Mahler Symphony No. 4 program notes

Monday, August 9, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Mahler : Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Composed: 1899-1901
Instrumentation: soprano, 4 flutes with 2 doubling piccolo, 3 oboes with 3rd doubling English horn, 3 clarinets with 2nd doubling E-flat clarinet and 3rd doubling bass clarinet, 3 bassoons with 3rd doubling contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, 4 percussion (bass drum, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, sleighbells, glockenspiel), harp, and strings

During the first decade of the 1800s, poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano collected and published three volumes of anonymous German folk verse that ended up having a great influence on composers and authors who came to characterize the German Romantic movement of the 19th century. Goethe himself was the work’s dedicatee and one of its most important champions. In total, the collection, which they called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wondrous Horn), included over 700 selections.

Mahler set over 20 of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn selections to music, but perhaps more importantly, the composer’s developing artistic sensibility was deeply shaped by poetic material in the work. Bruno Walter explained the compilation’s attraction to Mahler: “Everything that moved him was there—nature, piety, longing, love, parting, night, the world of spirits, the tale of the mercenaries, the joy of youth, childhood, jokes, quirks of humor all pour out as in his songs.” Mahler wrote in 1905:

I have devoted myself heart and soul to the poetry [of Wunderhorn] (which is essentially different from any other kind of literary poetry and might almost be called something more like Nature and Life—the sources of all poetry—than art) in full awareness of its character and tone.

Each of Mahler’s first four symphonies (sometimes known as the “Wunderhorn symphonies”) make use of prior settings of the collection. In Symphony No. 4, Mahler expands his 1892 setting of the poem “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) with text representing a child’s vision of heaven. Mahler had originally envisioned this setting to appear as part of Symphony No. 3 (which contains musical references to its theme) but instead opted to retain it as the focal point (and final movement) of his subsequent symphony.

Mahler’s symphonies are bursting with…everything. As he famously proclaimed, “the symphony is a World,” and he aims to represent every aspect of it in his massive symphonic works. That said, Mahler was acutely aware of his place in the long line of Germanic symphonic composers, and retaining the title of “symphony” for compositions that on their surface seem to extend far beyond the expressive boundaries of his predecessors is not simply a nod to the icons of the past. One of the remarkable aspects of Mahler’s symphonies is their allegiance to the essential scaffolding of the Classical symphonic form.

The first movement of Symphony No. 4 is a prime example, with its Mozartian melodic fluidity, its Beethovenian motivic manipulation, and its Brahmsian adaptation of sonata form to fit his dramatic needs. Indeed, if anything, here Mahler hews more closely to the Classical scaffolding than Brahms tended to. The three-measure introduction—instantly recognizable from the sleighbells accompanying the winds—is brief but significant, as it will return at numerous points to help define structural transitions. The initial main theme (G major) and its offshoots exude Viennese grace and lilt, and the main second theme, found first in the cellos in the expected dominant key, is expressive and balanced. The first return of the sleighbell motto ushers in what functions as a truncated “repeat” of the exposition, which is modified to emphasize a short bird-call motive (in dotted rhythm with wide intervals) that had initially only appeared in the orchestral background and emerges as significant through the rest of the movement (and reappears in disguised form as the main melody of the finale). The next appearance of the sleighbell motto announces the development section, which is rich both in its exploration (and fragmentation) of previous thematic material and its introduction of completely new material. The most significant new theme enters boldly but fluidly in the flutes. The drama and texture build until the main thematic return, which is among the oddest in the literature: the expected sleighbells appear, but they are not properly aligned with the thematic accompaniment, which itself is disjointed and mixed with other thematic material. Suddenly, the orchestra comes to a complete stop, catches its breath, and returns, in sync, to the galant style of the opening, but, bizarrely, in the middle of the phrase.

The second movement functions as a scherzo in the symphony and prominently features a solo violin part. Mahler has the concertmaster tune each of the violin strings a whole step up (to A-E-B-F# from low to high) and instructs the musician to play “like a fiddle.” After a tonal misdirect by the entrance of a solo horn (also showcased notably in this movement), the music quickly becomes macabre, with the solo violinist playing a craggily chromatic line that eventually falls into C minor. This devilish theme provides the mood that Mahler was trying to capture here. Alma Mahler wrote that Gustav was composing the movement “under the spell of the self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin, in which Death fiddles into the painter’s ear while the latter sits entranced.” (Music lovers may also be familiar with Böcklin from his painting Isle of the Dead, which inspired Rachmaninoff’s homonymous tone poem). Interspersed are dreamy, at times hypnotic, trio sections.

The third movement opens with an extended meditation, effectively resolving the tension that was baked into the scherzo. If the second movement was built on twists and shocks, the opening of the third is a smooth and gradual production, beginning with the entry of the theme in the low strings and steadily adding in the rest of the orchestra. There is barely a note outside of G major in this opening five minutes of music, until a new E minor theme in the oboe casts a darker expressive shadow on the proceedings. These two modes/moods alternate, presenting an overall A-B-A-B-A form; however, the final appearance of the G major section is more varied, as Mahler presents a series of quick variations in wide-ranging styles (free-spirited dances, sincere chorales). This culminates in a sudden orchestral eruption in E major. The remainder of the movement is a gradual recovery from this surge that both presages the finale and revisits material from the A and B sections.

An advantage of composing the final movement first is that Mahler was able to construct the first three movements so as to very effectively set up the finale. The third movement E major burst and subsequent melody tips off the arrival of the heavenly final tonality and pre-echoes the main theme. The sleighbell motto from the opening of the symphony returns here—also as a structural marker—and Mahler reorders the notes of the bird-call motive from that movement to create the vocal line. So, despite being the shortest and last of the four movements, the finale feels like the heart of the symphony. The child’s vision of heaven is innocent, joyful, and true, and Mahler’s setting mirrors the child’s sentiments rather than comments on them. (He instructs the singer, “Singing voice with childlike cheerful expression: absolutely without parody!”). There is dancing, jumping, singing, but most of all, there is all manner of food in all varieties. There are pauses in the celebration as the child’s attention turns to reverence for the saints and angels who are looking over them and providing for them (as well as some pangs of regret for the sweet animals that become part of their feast). The symphony ends in utter calm, with bell-like repetitions in the harp’s lowest register.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi