There have been attempts to justify the position of the song, based on programmatic interpretations. None of these seems to make any sense. Nevertheless, the song is effective in this position. This may be because it combines a highly dispersed stylistic subjectivity with the irresistible appeal of the mezzo-soprano voice; the irony, elusiveness, multi-levels of the earlier movements, linked to Mahler's guilty assumption of the Volksseele, is focussed and redeemed by his rebirth in the tones of the singer, his adoption of the mantle of the unified orator. The "sincere" voice of the earnest speaker is needed in the finale, which is undeniably an address from the heart.
This, perhaps, was Mahler's reason for placing the song next-to-last, which otherwise seems like a puzzling intrusion. The previous scherzo ends in C minor, and the finale begins in this key; "Urlicht" begins with the soloist alone on a D flat, and it ends in the same key. Though Mitchell notices certain thematic relations to the finale, the piece is altogether different in tone and style. It is also very short.
The little poem comes from the second part of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, where it is said to be "mundlich" (learnt by word of mouth). It is, perhaps, a composition by Clemens Brentano, at least in part.
O Roschen rot,
The poem begins with a mystical invocation; it progresses from reflective lament ("Der Mensch liegt in grosster Not") to narrative ("Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg...") and a dramatic exclamation: "Ach nein, ich liess mich nicht abweisen". Finally there is a resumption of the pious sententiousness of the opening ("Ich bin von Gott, ich will wieder zu Gott..."). Thus, the subjectivity of the poem is already unstable, before it is even set to music.
Der Mensch liegt in grosster Not,
Der Mensch liegt in grosster Pein,
Je lieber mocht ich im Himmel sein.
Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg,
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt mich abweisen,
Ach nein, ich liess mich nicht abweisen.
Ich bin von Gott, ich will wieder zu Gott,
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben.
[O little red rose: mankind lies in greatest distress, mankind lies in greatest suffering, I would rather be in heaven. I came to a wide road, where an angel appeared and wished to force me back: ah no, I will not be forced back. I come from God, I wish to return to God, the dear God will give me a little light, will light my way to blessed eternal life.]