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.
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…..