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Gustav Mahler (1860 - 1911)


Symphony No. 4
I. Moderato
II. Scherzo
III. Adagio
IV. Finale

Many of Mahler's early works derive some inspiration from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth's Magic Horn) - a nineteenth century treasury of German Folk poetry. He discovered it in 1886 when he was 26, and he set many of its poems to music. As well as groups of songs for voice and piano and for voice and orchestra, poems from it appear in the second, third and fourth symphonies. The song "Heavenly Life" which forms the finale of the fourth symphony took some time to find its home. A version for voice and piano exists dated February 1892, and an orchestrated version from the following month. He then included it as the last movement of his third symphony, in 1895. But this turned a six movement work into a seven movement one; he removed it, and decided to use it as the ending to another symphony. Thus was the fourth symphony born. He wrote the other movements between 1899 and 1901, and the complete symphony was first performed in Munich, with Mahler conducting, in November 1901. In the second and third symphonies, the movements which include the Wunderhorn songs are quite lightly orchestrated, contrasting with the craggy grandeur of their surroundings. In the fourth symphony, this lightness of touch imbues the whole work. Mahler reduced the massive orchestra to a more normal size, even going so far as to dispense with the trombones completely. And where the third symphony lasts over an hour and a half, the fourth lasts a more normal 45 to 50 minutes.

The symphony opens with jingling sleigh bells (which we will hear again in the finale) and a lovely folk style tune for the violins. After exploring this tune, Mahler introduces a rich and warm second subject on the cellos. The development is based on both of these tunes and the sleigh ride, and eventually works up to a military and grim climax. This collapses, and dissolves to nothing - after which the opening theme returns, just as if nothing had happened at all! This remarkable moment highlights the real strangeness of this symphony; it is not that there are no shadows and terrors, but they are seen as though by a child - real and terrifying for a moment, but then gone and forgotten.

The scherzo is another strange movement. It is basically a Landler, a German country dance, with a solo violin leading the orchestra along like a slightly sinister Pied Piper. The leader is instructed to tune her violin a tone higher than normal, and to play "like a fiddle" - i.e. like a country dance band musician. This, when combined with the rather disjointed melody Mahler writes, gives the movement a hard, strained sound, and a jerky puppet like quality. A contrasting trio section, which appears twice, seems to offer a clearer and happier view of what a country dance should be.

The slow movement opens with some of the loveliest music Mahler - or anyone else - ever wrote. In form it is a set of variations, though this is not obvious to the ear, since the various key and tempo changes are handled so naturally. Towards the end, a glorious blazing climax anticipates the theme of the finale.

The finale introduces the soprano solo, whose nine stanzas of poetry are punctuated three times by the chirping refrain which opened the whole symphony. The mood is calm, the fears and nightmares from earlier are veiled, and the symphony ends with tranquil reassurance.

Heavenly Joys
All heavenly joys are ours, pleasures of earth we disdain. No worldly strife mars our sweet heavenly life. We live here in sweetest peace. We lead an angelic life, yet are merry as can be. We dance and we spring, we jump and we sing while St.Peter in heaven looks on.
Orchestral refrain
The lamb we have from St.John. Herod the butcher will be. We lead the meek, the innocent and meek little lamb to its death. St.Luke slaughters the oxen without any worry or heed. The wine costs us naught from our heavenly draught and the angels bake us our bread.
Orchestral refrain
Fine vegetables grow in the garden of heaven. Good asparagus, beans, and whatever we please. Whole plates of them wait to be eaten. Good apples, good pears, good grapes! The gardeners give what we wish. And roebucks and hares run into our arms here in the open streets. And when there is a fast-day the fish come swarming in. St.Peter he runs with net and with bait to fish in the heavenly pond. St.Martha must cook the catch.
Orchestral refrain
On earth there is no music to be compared with ours; eleven thousand virgins make bold to dance. St.Ursula smiles on the scene. Cecilia, her kith and her kin, play like a royal band, and choirs of angels lift up our spirits to the highest of heavenly joys.
From Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Symphony No. 5 in C# minor
I. Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt
II. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz
III. Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell
IV. Adagietto. Sehr langsam
V. Rondo-Finale. Allegro

Although he died in 1911, and is often described as a "late romantic" composer, Mahler was very much of the twentieth century. His music is eclectic, incorporating disparate elements such as folk song, military marches, bird song, cow bells and other sounds from nature. He supported the young Schonberg against the conservative establishment in Vienna, and Schonberg reciprocated by a life long advocacy of Mahler's music. Through Schonberg, Mahler was thus an influence on most of 20th century music, as well as being a direct influence on composers such as Shostakovich and Britten.

Mahler was a very hard worker, and from 1898 until 1907 had two virtually full time jobs, one as a conductor and one as a composer. As conductor he was the full-time Director of the Vienna Opera. He was a perfectionist, striving for high standards, driving his singers and players hard, and sparing neither himself nor anyone else in his efforts. Consequently he made many enemies, but became hugely influential and famous. And on top of this demanding schedule, during this same period, he wrote five enormous symphonies and two large song cycles with orchestra. As Deryck Cooke puts it, "No other musician except Wagner possessed in such equal measure the introvert's capacity for self-absorption, the extrovert's capacity for self-assertion, and the iron will to weld them together and force them to do its purpose." It is hardly surprising that, never taking a proper holiday, his constitution could not stand the strain, and that his heart failed by the time he was 50.

In November 1901 he met Alma Schindler, and after a brief secret engagement, they were married in March 1902. He was 41, she was 22, and was already expecting their first child. Needless to say, Mahler's detractors at the Opera seized on this relationship as a major scandal, and made Alma's life extremely uncomfortable. They had a complex relationship - she had real musical ability herself, and gave up a promising composing career to support Mahler. But she was always a flirt and a seducer, and caused Mahler many jealousies; the marriage probably only survived because of his deep love for her.

Their first summer together was spent at Maiemigg, where Mahler completed the short score of the fifth symphony (that is, a four-stave score with all the notes, and indications of which instrument is playing). He completed the detailed orchestration in the following winter, somehow fitting this in around his work at the Opera House - often before breakfast! The symphony was first performed at Cologne on 18th October 1904, with Mahler himself conducting.

He was concerned that the symphony was taxing for both conductor and orchestra. During the rehearsals for the first performance, he commented "The scherzo is the very devil of a movement... conductors for the next 50 years will all take it too fast, and make nonsense of it." And after the first performance "The fifth is an accursed work - no-one understands it." And when the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam played it, he warned them "The fifth is very, very difficult." Indeed it has many tricky comers, and despite the music of Stravinsky and Schonberg being now behind us, and Mahler now being generally accepted as a great composer, his warnings should still be heeded!

In this symphony Mahler presents two emotional worlds to us, so wholly opposed as to threaten to tear the symphony apart. In its progression from C sharp minor to D major this schizophrenic work takes us from a bleak and tragic world, through a happy and serene one, to a finale of manic exuberance.

After the opening trumpet call the main subject of the first movement is a powerful, tragic funeral march. There are two contrasting sections: the first is a torrent of notes in B flat minor, wild and panic stricken, while the second begins swaying and gentle on the strings, in A minor (the key of the following movement). Binding it all together is the trumpet call, sometimes strident, sometimes ominous, and at the close distant and remote, echoed by the flute. The whole of this funeral march is really only an introduction, albeit an enormous one, to the second movement, which follows at once and is both savage and exhilarating. Not all is stormy, though - there are contrasting sections of a sorrowful march tune, based on the A minor section from the first movement. One notable interlude is a sad, thoughtful tune on the cellos, accompanied only by a quiet roll on the timpani. After several iterations of these two, a jaunty march tune appears for a few bars and a shout of triumph in D major - but this is premature, and is quickly suppressed. The opening storm recurs together with its contrasting sections, before the triumph bursts out again, more substantially, in a noble brass chorale. But the happiness cannot last, and the movement ends in a deathly whisper.

The second part of the symphony comprises just the third movement, a vital, energetic, and large scale scherzo in D major, with an ebullient solo part for the principal horn player. It completely contradicts all that has gone before in its positive view of life. True, there are nostalgic waltz-like sections, and a marvellous episode in which horn calls echo as if across a mountain wilderness. But the overall feeling is of joy in life, albeit with an awareness of its underlying spiritual aspect.

The third part starts with the adagietto for harp and strings, made famous by its use in Visconti's film of Death In Venice. But here no-one dies; this is a love song for Alma, who was transcribing Mahler's sketches page by page as he completed them. From this the finale magically emerges, and quickly becomes a joyful and exuberant dance. Thematically this is based on material from the adagietto - so we are left in little doubt that Mahler's ecstatic joy in this movement is based on his love for Alma. There are gentle interludes, but the overall feeling is one of suppressed excitement, of a volcano about to erupt .... Eventually the dam bursts (to mix my metaphors) and we reach a splendid and satisfying climax based on the noble brass chorale from the end of the second movement. This explicit reference is the only obvious cross-beam tying together the disparate elements of this amazing symphony. After this climax, the music hurtles ecstatically to its cock-a-hoop conclusion.

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