Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 - May 18, 1911). Orchestras and festivals all over the world are commemorating Mahler with performances of his symphonies and works (such as this festival, with a gala today. This diary won't/can't even try to cover comprehensively Mahler, as other sources have a long head start on that, such as:
Instead, this is a sort of free-form rhapsody on one Mahler symphony, the Fourth, first performed in November 1901, and focusing mainly on its last movement. You can also get a good primer on Mahler 4 from Boston Symphony Orchestra program notes by the late Michael Steinberg. The reason for the choice of #4, as well as the last movement, follows below the flip....
As noted in Steinberg's commentary, the last movement of Mahler 4, a setting of a poem from the German folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), was actually the first to be written, as it was originally intended as the 7th (!) movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 3. However, GM decided somehow that 6 movements were enough for that work. (For people who aren't classical music geeks, most symphonies content themselves with 4 movements, and in Haydn and Mozart's day, lasted not more than half an hour. Mahler 3 goes for 100 minutes in its 6 movements.)
But not wanting to let a perfectly good piece of writing go to waste, GM decided to write a new work that would culminate in this pre-existing movement. So in a flip way, Mahler composed this symphony "backwards". In fact, one critic after the January 1902 Vienna premiere, Max Graf, commented in his review:
"This symphony has to be read from back to front like a Hebrew Bible."
Lest anyone consider that comment to be an anti-Semitic jibe at Mahler (and Mahler received plenty of anti-Semitic invective in his life, to be sure), Max Graf was himself Jewish. Donald Mitchell commented on Graf's quip as follows:
"Given the tragi-comic history of the Fourth's reception, it seems entirely appropriate that one of the few genuine insights about the symphony should have been expressed (and intended) as an adverse comment. Graf himself was Jewish, so it may have been that Mahler was not offended by what may have been intended or at least understood as a good Jewish joke."
Citation: Donald Mitchell, 'Mahler's Fourth Symphony', from The Mahler Companion (ed. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson). Oxford University Press (1999), p. 200.
Towards the end of his life, Mahler noted in a letter to the conductor Georg Gohler:
"Each of the first three movements is thematically most closely and most significantly related to the last."
Mahler to Georg Gohler, Feb. 8, 1911 (citation, Ibid., p. 188)
The text of the last movement, which is often given the title "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"), reads as follows (translation my reworking of the Google Translator feed):
|Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
D'rum tun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich' Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh'.
Wir führen ein englisches Leben,
Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Gut' Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Gut' Äpfel, gut' Birn' und gut' Trauben;
Sollt' ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
|We enjoy heavenly delights
And so avoid earthly cares.
No worldly conflict
Is heard in heaven!
Everything lives in peace and calm!
We lead an angelic life
St. John releases a lambkin,
St. Luke slaughters the oxen
Good herbs of all sorts
Good apples, good pears and good grapes!
Should there come a feast day
No music on earth,
Cecilia with her relatives
Mahler's 4th is often considered the "sunniest" of the symphonies, for admittedly understandable reasons, such as the jingling sleigh bells at the very beginning of the work. Yet when you read the "Heavenly Life" poem, at least intellectually, you have to wonder about the work's "sunniness". Note in the poem the casual images related to death, with particular regard to what happens to the lamb and to the ox. You'll also note that the fish just swim merrily, almost waiting to be eaten. Mitchell wrote in his liner notes to the Claudio Abbado recording on Deutsche Grammophon (CD B0005759-02 – Renee Fleming is the soprano soloist, if you’re wondering):
"Death, it seems, is obligatory if life is to be sustained, even in heaven, an irony that no doubt stirred the composer's imagination."
Plus, it's a kid, after all, singing about how s/he has everything s/he could possibly want in heaven. The kid doesn't think about the ramifications of how the food gets to the table, after all.
Of course, one can regard this all as a child dreaming of heaven. The harsher alternative would be to regard this more "literally" as a child truly seeing heaven, which would imply that if the child is in heaven, then the child is dead. Sort of takes the shine off the sun, if one stops to think. Yet that tension remains, between the generally "light" spirit of the music and the not-always-so-light subtext of the poem. One other interpretation of the finale comes from the scholar Adolf Nowak, as quoted by Henry-Louis de la Grange:
"[Nowak] considers it to be a reflection of Nietzsche's philosophy. He is convinced that the irony which is symbolized in the Finale of the Fourth by the sleigh-bells refrain gives 'Das himmilische Leben' the character of a Wunschtraum, one in which the hungry child of 'Das irdische Leben' (*) is at last saved from his hopeless 'earthly predicament. Thus the child projects into the other world every pleasure and enjoyment that has been denied him in this one."
Citation: Henry-Louis de la Grange, Gustav Mahler - Vienna: The Years of Challenge. Oxford University Press (1995), pp. 772-773.
(*) 'Das irdische Leben', or "Earthly life", is another poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which tells the story of a starving child waiting for his mother to feed him. She keeps telling him the bread will be ready once the corn is reaped and threshed. It doesn't end well. Mahler's setting in his song cycle is an abridged version of the poem in the link.
One other, perhaps unwitting, innovation of this symphony is that it is quite possibly the first orchestral symphony to use a solo singer in its final movement. Mahler 4 certainly wasn't the first symphony to use singers in the finale, where that honor obviously goes to Beethoven's 9th, which used 4 solo singers and a chorus. Very few symphonies have done this since, where the only one that comes readily to mind is Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Pastoral Symphony. Other symphonies have used a solo singer more extensively, such as Michael Tippett's Symphony No. 3 and Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3.
If you want to read a survey (through 2006 or so) of recordings of Mahler 4, Tony Duggan has it here. Lots of star (and not quite so famous) names have sung the last movement, a good number of which Duggan's article notes. This takes us to the reason (finally) why 3CM chose to babble here about Mahler's Symphony No. 4. It has to do with these videos of the 2nd and 4th movements:
The reason I chose these particular videos, besides the inherent quality of the performance, is that the concert from which these videos derive marked a very special occasion. The artists featured here are:
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam
Bernard Haitink, conductor
Christine Schafer, soprano
Concert date: November 7, 2006
This is a symbolic date because Haitink first conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra, as its title was for its 1st 100 years (the "Royal" [Konijklijk] title didn't come until 1988), on November 7, 1956, as substitute for an indisposed Carlo Maria Giulini. So the math is obvious: this concert marked Haitink's 50th anniversary of conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, on the exact day. Following the sudden death of the orchestra's 3rd chief conductor, Eduard van Beinum, in 1959, Haitink and Eugen Jochum shared the chief conductorship of the orchestra for 2 years, 1961-1963. Haitink then took the sole reins as chief conductor for 25 years, from 1963 to 1988. He now has the title of conductor laureate with the orchestra.
The other reason for choosing these videos can be glimpsed, sort of, at 3:27 of the second movement video, for example. In the Great Hall of the Concertgebouw (the name means "Concert Hall" in Dutch), the names of a number of composers, Dutch and otherwise, are inscribed along the balcony. The usual suspects (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart etc.) are there, along with some Dutch names you won't know (Alphons Diepenbrock, Cornelius Dopper, Jacob Obrecht, etc.). You'll see that a spotlight lights up one of the names all through the performance, where everywhere else in the hall, the audience light is dimmed, a name in the center of the back balcony section. That name is Mahler.
The Concertgebouw Orchestra has a long relationship with the music of Mahler, because of the tremendous advocacy by the orchestra's second chief conductor, Willem Mengelberg (tenure from 1895 to 1945), and also including performances led by the man himself. Mahler guest-conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra 4 times over a period of 6 years, from 1903 to 1909. In fact, in one 1904 concert, Mahler conducted the Fourth Symphony twice, as recounted by the Dutch author Balthazar Verhagen:
"On the memorable Saturday night of the 23rd October Mahler conducted his Fourth Symphony twice to a small but appreciative audience."
Citation: Eveline Nikkels, 'Mahler and Holland', from The Mahler Companion, p. 329.
So, it's fitting to sample Mahler 4 today from the world's greatest Mahler orchestra, with the world's leading Mahler conductor at the helm. Your thoughts on Mahler, favorite works or concerts, or maybe you've actually performed his music, are most welcome below.