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?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 4

The Mahler symphonies fall into natural groupings in some respects (though all of them are different), and so you’ll often find that after you’ve listened to a few, that they sound similar to others.

So I find that 1, 2 and 3 are similar in their epic scope and sense of grandness, dealing with big themes and ideas. (And all with amazing endings that audiences love.)

Meanwhile, 5, 6 and 7 are purely orchestral – they don’t feature any choirs or voices, and Mahler is experimenting with how to mix different musical sound worlds together. They’re all quite different, but they share in common the complexity of their musical ideas.

Likewise, Das Lied von der Erde, and Symphonies 9 and 10 are more quiet, introverted works that deal with death and loss, clearly something weighing on Mahler’s mind towards the end of his life.

Which leaves 4 and 8. Symphony No 8 is the “Symphony of a Thousand”, a symphony that features a choir singing all the way through, and so, in a sense, is like a throwback to the glory days of the first three symphonies, while being even more over-the-top.

But the 4th symphony is a curious little enigma of a piece and I can’t think of any other Mahler symphony quite like it. Here are the things you’ll notice straight away:

  • The length – as in, the shortness of it (relative to Mahler, not relative to Mozart). Most Mahler symphonies clock in around the 75-minute mark on average, with some going even longer. (The Mahler 3 is about 1 hour 40 minutes.) But Symphony 4 is just under an hour.
  • It’s lightness of tone – if you’ve been inclined to think of classical music as primarily being beautiful, relaxing music, you’ve probably noticed that Mahler doesn’t fit that mold very well. Most of his music is loud, complex and frequently emotionally heavy-going (not necessarily a bad thing, but not good if you wanted something to chill out and do the ironing to). By contrast, the 4th symphony is much more delicate. We might almost go so far as to say “pretty”, at least relative to the other Mahler symphonies around it. This is somewhat of an illusion. As we dig in, you’ll find that the symphony is as solidly constructed as any of the others, it’s just designed to sound light.
  • It’s non-eventful ending. All Mahler’s early symphonies up till the 4th and continuing on in the 5, 6 and 7 all head towards massive climactic endings. By contrast, the 4th symphony, rather to everyone’s surprise, ends with a quiet song sung by a soprano. In actual fact, the big powerful stuff is in the 3rd movement, the slow movement of the work.

But the 4th movement, the song, is the key to the whole work. In this song, Mahler used the words of a poem (from a rather quirky collection of poems called The Boy’s Wonderhorn, of which I’ll have more to say another day) called “The Heavenly Life”. The poem describes heaven from the point of view of a child – and it’s mostly about the food!

Clearly, this poem intrigued Mahler, especially the concept of viewing something that is normally taken ultra-seriously (like heaven) through the eyes of a child (who is going to see things rather simply). So thus Symphony No. 4 itself (especially the first two movements) actually feels the most child-like of all his symphonies.

Not because it’s simpler music – it’s just as complex as any of the others. Not because it’s aimed for children – I don’t know how many kids of a very young age would sit through a 60-minute symphony. But there is something light and airy about it (maybe it’s the sleigh bells in the first movement) that suggest childhood.

It’s in four movements as follows:

Movement I – A light airy opening movement.

Movement II – A slightly creepy scherzo

Movement III – The first “serious” movement: an amazing slow movement, one of the most beautiful he ever wrote.

Movement IV – The “Heavenly Life” song sung by a soprano.

The recording I have selected is the very famous Cleveland Orchestra recording, conducted by George Szell. It’s a bit slower than some others, but he brings out the details beautifully (especially in the slow movement). I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!