The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 4: Movement IV

Heaven = Food. At least according to the last movement of the Mahler 4. (Photo by altimae, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We Have Been: Movement I – childlike fun. Movement II – more of the same, but with the creepy spectre of fiddling death overshadowing things. Movement III – beautiful slow movement contrasting the wonders of heaven with the pain of earthly life.

And that brings us to perhaps the most underwhelming ending of any Mahler symphony. (However, that was the effect the composer wanted, so it’s certainly nothing to complain about.) He introduces a soprano (occasionally, there is the odd recording that uses a boy soprano, to make the music even more childlike).

The soprano sings the song Das himmlische Leben (“The Heavenly Life”). This was from a strange collection of old poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Wonderhorn”). Mahler quite liked this collection (he references them in every one of his first four symphonies, so we’ll run into them a bit later). And it was this particular poem that inspired the whole 4th symphony. You can read the lyrics here:

As you can see, the poem is all about a child enjoying the delights of heaven, and most of it seems to revolve around food. (Apologies to any vegetarians who might be reading this.) It’s quite a naive view, and perhaps not one that’s likely to catch on in Catholic churches anytime soon, but Mahler obviously thought it was endearing enough to create a whole symphony based around the concept.

As for the music, it’s not the kind of movement that really needs much explanation, and so I’d suggest you pop over and just follow along with the words. But to give you a heads up, musically, this is like the song equivalent of the first movement. There are some lively orchestral interludes in between the verses of the song (featuring the “Jingle Bells” motif), but for the most part the words tell the story.

And there you have it, Mahler’s most “feel-good” symphony. Did you enjoy it? Too light and fluffy? Your favourite one so far?

If you were feeling that this was a bit light-on, then have no fear – we’ll be back next post with something a bit heavier.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 4: Movement III

The third movement gives us a glimpse of heaven in a musical form. (Photo by M. Sarfaraz, via Wikimedia Commons.)









Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Child-like ice-skating. Movement II – the creepy violin of death.

Mahler wrote a few heart-stoppingly beautiful slow movements. (The Mahler 5 fourth movement is probably the most famous.) In my opinion, this one is his second-most beautiful. (You can wait and find out which I think is the most beautiful.) All these slow movements have in common that they’re never perfectly serene all the way through – there are clouds and dark patches – but ultimately beauty and love win. This plays out in this one by an alternation between a major key section (A) and a minor key section (B), which are connected together by a common rhythm. (If you need a reminder on major and minor, check out this old post.)

The overall idea with the movement is the idea of heaven and rest contrasted with the turmoil of this life. If you remember, this symphony is heading towards a song where a child describes heaven. So we’ve had fairly childlike music in the first two movements. But it’s in this second-last movement (rather than the last movement where you would expect it), that Mahler gives us a serious unfiltered look at heaven, and temporarily drops the childlike guise. (But it does make an appearance or two throughout the movement.)

A Section
(0:00) Theme A in the strings. You can play it as slow as you want and it still sounds gorgeous. Starts in the low strings and works its way up. I’ve often suggested it as a wedding processional piece but nobody has taken my advice yet. (But, hey, if you’re reading this and about to get married, why not consider it?)

(1:17) Violins come in. Even more amazing. Cannot explain why this music is so tear-inducing. I read somewhere a description of this movement that described it as an Abgesang (swan song, farewell song), and I would believe that.

(1:57) Most beautiful oboe solo ever. At least, who can remember any other oboe music while listening to this bit?

(3:00) High strings. For me, the world has just stood still. However, this might be a good time to point out what the cellos and basses are doing. Hear that “Dum-dum. Da-dum-dum”? (It’s a very slow march rhythm.)  It’s going to become a motif of its own as the movement progresses.

(4:11) The rhythm is more prominent now. Flute chords to close out this section.

B Section
(5:02) Theme B in the minor key, starting on the oboe. (Notice the underlying rhythm motif is the same as in Theme A.) It sounds like a mini-tragedy …

(6:12) … and then plunges into a gloomy oboe-led solo, which transfers to the flute. Easily the most serious and intense music in the symphony so far.

(7:49) Fragile violin solo over the top of the rhythm motif.

A Section
(8:21) It’s back to the major key for the A section again, but you’ll notice that it is now in the same gentle, playful style as the 1st movement.

B Section
(10:33) Back to the plaintive woodwind world of Theme B. Gloomy climax at (11:50). Dies down then builds up to another one (12:43). Hugely tragic. Dies out again.

A Section
(13:41) Back to Section A, played super-quietly on the low strings.

(14:27) Now a bit more chirpy, with some little kiddy squeals in there. It’s quite astonishing that we can have such innocent music within minutes of the tragedy of that last B section. Ends ups with a sort of running race at (15:17), followed by a big horn slow-down.

(15:50) Then we’re back to the sound world of the opening. Beautiful high strings, glorious melody and delicate counterpoint (different melodies layered on top of one another). It sounds much more poignant this side of the minor key stuff.

(17:14) Amazing moment at the end where everything drops away to the Most. Beautiful. Chords. In. The. World.

(18:01) Then, out of the blue … a MASSIVE break-through by the brass (as in, rather than transition into the brass section, they literally break through the existing quietness). Hear the rhythm motif on the timpani as well?

(18:45) From here on, it’s all just one big extended fade-out, so that the mood can be set for the final movement.

I really like this movement, but what did you think of it?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 4: Movement II

Mahler was apparently inspired to write his second movement by this painting  … (“Selbstporträt mit fiedelndem Tod” by Arnold Boecklin via Wikimedia Commons)

Apologies: I have been a bit side-tracked of late and thus it has been a longer gap between movements than I would have hoped. That might partly have been to do with the launch of the 2016 concert season for my current employer, which I will just give a brief plug for because if you’re in Sydney next year, you can actually come and hear the Mahler 4 performed live.

Further Apologies: I posted this yesterday and completely forgot to include the Spotify link. This is now in place.

But back to the tour …

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a lot of ice skating and other jollity.

This is the Scherzo of the work and as such features a Scherzo theme alternating with a gentler Trio theme. Mahler once supposedly said that this movement was meant to represent Death striking up a tune on the fiddle. (An idea which he apparently got from the Boecklin painting above, which features that extraordinary image of death standing behind the artist with a violin.) As such, you’ll notice that it features a slightly out-of-tune violin. It’s a strange combination – it’s not somber and heavy, but yet there is something decidedly sinister about the main Scherzo theme.

(0:00) Scherzo. French horn, woozy flutes and the creepy violin. The violin is answered by the woodwinds.
(0:44) A drumbeat, a drone, and a hypnotic back-and-forth interlude on the strings, then back into the creepy tune.

(1:33) Trio. A light and bubbly dance tune that starts on the woodwinds (lots of trills). It’s more of the same “children’s music” sound as the first movement. The mood gets dark again …

(2:42) Scherzo. Back to the creepy theme again, the hypnotic interlude like last time, then back to creepy. Have a listen out for the bizarre little kiddy squeals he drags out of various parts of the orchestra on the way through the theme.

(4:43) Trio. The friendly Trio dance. Schmaltzy solo violin at (5:44). Almost turns into chamber music, but then things get dark again … You think you’re about to head into the Scherzo again but instead …

(6:22) … A beautiful version of the Trio dance starts up. (Possibly beautiful because it features high strings. Everything sounds more beautiful with high strings – especially the next movement. This may just be a partiality of mine, though.)

(7:14) Now the Scherzo starts up again. But notice it doesn’t sound quite as creepy this time? Now, its more like a strange friend that we’ve gotten used to. Everything has a lighter touch this time around.

(8:26) Ends with a bunch of shrill little repeated notes, a bit of dark and brooding stuff, before finishing with one last kiddy squeal.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 4: Movement I

The Mahler 4 opening movement: I hear a lot of children ice skating. (Painting: “Constantin Nikolaevich’s children skating” via Wikimedia Commons)

Mahler sets the tone in this opening movement of the Mahler 4, which probably constitutes one of the cutesiest things he ever wrote. But, as we’ve already said, that’s an illusion ,because everything is designed to sound childlike while not actually being childish.

Like most other symphony first movements, this movement is in sonata form, which means it has an exposition, where the main themes get laid out, a development section, where the themes get developed and played around with a bit in interesting ways, and a recapitulation where we return to the main themes.

I’ll also use the term motifs from time to time in this walk-through. As a reminder, a motif is like the basic Lego block of music. It might be a small snatch of melody, it might be a rhythm. But it’s a small musical unit that can be used repeatedly throughout the movement (and some composers, like Mahler, create motifs that they use all the way through their symphonies).

All right. Here we go.

Exposition – Jingle Bells and Disney on Ice

(0:00) The movement opens with what can only be described as a “Jingle Bells” motif, followed closely by a motif which can arguably be called “Disney on Ice”. It’s all quite treacly, but the trick is you have to remind yourself that Mahler is writing treacly music on purpose. Which might make it sound less treacly? Who knows? Have a listen for yourself.

(1:42) The next moment is slow and pretending to be serious (but never quite convinces you that it is). It’s quite beautiful.

(2:49) Little Oboe’s Big Adventure (or the Toddler Oboe). On a bed of strings, the oboe toddles along exploring the world. (One of the highlights of the Szell recording is the amazing woodwind playing all the way through.)

(3:35) Jingle Bells again. There is even more woodwind activity above the Disney on Ice theme, just to show how Mahler likes to change things up even when he’s returning to old themes. Slows down beautifully at the end.

Development – Clouds on the Horizon

(5:20) Jingle Bells again, but this time everything stays in the minor key, and the solo violin soars up into the sky as intro to:

(5:41) A slightly (but only slightly) boisterous version of the ice skating – lots of little tricks and turns from the woodwinds and the brass.

(6:22) Now it’s Little Flute’s Big Adventure. (Different tune from the exposition bit, but a similar idea – the winds in the spotlight, sounding like children. This is one of the very cool moments in this movement.)

(7:12) Builds up – a little bit of drama. (Don’t know why, but this reminds me a lot of Peter Pan.) Everything’s a little bit tense, but not really.

(8:14) The flutes and the horns sound like they’ve got some sort of conspiracy going on in the playground and the other instruments are trying to see what they’re up to …

(9:06) Back to Disney on Ice, but at (9:25) everything turns a bit dark, as if a big rain cloud has come over the playground.

(9:58) In the space of about a minute, we get a really happy climax, which turns into (10:27) the closest thing to chaos that you’ll find in this movement. If you listen closely at (10:37), you’ll hear the trumpet is playing the opening call of the Mahler 5.

(10:49) Great moment here where everything just fades out into nothing …

Recapitulation – Skating away over the hills

(11:12) … and then, as if nothing has ever happened, Disney on Ice waltzes back in for the recapitulation. Now with extra trumpet!

(12:16) Our Serious But Not Really theme returns again.

(13:25) Little Oboe’s Big Adventure

(14:15) Jingle Bells is back to kick off a strange variant of Disney on Ice, with extra woodwind interference. Again, the beautiful slow ending, but even more gorgeous this time round.

(16:52) The coda, where our orchestra ice skates over the hills and away …

So there you go – quite a different side of Mahler then we’ve perhaps seen before. Did you like it?