Conducted by the legendary Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G major. Mezzo-soprano: Magdalena Kožená. Live recording from the Lucerne Festival, August 2009.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 stands as a unique and fascinating piece in the landscape of his symphonic works. Composed at the turn of the 20th century, around 1899 and 1900, it marks a distinct departure from the monumental scale and complexity of his earlier symphonies. This symphony is often noted for its more classical and somewhat lighter character, which makes it more accessible compared to some of his more dense compositions.
One of the key aspects of Symphony No. 4 is its thematic and tonal coherence. It is rooted in the key of G major, a choice that imparts a sense of brightness and clarity throughout the work. Mahler’s use of orchestration in this symphony is particularly noteworthy. He employs a smaller orchestra than in his other symphonies, which allows for a more intimate and transparent sound. This orchestration includes notable elements like the sleigh bells, which contribute to the symphony’s unique character and charm.
The symphony also stands out for its integration of vocal elements, which is a common feature in many of Mahler’s symphonies. The final movement introduces a solo soprano who sings “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), a song from Mahler’s earlier song collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). This song provides a child’s view of Heaven and is sung with innocence and simplicity, contrasting with the more complex instrumental textures in the preceding movements.
Thematically, Symphony No. 4 explores a range of emotions and ideas, from serene and pastoral scenes to more introspective and philosophical moments. This symphony, like much of Mahler’s work, reflects his deep engagement with the natural world, existential questions, and the human condition.
There are four movements:
- Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed) (Sonata Form)
- In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste) (Scherzo & Trio)
- Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly) (Theme & Variations)
- Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably) (Strophic)
1. Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed)
The first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is characterized by its charm, lightness, and a sense of serene joy, distinct from the more tumultuous and intense openings of his other symphonies. This movement is set in the bright key of G major, establishing a mood of innocence and simplicity right from the beginning.
Mahler opens the symphony with a sleigh bell motif, immediately setting a tone of whimsicality and nostalgia. This motif, with its delicate and tinkling sound, evokes images of a winter landscape and a childlike sense of wonder. The sleigh bells continue to be a recurring element throughout the movement, weaving a thread of continuity and whimsy.
The main theme is introduced by the strings, presenting a melody that is both lyrical and flowing. This theme has a song-like quality, embodying a sense of graceful, untroubled movement. Mahler’s orchestration in this movement is notably transparent and light, allowing each instrument to contribute to the overall texture without overwhelming it. The use of a reduced orchestra in comparison to his other symphonies aids in creating this clarity and lightness.
Throughout the first movement, Mahler explores various moods and colors within this established framework. There are moments of playful interaction between the woodwinds and strings, passages that suggest pastoral scenes, and sections where the tempo and dynamics increase, adding a sense of drama and excitement.
Despite these shifts in mood, the movement maintains an overall character of optimism and tranquility. The development section delves into more complex harmonies and orchestrations but eventually resolves back to the serene and straightforward themes of the opening.
The first movement of Symphony No. 4, with its clear form, lyrical melodies, and light-hearted spirit, serves as a perfect introduction to the symphony’s exploration of innocence, beauty, and a childlike view of the world. It stands as an example of Mahler’s ability to blend simplicity with sophistication, creating music that is both accessible and deeply expressive.
2. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste)
The second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is intriguing and unique, marked by a distinctive character and an undercurrent of the surreal. This movement, typically labeled as a scherzo, diverges from the traditional light-hearted nature of scherzos and introduces a slightly eerie and whimsical atmosphere.
A notable feature of this movement is Mahler’s use of a solo violin, which is tuned a whole tone higher than usual. This scordatura (altered tuning) gives the violin a brighter, more piercing quality, and it’s this instrument that leads the movement with a dance-like, somewhat mischievous theme. The sound of the violin in this higher tuning can be seen as a representation of a character Mahler referred to as “Freund Hein,” a personification of death in medieval folklore, often depicted as a skeletal fiddler leading a dance of death. However, in Mahler’s interpretation, this character is more whimsical than menacing, lending a peculiar, almost capricious quality to the movement.
The orchestra responds to and interacts with this solo violin, creating a dialogue that moves between the playful, the macabre, and the serene. The orchestration is rich yet maintains the clarity and transparency typical of this symphony. There are moments where the music seems to tip-toe, with pizzicato strings and delicate woodwind passages, and others where it swells into fuller, more robust expressions.
Rhythmically, the movement is characterized by a ländler, a traditional Austrian and Bavarian folk dance, which Mahler frequently used in his symphonies. This dance rhythm gives the movement a rustic, earthy quality, contrasting with the more ethereal sound of the solo violin.
The second movement of Symphony No. 4 is a brilliant example of Mahler’s ability to blend the familiar with the unexpected, the light-hearted with the profound. It provides a sharp contrast to the first movement’s untroubled innocence, introducing a layer of complexity and ambiguity that deepens the symphony’s exploration of life, death, and the ephemeral nature of existence.
3. Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly)
The third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is a distinct shift from the whimsical and slightly eerie character of the second movement, moving into a realm of deeper introspection and emotion. This movement is often considered the emotional heart of the symphony, showcasing Mahler’s skill in creating profound musical landscapes.
Structured as a slow movement, it typically carries the marking “Ruhevoll” (Peaceful), and it unfolds in a leisurely, expansive manner. This movement is characterized by its lyrical beauty and a sense of deep contemplation. The orchestration is lush yet never overbearing, allowing the music to breathe and the individual lines to emerge clearly.
The main theme of the movement is introduced by the strings and is one of Mahler’s most beautiful and heartfelt melodies. This theme exudes a sense of serene melancholy and longing. Throughout the movement, this theme undergoes various transformations, each time revealing a new facet of its emotional depth.
Mahler’s use of counterpoint in this movement is masterful, with intricate lines weaving together to create a rich tapestry of sound. The orchestral color is warm and full, with the woodwinds, brass, and strings each contributing to the overall effect. The movement also contains moments of more intense, passionate expression, where the music swells and the dynamics increase, adding a sense of yearning and urgency.
Despite these moments of heightened emotion, the movement generally maintains a mood of introspection and tranquility. It is as if Mahler is inviting the listener to pause and reflect, to delve into a world of inner emotion and beauty.
The third movement serves as a profound and moving lead-up to the finale of the symphony. It stands out for its emotional depth, lyrical beauty, and the sense of peaceful introspection it evokes, making it a pivotal and deeply affecting part of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4.
4. Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably)
The finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is a significant departure from the preceding movements, both in terms of instrumentation and mood. This movement introduces a vocal element, a feature that is characteristic of many of Mahler’s symphonies, but here it takes on a particularly special role.
The movement is built around a song, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”), from Mahler’s earlier song collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). This song provides a child’s view of Heaven, depicted with innocence and simplicity. The text describes a serene, idyllic scene in Heaven, filled with singing saints and angels, and abundant, effortless joy.
The mezzo-soprano soloist performs this song, and her voice adds a new dimension to the symphony. The vocal line is clear, straightforward, and almost folk-like in its simplicity, contrasting with the more complex orchestral textures underneath. The orchestra supports and interacts with the vocal line, at times mirroring its innocence and simplicity, at other times providing a more lush, rich backdrop.
This movement, with its portrayal of a childlike paradise, serves as a resolution to the symphony. After the introspective depth and emotional complexity of the third movement, the fourth movement provides a sense of closure and peace. The music is suffused with a sense of uncomplicated happiness and a return to the innocence and simplicity suggested in the first movement, bringing the symphony full circle.
The fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is notable for its unique blend of the vocal and the symphonic, the innocent and the profound. It encapsulates Mahler’s ability to convey deep emotional and philosophical ideas through music that is at once accessible and sophisticated. The finale leaves listeners with a feeling of upliftment and a gentle, serene conclusion to the symphonic journey.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 Fourth Movement lyrics
German: Das himmlische Leben (aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
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,
Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben;
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen,
Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.
Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes d’rauf passet.
Wir führen ein geduldig’s,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten.
Der Wein kost’ kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller;
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.
Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten,
Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen.
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ und gut’ Trauben;
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben.
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Straßen
Sie laufen herbei!
Sollt’ ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.[note 1]
Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.
Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Zu tanzen sich trauen.
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht.
Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.
English translation: The Heavenly Life (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn)
We enjoy heavenly pleasures
and therefore avoid earthly ones.
No worldly tumult
is to be heard in heaven.
All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.
John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn’t cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.
Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets
they come running right up.
Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.
- Symphony No. 4 (Mahler) on wikipedia
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