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Symphony No. 4 (1899-1901)

  • 1. Bedächtig, nicht eilen
  • 2. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast
  • 3. Ruhevoll, poco adagio
  • 4. Sehr behaglich

It is hard to imagine that this most genial and modest of Mahler's symphonies should have caused such a scandal at its première in Munich in 1901. But critics were almost unanimous in their condemnation of a work they considered to be a bad joke at the expense of the symphony itself, a satire on the high artistic values of Austro-German music, full of clownish pranks and grotesque parody. Mahler had long known that his deliberate naïveté and Humor would mystify some of his audience. As Natalie Bauer-Lechner recalled, Mahler warned her that the audience would find it 'too old-fashioned and simple-minded.'

Many of the critics at the première linked the symphony's modernisms to Mahler's affiliation with Vienna. Even though the spirit of the Fourth is rooted in his Wunderhorn songs there is some truth in this. Mahler had moved to Vienna to take up his role as Director of the Court Opera in 1897. The burden of work brought on by the new post meant that he started no major project until the summer of 1899, which he spent in Bad Aussee. Rain, cold and 'ghastly health-resort music' distracted him, but at the end of July Mahler managed to break his creative block and drafted half of the first three movements of his Fourth Symphony before being forced to pack up his sketches and return to his duties in Vienna. Though his exposure to modernist circles was relatively limited at this time, the Fourth's change of mood and style places it closer to the concerns of Viennese modernism than his earlier works. Above all, this is found in the degree of self-consciousness that the Fourth exhibits about its own musical language. The first movement, for example, plays with the historical legacy of Schubert, Mozart and Haydn - fondly, to be sure, but at the same time accentuating the gap between new and old Vienna.

Mahler was well aware that the Fourth Symphony was a new departure, as he reflected ruefully about his struggles to compose it: 'Any kind of routine that you have acquired is of no use. You have to learn everything afresh to suit the new work. So you remain for ever a beginner.' Part of the reason for the negative response to the première was that the Fourth was so far from what even Mahler's supporters had come to expect. Gone entirely is the monumental and serious tone with which the Second and Third Symphonies begin and end. In place of their grand statements of metaphysical truths, the Fourth seems to step back and make a more oblique claim. It is not just that Mahler employs a much smaller orchestra and confines himself to four relatively short movements. It is rather, as Adorno was to express it later, that the 'fool's bells' heard at the beginning of the symphony seem to declare that 'none of what you hear now is true.'

The first movement announces its childlike tone with its very first distinctive sound - the sleigh bells, referred to by Adorno. They give way to what seems like it might be the beginning of a classical symphony - a Haydnesque theme in the strings, followed by a chugging quaver accompaniment in the woodwind. But little details betray that this is not the real thing. The violin upbeat is held back in tempo, and has a gently sentimental glissando, and the answering phrase in the basses is cut off by the horn. And so it goes on - not as a parody, so much as an affectionate play with the familiar manners of the classical style. One moment the musical energy is held up by languorous diversions, the next it lurches forward in a series of stops and starts. Only the development section seems to threaten something more serious, but in the context of this children's tale, the trumpet that calls the orchestra to order is apt to sound like a toy one. Towards the end of the movement, Mahler's musical story seems to have strayed into a more celestial realm, before the spell is broken by a thoroughly boisterous ending.

The second movement is a Scherzo that draws on familiar folk-like elements but presents them in such a way that they become discomforting, or 'uncanny' (to use Mahler's word). Nothing here quite fits as it should in this odd mix of elements that are, rhythmically and harmonically, at cross-purposes. Mahler suggested one might think of this movement as 'Freud Hain strikes up', referencing a rather disturbing figure of German fairytales whose music, like the Pied Piper's, lures children to their deaths. The spectral violinist is evoked in the solo role given to the leader, who uses a violin with strings retuned a tone higher to give it a harsher sound. Mahler instructs that it should be played 'Wie eine Fidel' (like a peasant fiddle). Outwardly, the movement sounds like a busy divertimento with a constant exchange of material between different solo instruments, but the effect is skewed by the constant misaligning of its elements. It is endlessly characterful, at times giving way to a slower and more sentimental dance, and occasionally broadening out to something more spacious and peaceful, but everything is remixed by the continual turning of Mahler's musical kaleidoscope.

The slow third movement begins in a completely different world. After the acerbic woodwind tones of the Scherzo, Mahler begins with the lower strings alone. Only gradually does he add the violins, subdividing each section to achieve a wonderfully spatial choral effect, as if the music were expanding outwards and upwards from within. This is one of Mahler's most beautiful musical landscapes, evoking a quality of deep repose that links it with some of the Rückert-Lieder. Mahler referred to it as 'a transfigured cradle song', relating it at various times to the depiction of a sleeping figure on an old tombstone, the smile of St Ursula, and a childhood memory of his own mother's face. Constructed as a set of double variations, it alternates between the self-sufficient beauty of nature and the melancholy that beauty induces in the individual - the oboe melody is marked 'klagend' (lamenting). A series of accelerating variations seems to evoke the bustle of life from the Scherzo before coming to a crashing halt. In the stillness that follows, the orchestra traces a slow ascent through a series of plateaux, each one higher and brighter than the last. Just as this luminous atmosphere is about to fade, Mahler unleashes a wild jangling and ringing of the whole orchestra with horn fanfares echoing out across the distance. Once more the violins ascend heavenwards, their arching lines coupled with some heart-stopping modulations. Music rarely evokes such a powerful sense of leaving behind one's earthly body.

Which leaves Mahler an apparently impossible task for his finale. How does one represent the unrepresentable? If the end of the slow movement achieves a kind of limit, beyond which one cannot go, how can Mahler follow it? How can he deliver the 'heaven' that the end of the previous movement has promised? The answer is not only the key to the whole symphony, but was also its starting point. The sleighbells and fairytale tone of the first movement return with the simple folk tone of 'Das himmlische Leben', the song that forms the finale. Mahler noted in the score that the vocal part should be 'sung with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody', anticipating that his intentions would be misunderstood. The song seems cleverly to recoup motifs and sonorities from the earlier movements, though in fact, it was written first, some seven years before the others were begun. It tells, with great relish, of all the pleasures to be found in heaven (mostly edible ones, given this is a child's view). There are dark moments to be sure, 'butcher Herod' is lurking and 'St Luke does slaughter the ox', but otherwise the picture of joy and plenty is created by a surfeit of good things, piled up in the highly visual language of the folk text. As it begins to fade towards its close, the soprano sings 'Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden, die unsrer verglichen kann werden' ('No music is anywhere on earth that can be compared with ours'). And yet we hear it. From the memory of an idealised childhood, Mahler sounds out a music not of this world.

© Julian Johnson