Mahler 4 on my desk

Sometimes the best lessons come to us when we haven’t had enough coffee.

I’d been working late on the score of Mahler 4, which I’m conducting in October for the first time in three or four years. I’d been doing what conductors are trained to do- analyzing everything and try to create a vivid and detailed aural picture of the music in my head as I study. In other words, I’ve been trying to connect what I see to what I hear.

When I came back into my study this morning, however, I just saw the score still open on my desk and for a second I simply saw it as a page of sheet music, not as part of the first movement of Mahler 4.

What really struck me was the contradiction between what I was looking at and what I know the piece sounds like. I would guess that a non musician would look at those pages and assume that they were looking at a very complex, severe and intense piece of modern music. I would think that someone who knew Mahler 4 but didn’t read music would never guess this was the score to it. After all, Mahler 4 is supposed to be his simplest symphony, the most Haydn-esque, the most childlike, and the most classical.

And here is the issue- sometimes the very sound of the music can be the biggest barrier to getting close to the actual meaning of the music.

The Fourth is Mahler’s simplest, most Haydn-esque symphony, the most childlike and the most classical, but when so few of us understand Haydn, how can we understand what it is to be Haydn-esque. Mahler understood Haydn very well.

In Haydn’s music, simplicity is serious business- the simpler and more innocent the theme, the more elaborately and creatively he works with it. Mahler is much the same- for him childhood is the most serious of subjects, and innocence is the most complex of states because of its very fragility. Even in this symphony, which is life as seen through the eyes of a child, innocence is constantly under threat and true, stable and permanent innocence is only attained in the life after death of the final movement.

Looking at the page instead of thinking about what it sounds like tells you a lot about just how complex and conflicted this first movement is. As with Haydn, simplicity is the most serious business for Mahler. I’m also reminded of the end of Das Lied von der Erde, where the simplest sounding music in the entire work is actually the some of the most rhythmically complex and technically challenging music ever written by anyone. Well played, one would never guess at the ferocious difficulties, but they are part of the emotional complexities of the music.

Simple in Mahler, as in Haydn, is just never simple.


c. 2007 Kenneth Woods 




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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Mahler 4 on my desk”

  1. Roni

    > “Simple is never simple”

    That is probably why such geniuses as Gesualdo, Buxtehude, Handel, Mozart, Schubert – to name a few – are way underestimated, especially comparing to others.

    That is probably also the reason why Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Tchaikovsky – and the rest of the pack – are so overestimated.

  2. John

    This essay would have been more useful if you could have told us *what* was complex yet seemingly simple about the work/score, instead of repeating that as with haydn, simplicity is serious business. this essay has zero content, and it could have been fascinating.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi John

    Thanks for the note- I appreciate your interest.

    I’m sorry if the post disappointed you, but it was just a blog post trying to capture my experience of glancing at a score before I’ve had my coffee. Since I’m conducting the piece in a few weeks, I’m pretty sure there will be plenty more of substance to come about the piece.


  4. Daniel

    I enjoyed it.
    I was thinking about similar things…how for a moment or two (really seconds), it sounds as if it could be Haydn. At the same time, what is it about those few seconds that makes it Haydn-esque? It is a very, very interesting symphony.

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