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Gustav Mahler: The Fourth Symphony

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Gustav Mahler
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Das himmlische Leben

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 4 in G major, with soprano solo.

  • 1st movement: Bedächtig. Nicht eilen (Deliberate. Not hurried)
  • 2nd movement: In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast (With leisurely movement. Without rushing)
  • 3rd movement: Ruhevoll (Calm)
  • 4th movement: Sehr behaglich (Very cosy)

Musical Form and Outline

It is a curious fact that this symphony, that raised so much scorn and vehement reaction at its introduction to the world, should now often be recommended as an entry point for those not yet familiar with Mahler's symphonies. Certainly, this is due partly to it being smaller in scale than the others, but also to the melodic ease of all its movements. The apparent 'easiness' however is a falsehood; this symphony is highly original. At the time of its composition, Mahler was, to use the modern parlance, pushing the envelope. Superficially, Mahler appears to be conforming to the 19th-Century classical tradition of Beethoven and Schubert, but the illusion becomes unsustainable after even a cursory examination of the work.

The three so-called Wunderhorn symphonies, the Second, Third and Fourth, each make use of song settings that Mahler made from the collection of German folk poetry entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn). For the fourth movement of the present symphony, Mahler chose to use a song originally composed in 1892, and at one time intended to be the conclusion of the Third Symphony. Thus, it had been in existence for some eight years before finding its place as the Finale of the Fourth. The song presents a simplistic, essentially child-like view of what it might be like to live in Heaven. Just as the Finale pre-dates the rest of the movements, so the whole symphony may be seen as a journey in reverse, from adulthood to childhood.

First Movement

The 'classical tradition' case gets off to a good start in the first movement, which has well-defined Exposition, Development and Recapitulation sections of sonata form. The movement opens with a jingling sleigh-bell Introduction, Troika-like. This is followed by the requisite first and second subjects (themes) in the keys of G major and D major respectively. The Introduction and the first theme are the principal elements of the movement, the second theme not reappearing until the recapitulation. The development section also gives us a hint of the coming fourth movement Finale. Towards the end of the development section, there is an orchestral climax followed by a trumpet passage that Mahler referred to as the "Little Summons", a comparative reference to the 'Great Summons' in the final movement of the Second Symphony. This 'Little Summons' theme will become the motif at the beginning of the next symphony, the Fifth. Thus, we have a link back to the Third (it will be remembered that the fourth movement was at one time planned as part of the Third), as well as one forward to the Fifth. At the very end of the development, there is an odd moment, a discontinuity. The movement seems to just stop, and then start again as at the beginning with the jingling sleigh-bells. We are now in the recapitulation section. The first and second subjects are revisited as expected, with the second theme now in the home key of G major – pure sonata form. A traditional Coda rounds off the movement.

Second Movement

The second movement, one of Mahler's Ländler1 movements, is a Scherzo in C minor, with two F major Trios. The first crack has appeared in the illusion – we would expect a slow movement followed by a Scherzo, but here Mahler has reversed the expected order of the middle movements. The leader of the orchestra is required to play on a violin tuned two semi-tones higher than normal, to produce a thin, ghostly sound. This represents Death playing a dance to lead us to, where – to Heaven or to Hell?

Third Movement

This is followed by the slow movement, opening with a theme in the symphony's home key, accompanied by an important rocking motif in the bass strings, played pizzicato; the theme will later be the subject of a set of short variations. The first theme is followed by a second in the home key's relative minor, E minor. Again, Mahler appears to be conforming to the classical tradition with a 'Theme and Variations' movement, but there are significant departures. Firstly, there are two themes, of which only the first is varied – the second theme merely returns with some augmentation before the variations. Some of the variations are made on previous variations, rather than on the original theme itself. The overall structure of this movement is very complex indeed, far ahead of anything written up until this time. At the start of the variations proper, the tempo increases from adagio to andante/allegro, before returning to adagio for the final variation, which is again accompanied by the rocking bass motif. At the close of the variations, the movement, and indeed the whole symphony, reaches a pivotal moment. A sudden and unexpected fff E major eruption in the orchestra leads to a passage in which the brass section proudly state the principal theme of the Finale that is to follow. This is the theme that was hinted at in the development section of the first movement. As the eruption dissipates, the movement ends slowly and quietly with prominent harp arpeggios.

Fourth Movement

The final movement breaks away completely from the classical tradition; the illusion in tatters. No composer prior to Mahler would have dreamed of ending a classical-style symphony with a Lied. The soprano soloist sings the Wunderhorn song, 'Das himmlische Leben'. In this, she is asked to 'adopt a joyous, child-like tone, without parody'. In the words of the song, we enjoy the delights of Heaven, dancing, hopping, jumping and singing, whilst St Peter looks on. Food and drink are plentiful, although there is a slightly darker side to the song as the Saints John and Luke facilitate the slaughter of a lamb and an ox respectively. Between verses, we hear once again the jingling sleigh bells that launched the symphony. As a final departure from the classical norm, instead of ending the symphony in its tonic key, in the coda Mahler moves the harmony to E major. This was the key in which the principal theme was given, triple-forte at the end of the third movement, and the movement dies away peacefully to the rocking rhythm, as of an infant, in the harp and the basses.

Composition and Première

For various reasons, the summer holidays of 1897 and 1898 had been unproductive from a creative perspective. The 1898/99 season at the Vienna Court Opera closed on Monday, 12 June, 1899 and Mahler left Vienna to spend the summer with his sister Justine and his musical friend and companion Natalie Bauer-Lechner. The house they had booked proved quite unsuitable and Mahler spent ten days desperately trying to find alternative accommodation. Eventually he found the Villa Kerry at Alt-Aussee in the Salzkammergut, but was dismayed to discover that the daily bandstand concerts down in the spa town were clearly audible. This was a major disturbance, as during his summer vacations Mahler always insisted on working in absolute silence.

Nonetheless, having made some revisions to the Third Symphony, corrected his publisher's proofs of 'Das klagende Lied'2 and written a new song, 'Revelge', in mid-July Mahler started work on the Fourth Symphony3. He worked furiously on this, anxious to get as much as possible sketched on paper before he would be obliged to return to his duties at the Vienna Court Opera at the end of July.

Mahler spent the following summer in a rented villa at Maiernigg, on the Wörthersee. Since the previous summer, he had bought a plot of land on the side of the lake and commissioned a house to be built upon it. He also rented some land behind the purchased plot, on which the architect arranged to erect a small composing hut (Häuschen), to be ready for the summer of 1900 in advance of the main house. The first fruit of this Häuschen, which Mahler was to use for the next few years, was the completion of the Fourth Symphony.

The fourth movement of the new symphony comprised one of the songs from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, 'Das himmlische Leben', written in February, 1892 and orchestrated the following month. This was envisaged at one time as a seventh movement to the Third Symphony with the sub-title 'What the Child Tells Me', but was dropped. As a Wunderhorn song, it had its first public performance at a concert in Hamburg on Friday, 27 October, 18934.

At the first performance, scheduled to take place in the Kaimsaal in Munich on Monday, 18 November, 1901, Mahler would conduct his symphony, whilst Felix Weingartner would conduct the remainder of the concert5. Mahler asked for a delay of one week, due to 'insurmountable difficulties'6. He left Vienna by train with Justine and Natalie on the evening of 20th November and began rehearsals with the Kaim Orchestra the following day. Mahler realised very quickly that the quality and experience of the orchestra was going to make a satisfactory realisation of this deceptively simple work very difficult.

At the final rehearsal and at the concert proper, the reaction of the public and the press was the same. Just a year earlier in the same hall7, Mahler had conducted an acclaimed performance of the Second Symphony. Surely, this new symphony would be something comparable in scale. The work that Mahler presented to them now was certainly not what they had been expecting. Was this Mahler's joke? Was this parody, this burlesque, poking fun at the listener? At the end of the first movement, there was a fair amount of booing, but not enough, according to the Allgemeine-Zeitung newspaper the next day, to drown out the applause. The succeeding Scherzo and Adagio movements failed to assuage the audience's bewilderment. The Wunderhorn song of the fourth movement was sung by the 26-year-old soprano Margarethe (Rita) Michalek, whose voice fitted Mahler's instruction in the score to sing with a cheerful and childlike tone of voice exactly.

At the conclusion of the symphony, Mahler left Michalek on the platform to receive what applause there was, before appearing himself. He was well aware of what reaction he could expect, and made sure that Michalek was securely offstage before striding back to the podium himself.

He returned to Vienna the next day by train, bitterly disappointed that this work had been so misjudged. It was less than three weeks previously that he had first met his future wife, Alma Schindler. Perhaps he drew some joy from the thought of seeing her again. Two days later, Mahler proposed marriage to her.

In the days immediately after the Munich première, Felix Weingartner took the Kaim Orchestra on a concert tour to Nuremburg, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. In each case, with the exception of Stuttgart where the symphony was better received, the reaction of both audience and press to the symphony was the same as that in Munich. At the Karlsruhe concert, where the audience was almost non-existent, Weingartner, who claimed that he had been taken ill during the first item on the programme, Berlioz's King Lear Overture, left the podium for over three quarters of an hour. On his return, he played only the Finale of Mahler's symphony, substituting some standard Beethoven repertoire, the Symphony 1 and the Leonora Overture No 3.

A fortnight later, on Monday, 16 December, 1901 at 8pm, Mahler conducted the symphony at one of a series of subscription concerts at the Kroll Opera in Berlin, conducted by Richard Strauss. Here the reaction of both audience and press (who had always been particularly hostile to Mahler's music) was even more savage than that in Munich. Mahler knew that this was likely, and had even considered leaving Strauss to conduct the performance, but decided in the end to conduct it himself.

At two further performances in Vienna in January, 1902, the symphony fared no better critically.

An interesting footnote to this misunderstood symphony: a unique event (at least to the knowledge of the present writer)8 took place in Amsterdam on Sunday, 23 October, 1904. On that evening at the Concertgebouw, Mahler conducted the Fourth Symphony twice in the same programme, once before and once after the interval9. The symphony was also the final work of his own that he conducted, in New York on Tuesday 17 January, 1911, just four months before his death.

1The Ländler is a kind of rustic waltz peculiar to Austria2An early work - a cantata, using the composer's own words.3Mahler's first layout for the symphony had existed for some time, and included movements used eventually in the Third and Fifth symphonies, together with the Wunderhorn song, 'Das irdische Leben'.4The concert included a performance of the revised First Symphony, and six of the Des knaben Wunderhorn songs. Other items on the programme were Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Marschner: Aria from Hans Heiling, Adam: Aria from La poupée de Nuremberg, Mendelssohn: The Hebrides Overture. This concert was reconstructed during the Edinburgh International Festival in August, 2001.5Thereby preceding the first complete performance of the Third Symphony by over six months.6In fact, Mahler needed to be in Vienna to conduct at the Court Opera. The Vienna première of Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann had taken place on Monday, 11th November. Mahler conducted a further three performances of the opera that week (12, 14 and 17).720 October, 1900.8With a 'voluntary' audience! Hans von Bülow is reputed to have repeated Beethoven's Ninth symphony at a concert, having previously had the exit doors of the hall locked.9Alma Mahler recorded in her memoirs that the performance in the second half was conducted by Willem Mengelberg. Her assertion is incorrect, but has been repeated frequently.

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