Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 4, a contradiction


Mahler in Manchester


Gustav Mahler is the composer of contradictions and paradoxes. He is the composer of ambiguities, contrasts, complexities and cognitive dissonance.

Nothing could make this truth more evident than the move from the 3rd Symphony to the 4th. *

The reasons are obvious- the two works are so strikingly, obviously different. The 3rd is his longest symphony, the 4th his shortest. The 3rd is written for one of his largest orchestras, the 4th is his very smallest. One work has a huge trombone solo, the other has no trombones, one ends with a huge fortissimo catharsis, the other a transcendent pianissimo. One is a work of grand gestures, the other is strikingly intimate- almost chamber music (and it is interesting that the 4th was successfully adapted for a small chamber ensemble by Mahler’s friend Erwin Stein).

But, of course, ardent Mahlerians will already be screaming out as they read this- the 3rd and 4th are Mahler’s most closely related symphonies!

In fact, they are essentially one piece. Mahler composed his song, “Das himmliche Leben” or “The Heavenly Life” in 1892, before either the 3rd or 4th Symphonies. He originally intended it to be the Finale of the epic 3rd Symphony, and began composing the 3rd Symphony backwards from that point. It was only as he was finishing the enormous first movement of the 3rd that he realized that the song no longer belonged in the symphony, and instead he made the great Adagio, originally called “What Love Tells Me” the Finale. By this point, he had sprinkled the entire symphony with obvious references to the song, and used the song to extract a huge wealth of motivic material that is not obvious to the casual listener, but which gives the huge piece a tremendous sense of structural cohesion. The intended effect was to make the appearance of the song be the logical culmination of all the musical ideas in the piece.

It just never appears.

So, when Mahler started work on the 4th, he essentially started the same, very unusual process, all over again, of composing backwards from the end.

The implications of this for a performer are really interesting. It means we have two symphonies which could hardly be more different which are made of the same musical DNA- it’s like a pair of siblings, or even fraternal twins- they are made of the same genes, but they grow up to be completely dissimilar people.

Thus, we have two symphonies that seem completely different on the surface, but which are as closely related as two works could be. This is just the first of many, many of these paradoxes present in Mahler’s 4th Symphony. It’s often described as his simplest and most straightforward work, and on some levels it is, but it is also his most multi-layered, most contradictory, most enigmatic, most paradoxical work. Nothing in this piece is as it seems.

The end of the piece is the most gentle and understated in any of the symphonies, yet Mahler called the Fourth the culmination of all his early works- Das himmlishce Leben is not just the finale of this symphony, but of the entire first half of Mahler’s creative life. That gentle song had more significance for the composer as an arrival point than any of the amazing, epic, cathartic, heaven-storming Finales of the first three symphonies.

The symphony seems to stand apart from the rest of the Mahler cycle by virtue of its brevity, the modesty of the orchestration and its general avoidance of the grand gesture, yet it is the most central to understanding Mahler- it is the work with the most diverse, important and profound connections to his other works. It introduces important themes we’ll hear again in the 5th and 6th Symphonies and the Kindertotenlieder.

It also seems to be the most technically straightforward of Mahler symphonies for players and conductor. From the conductor’s perspective, it would seem to be, by far, the easiest of the cycle. After all, the 2nd has all that insanely complex music with the offstage band to coordinate, the 3rd is full of tricky rhythmic modulations and treacherous transitions, the 5th has that ferociously complex 2nd mvt, then that awkward Scherzo in which the tempo always seems to work best in that uncomfortable place between in 3 and in1. Gergiev just wrote an essay in the Gramophone bemoaning the titanic technical difficulty of the 7th, which is mercilessly difficult for the players and the conductor. 6, 8 and 10 are minefields of mixed meter in places, the Rondo Burleske of the 9th might be the most complex movement in the repertoire, and even Mahler didn’t know how to conduct Das Lied von der Erde.

Alone out of the cycle, there is nothing in the 4th that looks like an audition piece for conductors, but it takes the most skill, preparation, maturity and experience to bring off. All of the other symphonies offer a certain safety of the grand gesture- for instance, several have long accelerandi (or gradual increases in tempo), something that is always hard to pace and coordinate, but in every other case, those accelerandi lead to a very fast tempo and a very noisy climax. The build-up of tempo in the first movement of the 4th goes on for quite a while, but arrives only at a moderately fast tempo- if you go beyond that point of moderation, the character is lost, and if you don’t go far enough, the development feels static and stuck. Again and again in the symphony, you have to turn corners with a degree of precision and a lack of room for error unique to this piece. It’s much the same for the players.

Much as the piece often sounds quite straightforward, that outward simplicity belies a ferocious inner complexity. The first movement, which sounds so direct and accessible, has some of the most contrapuntally intricate music in the symphonic repertoire, and each of those voices must be balanced and shaped. Then, just think what Mahler found in that simple song that ends the symphony- enough musical ideas to build two large symphonies!

A huge part of Mahler’s genius is in his ability to create music in which seemingly incompatible ideas are able to coexist in a way that feels truthful. This state of being seems far removed from our modern mindset- we live in an era of taking sides. Life today is held to be  happy or sad, not happy and sad. Our public discourse and our critical mindset doesn’t easily allow for mixed emotions. Even in music, we seem limited to only letting music be one thing at a time. Many years ago, many conductors and musicologists thought the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony was about death, now a new generation of scholars tells us it is about love. Can’t it be both? What is more quintessentially Romantic than this mingling of love and mortality? More of that soon, I’m sure.

The 4th is about innocence and danger, about youth and mortality, about serenity (what could be more serene than the end of the symphony) and menace (what could be more menacing than the 2nd Mvt, in which the devil himself fiddles away?). For a conductor, it all needs to be characterized in a multi-layered way, but nothing (other than the nastiness of Freund Hein’s  violin solo in the Scherzo) can be too overdone.

Take, for instance the very beginning of the symphony. What could sound more innocent than sleighbells, and even if they might hide some hints of mystery and menace, that elegant ritardando at the end of the 3rd bar which begins that exquisitely graceful main theme must surely be a sign that all is well in the world.

Well, it’s worth remembering for a second that unlike a normal symphony, everything in this work began with the Finale, so this opening is, in a strange way, not the first appearance of this music, which appears in  “Das himmliche Leben”. The “first” appearance ** (coming in about 45 minutes) of this music is much more malevolent and menacing, with sharper instrumental sonorities and more violent interjections than merely the gentle flutes and clarinets which characterize the beginning.

But, it is the text which is most telling-

John lets out the little lamb

Herod the butcher lies in wait for it!

We lead a patient, innocent, patient

Darling little lamb to it’s death!

St. Luke slaughters the ox

Without any hesitation or concern.

Wine costs not a penny in the heavenly cellar

The angels bake the bread

So, yes, on one level the opening sounds innocent (and is intended to), but the text behind it is about the slaughter of an innocent. The child who narrates the final song is also an innocent, and he looks on as Luke and John murder “without hesitation or concern.” Gradually,  he warms to their endeavours as he contemplates a fine meal- is his innocence being corrupted? Many writers treat this passage simply as good humoured observations of the pleasures of heavenly life, but to do so takes neither the text nor the music at face value. It’s as if we want everything in the Finale to be of one mood- serene contentment. “Surely, the little boy is not bothered by the blood bath around him,” we’re told. Why not?

And there is one more important musical clue in that beginning that all is not as simple as it seems. The meltingly elegant three note anacrusis which begins the main tune, with its lovely ritardando, exists in cognitive dissonance with the flutes and sleighbells. That rit which Mahler asks for over the last 3 quavers is written only in the clarinet and first violins. The flutes and sleighbells don’t come to a relaxed ending as the melody begins. They’re more like a menacing forest creature showing it’s face for the first time, then retreating into the shadows of a black forest. Here’s what the opening sounds like as Mahler wrote it. (You’d be distressed and amazed to know who many conductors completely overlook this detail- here is how not to do it, or at least how Mahler told us not to do it).

Just a footnote-

* Funnily enough, this blog project is forcing me to do something that I haven’t done in many, many years, which is to deal with the all the symphonies in order. Usually, my attention falls most strongly on whatever one I am conducting next.. For instance, I did the Ruckert Lieder in December and the 1st Symphony last week, and next see the 5th Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in the late summer, so under normal circumstances, my Mahler curiosity would center around those pieces, with little tentacles of curiosity and comparison reaching outwards towards the other pieces. However, for this blog series, we’re marching straight through in order, and the step from Symphony 3 to 4 is one of the most jarring anywhere in the cycle.

** If the fist appearance of this music is in the Finale of the 4th Symphony, the 2nd appearance is in the 5th movement of the 3rd, as part of a dialogue between a sinner and the angels.

And should I not weep, you gracious God?

(You should truly not wee! Should truly not weep!)

I have broken the Ten Commandments!

I go and weep most bitterly.

Ah, come and have mercy on me.

I can’t help but wonder what the sin against the Ten Commandments was…..

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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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8 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 4, a contradiction”

  1. Neal

    Dear Ken

    Interesting reading, as always…

    One tantalizer that I’ve always kept in the back of my mind is the possibility that Mahler imagines the child in heaven in “Das himmlische Leben” to be the same child who starves to death in “Das irdische Leben”, which makes all the food references in the former even eerier!

    I’ve never done the pieces together, but I think the next time I do the 4th, I will — though “DiL” is more of a mezzo song, so maybe I’ll have to do some transposing…



  2. Peter

    Dear Ken

    Your blog is interesting as ever.

    Somewhere I read that the sleigh bell intro is the foolscap – creating a musical equivalent of inverted commas. It’s a shout out that says – this may not be entirely serious! It is also birdsong, telling us we are in the woods (we are all in Ken’s woods!), so for all the veneer of classical civilisation, this is nature again in the same mood as the flower minuet of the Third.

    What is the sin in the angel song from the third symphony? It is surely the idea that we are mortal flesh, therefore weak and fearful causing us to betray our divine inner nature. (Infirmans nostri corporis!) This makes sense after the bridge from matter to spirit whcih we hear in the Midnight Song which precedes it. In the first half of the symphony, man is wedded to the earth and his animal nature, but feels alienated from it, because he can see that there is cruelty and suffering inhreent in nature. By getting beyond ego and the struggle for survival comes a spiritual resurrection; a new dawn. Mention of St.Peter may also give the game away – he betrayed Christ three times, betraying his divine nature because of the fear of losing his life. Peter knew the bitter struggle between the weakness of flesh and the call of the spirit, and he knew moral failure. Surely this battle between flesh and spirit, instinct and idea, Dionysus and Apollo is what the symphony is about. Mahler shows that there is struggle, but also unity – the opposites are revealed as aspects of the same thing, as Fechner believed.

    At the end of no.4, I don’t allow the bloodbath to spoil the heavenly image, because Mahler has reached a point of inner detachment where all these things seem as just infantile games and nonsense (which most human aggression surely is!)This allows him to see creation as again restored to innoncence. It is a bit morbid perhaps, but I think Mahler is saying, as so often, the struggle for survival is nothing compared to the richness of the inner world of spirit and imagination. “Kein musik is ja nicht auf Erden” …the answer is not out there pursuing the world of ego. It is within and beyond material existence. Music is the link to that world beyond, so tantalisingly out of reach. Mahler’s irony is in this case not bitter or cynical, but transcendent – and that’s how we hear it, even if the words are reminding us of the turmoil that has been left behind. The fourth symphony is a point of detachment at which the epic struggle of the third is viewed as something distant – with only faint echoes and fairy-tale shadows from childhood standing in the way of the heavenly ascent. That this state is somehow fragile and impermanent (especially for Mahler with his doubting demon) is born out by what follows in 5, 6 and 7.

    make sense?


  3. Peter

    I just wanted to add something. Ken asks what is the sin that has broken the ten commandments? We come back to survivor guilt again. The text of the movement refers to St. Peter. It is he Christ accuses – why do you weep, when you are being set free. It anticipates Peter’s betrayal, and Christ is saying to him, don’t be full of self-pity, get on and do something about it! Peter stands in relation to Christ as Mahler does to Rott. Christ died, but Peter survived. He betrayed Christ three times, as the story tells us, but Peter went on to found the Christian Church, thus fulfilling the destiny of Christ.

    It is as if Rott says to Mahler, don’t be sad about me, go out and change the world and be unstoppable because you have moral fervour as wind in your sails. So we know that Mahler wanted to speak for the forgotten souls and lost geniuses like Rott. He also wanted to create something that endured on their behalf and to create a world where people like Rott don’t end up mad and dead through neglect. This is what Mahler envisions in the Third symphony, and this new order is very much the goal of the Mahlerian symphonic project; to fill concert halls and and opera houses the temples to art,with music that can transform and bind a community. Mahler was imitating Wagner of course, in this, but his vision is more inclusive than Wagner. He is more willing to encompass the high and the low, the ordinary and the vulnerable. He also believed you could reform existing institutions and you didn’t have to create one of your own.

    We should also remember that Mahler was finally getting his hands on the Director’s post at the Hofoper around the time he was writing the Third symphony, so the masterplan for realising his iconocalstic vision was in full swing. This may give another possible meaning to the melody that opens the Third, which has words… “Wir hatten gebauet ein staatliches Haus – We have built a stately house”, which Mahler also called a Weckruf. It is a summons to awaken from slumber;a call to Mahler and his supporters to rise up and sweep away the old order so they can build a new one. It is also a warning to those who stand in the way to look out. The battle then ensues against the forces of inertia which must be overcome in any revolution. One might even believe that this opening shout is a declaration of war on the conservatives at the Vienna Opera, announcing Mahler’s visionary plan to reform it. The winds of change are about to sweep through its musty old corridors, and it is an irrestisble force that will fill the house with creative energy to make it a dynamic vessel of social change.

    Well Mahler half-achieved his aim, but he was cruficied for it in the end, like St. Peter. But perhaps our modern attitude to concert life and the seriousness with which opera is now taken are Mahler’s true legacy as a reformer of moribund institutions. His Third symphony bursts with this energy for shaking things up. The Fourth? Well I think that’s where we get, when the work is done.


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  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Neal- Great to hear from you, as always! Ben Zander suggests something similar about the 2 songs in the discussion disc for his Telarc recording of the 4th. I know Frederica von Stade has recorded the 4th, and I think Christa Ludwig sang it at least once, so there are mezzos who can do both- it would be a brilliant program.


  6. Mitch F

    Ken, please keep this thoughtful blog going; there is much to ponder in every single paragraph.

    Peter wrote: “We should also remember that Mahler was finally getting his hands on the Director’s post at the Hofoper around the time he was writing the Third symphony, so the masterplan for realising his iconocalstic vision was in full swing.”

    Deryck Cooke says the symphony was composed in 1895-96 (and premiered only in 1902), so it was apparently finished by the time Mahler hit Vienna. But I definitely agree with Peter’s use of the word “masterplan.” During a Colorado MahlerFest seminar on the Rueckert songs, Marilyn McCoy was discussing Ich bin der Welt. She pointed out Mahler’s statement to the effect that “this song is everything I am.” She then played the rising four-note motif that forms the basis of that song and of the Adagietto of No. 5….and which made its first appearance in the third movement of the 4th. Now there’s a masterplan, and one reason I like to say that Mahler wrote only one symphony, with several vocal interludes.

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  8. Steven

    Excellent essay, thank you. The point that “Mahler’s genius is in his ability to create music in which seemingly incompatible ideas are able to coexist in a way that feels truthful.” is so spot on. The universe is indeed happy and sad, in love and dying.

    Another little detail most (almost all) conductor’s miss in the opening of the 4th is the very specific glissando Mahler notates at the end of the 3-note anacrusis that begins the first theme, a detail that contributes a great deal to its “melting elegance”. Mahler specifies it should be a glissando from the 4th finger F# to the 2nd finger G – mostly so that the listener hears the 2nd finger slide a fourth from D to G, echoing a distinctively Viennese elegance. Musicians who played under Mahler in NY talk about it here:

    And to Peter above, could you have perhaps read that bit about the sleigh bell intro representing the foolscap in the forward to the Universal Edition of the score, where Renate Stark-Voit casually mentions the “Schellenkappe” theme in the song? If you’ve read that elsewhere, however, I would love to know where. That interpretation of those sounds (and therefore much of the rest of the symphony) came as a complete surprise to me and entirely plausible despite being very different from other interpretations, but I haven’t yet found a credible source or deeper exploration of this angle.

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