pastoral, romantic, or quasi-religious nature. Ten of the songs were composed between 1888 and 1893, preceding the first symphonies.
The final two settings were written in 1899 and 1901 in close proximity to the fifth and sixth symphonies and the songs to texts by Rückert. The subject matter of both of these songs involves a doomed drummer boy. They are more extended than the earlier songs. The Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies are often called the Wunderhorn symphonies because of their use of some of these songs as movements. There are also purely orchestral symphonic movements in the Second, Fifth, and even the Tenth Symphonies that are clearly related to certain Wunderhorn songs. Mahler did not specify in his scores whether the songs were to be sung by a man or a woman, although the military songs are clearly more effective when sung by a man. Similarly, some of the pastoral songs are best served by a woman's voice. A few of the songs are in a sort of dialogue form between male and female speakers.
1400. Hamburg, Wunderhorn.
There is no evidence that Mahler ever intended these dialogue songs to be sung as duets, but this practice has become widespread in recent years. Following strong advice of the two leading Mahler experts, Donald Mitchell and Henry-Louis de La Grange, however, they are presented here as single-voice songs, as Mahler himself performed them. Maestro Olson's division of the songs on the two programs between the two singers represents a balance of the styles. He ends each set with one of the two later and more extended "drummer boy" songs.