Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mahler - Symphony No. 4 In G Major

Gustav Mahler was best known in his lifetime as a leader of opera houses and as a conductor with a world wide reputation. During the opera and concert season he gave all he had to these endeavors, but during his summer vacation he gave all he had to composing. Mahler's first three symphonies grew progressively larger and longer, so the audience didn't know what to expect at the premiere of the 4th Symphony.  What they got was a surprise.

The 4th Symphony is written for smaller forces (at least by Mahler's standards). There are no trombones, no choirs, only one soprano soloist that sings in the 4th movement, and the entire symphony takes just under an hour, the shortest symphony Mahler wrote up to that point.  Mahler's 4th can be called his Classical Symphony for its style, forces used and content.

But that doesn't mean the symphony is a trifle. Mahler was a man of incredible emotions that spilled over into his music and the 4th is no exception. The difference is that while there are moments of darkness, for the most part the symphony is in a sunny mood. Mahler began to sketch out the symphony in 1899 but after the summer vacation he put the work in his desk so he could focus on his work as the director of the Vienna Court opera. When he came back to it the next summer, he finished it in only three weeks.

Mahler conducted the premiere of the symphony in 1901 in Munich. It was not a success. The work was roundly booed. The style of the work as well as the thematic material and construction of the symphony gave both sides much to carp about. The anti-Mahler faction thought the composer was trying to pull a fast one by writing music that was different than his earlier works, as if h e were thumbing his nose at them. Some of the pro-Mahler faction that expected another blockbuster work complained about the naiveté of the music, as if he purposefully left his monumental style to write something more accessible for the audience and critics.  But it was this roundly criticized work that became the most performed of all Mahler's symphonies.

I. Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Slowly, not rushing) -  Mahler opens the symphony with flutes, sleigh bells and clarinets:
This short section acts as a prelude that leads to the first theme, a rising figure heard in the violins that changes to a dotted rhythm. After the first theme plays out, a short transition leads to the second theme heard in the low strings. Another theme appears in the oboe and other woodwinds. The opening motive with sleigh bells signals the development section,which is initially taken up with the first theme. A section for solo violin continues the development section that constantly shifts themes and fragments of themes in and out, and transforms them to different themes. The lightness of orchestration belies the fact that this is very complex music. The music reaches a short climax with a trumpet solo and the sleigh bells return. Motives are played in counterpoint and lead up to another climax with trumpet solo. The recapitulation is not as extensive as the exposition and it leads to a short coda where the first theme gradually increases in tempo and volume until it comes to an end.

II. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Moving with leisure, no hurry) -  A scherzo in the form of  a  ländler has a violin playing a solo with an altered tuning; Mahler instructs the soloist to tune all of the strings a full tone higher than usual. Mahler originally marked this movement with the words Death strikes up the dance for us; she scrapes her fiddle bizarrely and leads us up to heaven, but he eventually removed all descriptive headings from this movement as well as the others. The music maintains its leisurely dance pace throughout, complete with string portamento. The movement ends with a shimmering cadence for glockenspiel, triangle. harp and woodwinds.

III. Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peaceful, a little slow) -  A languid theme slowly unwinds over a pizzicato accompaniment. A second theme of a more impassioned nature is played by the cor anglaise, with strings adding commentary. A set of variations on the first theme follows, with an interruption by the second theme amid the variations. A fragment of the first theme plays, and in a flash the music switches to E major and grows loud and noble as the theme for the final movement is announced. The music grows quiet and mysterious and ends in a hush.

IV. Sehr behaglich (Very pleasantly) - Mahler returns once again to a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of old German poems that he drew inspiration from for many years. He used the text from the poem Das himmlische Leben (Life in Heaven), a song about being in
Heaven and how the Saints slaughter animals and prepare meals there. As depicted in the poem, Heaven's not so heavenly for lams, ox and other animals. Mahler instructs the soprano to sing the song as a child, honestly and without parody. The song is interrupted three times by the motive first heard in the introduction to the first movement complete with sleigh bells, but this time played rapidly at a fast tempo and in a minor key. After the third interruption, the song returns to the gentleness of the opening of the movement. On the last two words of the line and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh, the soloist joins the violins in a glissando. The song continues, the cor anglaise and harp play a opening fragment of the movement and the music ends in a barely audible whisper.

Life In Heaven from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
We enjoy heavenly pleasures and
therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult is to be heard in heaven
 All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn't cost a penny in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of every sort grow
in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets they come running right up.

Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

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