Mahler 4 in progress

Friday morning and I’m moving a little slower after a long rehearsal last night. We’ve now got about %95 of the out of town players here, so we’re starting to get a good sense of what the issues are going to be this week.

The Fourth may be the hardest Mahler symphony to rehearse even though it is far from the most technically difficult. It’s the piece in which Mahler seems to have announced himself to the world as a great contrapuntal composer. The vast majority of the piece is made up of overlapping, independent motivic cells and themes, and there is almost no doubling in the work. That means the best way to rehearse it is for everyone to really know it, because the piece lives or dies on how vividly each gesture is characterized. Absent that characterization, there’s not much a conductor can do but resort to coaching solo players or single sections, something that leaves much of the orchestra sitting around.

Of course, the conductor’s first job is to show as much as possible of the detail and characterization with one’s hands. Even here, though, there are problems because Mahler asks for so much independent dynamic detail that in showing a forte to one section, you can easily confuse the section next to them that are marked pianissimo.

Ah…. Pianissimo.  An orchestra’s pianissimo is the tangible manifestation of the musician’s shared musical conscience. Players can hate being nagged to play softer, softer but once the sound really clicks, you never have to ask again (at least for that concert). I could feel that progression throughout the evening last night, but we’re still not there. A real pianissimo from an orchestra is a beautiful paradox- everything gets softer and starts to disappear and in doing so, the room becomes more electric.

I was listening to the documentary “Remembering Mahler,” which follows on the CD I have of Mahler’s piano roll performances (including the last movement of the Fourth Symphony). In interview after interview, musicians who had played for Mahler 50 years earlier talked about the force of his personality, his musicality, and how he towered over Toscanini as a conductor and a man, and how he always let rehearsals out early….

Hey- we had a very polite, professional email from Breitkopf about the lost Bruckner. Still no word from Schirmer…

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

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.

Learn about Kenneth at

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

3 comments on “Mahler 4 in progress”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Oh i amsososososickofmahlerpleasenomoremahler-suchswoonyromanticmentalillnessmahler..

    saucroutitus is an infectious disease…wearprotectionat all encounters. itshorriblestuff yuk

    my bumpersticker reads


    and i have seen on the road


    so please please no more mahler…

    no more yukki Dom7’s eeeewwwww

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *