Hyperion Records

Symphony No 4 in G major
1899/1900, revised in 1901-1910

'Mahler: Symphony No 4' (CKD438)
Mahler: Symphony No 4
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'Mahler: Symphony No 4' (LSO0662)
Mahler: Symphony No 4
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'Mahler: Symphony No 4' (SIGCD219)
Mahler: Symphony No 4
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Movement 1: Bedächtig, nicht eilen
Movement 2: In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast
Movement 3: Ruhevoll, poco adagio
Movement 4: Sehr behaglich

Symphony No 4 in G major
In 1900, just after he had finished his Fourth Symphony, Mahler wrote about how the work had taken shape. He had set out with clear ideas, but then the work had ‘turned upside-down’ on him: ‘To my astonishment it became plain to me that I had entered a totally different realm, just as in a dream one imagines oneself wandering through the flower-scented garden of Elysium and it suddenly changes to a nightmare of finding oneself in a Hades full of terrors … This time it is a forest with all its mysteries and its horrors which forces my hand and weaves itself into my work. It becomes even clearer to me that one does not compose; one is composed’.

Mahler’s remarks about ‘mysteries and horrors’ may surprise some readers. Writers often portray the Fourth as his sunniest and simplest symphony: an affectionate recollection of infant happiness, culminating in a vision of Heaven seen through the eyes of a child – with only the occasional pang of adult nostalgia to cloud its radiant blue skies. But Mahler was too sophisticated to fall for the sentimental 19th-century idea of childhood as a ‘Paradise Lost’. He knew that children could be cruel, and that their capacity for suffering was often seriously underestimated by adults. There is cruelty in the seemingly naïve text Mahler sets in his finale, Das himmlische Leben (‘Heavenly Life’): ‘We lead a patient, guiltless, darling lambkin to death’, the child tells us contentedly, adding that ‘Saint Luke is slaying the oxen’. A moment or two earlier we catch a glimpse of ‘the butcher Herod’, on whose orders the children were massacred in the Biblical Christmas story. What are images like these doing in Heaven?

Apart from its ambiguous vision, this song-movement also offers one of the most original and satisfying solutions to the romantic symphonists’ perpetual ‘finale problem’. It couldn’t be less like the massive, all-encompassing finales many composers had struggled to provide in the wake of Beethoven’s titanic Fifth and Ninth symphonies. Interestingly Mahler wrote this movement before he’d written a note of the preceding three. It was one of several settings of poems from the classic German folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’) Mahler had composed in the 1890s. At one stage Mahler thought of including it in his huge Third Symphony; but then he began to see it as more clearly the ending of his next symphony, No 4. Even then, as we have seen, Mahler’s ideas changed as the new work took shape. At first he was thinking in terms of a ‘symphonic humoresque’, but then the ideas took on a life of their own and the symphony ‘turned upside-down’. In its final form, the first three movements of the Fourth Symphony prepare the way for the closing vision of Das himmlische Leben on every possible level: its themes, orchestral colours, tonal scheme, most of all that strange emotional ambiguity – blissful dream touched by images of nightmare. Far from being Mahler’s simplest symphony, it is one of the subtlest things he ever created.

The very opening of the Fourth Symphony is a foretaste of the finale. Woodwind and jingling sleigh-bells set off at a slow jog-trot, then a languid rising violin phrase turns out to be the beginning of a disarmingly simple tune: Mahler in Mozartian vein. There is a note of contained yearning in the lovely second theme (cellos), but this soon subsides into the most childlike idea so far (solo oboe and bassoon). Later another tune is introduced by four flutes in unison – panpipes, or perhaps whistling boys. After this the ‘mysteries and horrors’ of the forest gradually make their presence felt until, in a superb full orchestral climax, horns, trumpets, bells and glittering high woodwind sound a triumphant medley of themes from earlier on. But this triumph is dispelled by a dissonance, underlined by gong and bass drum, then trumpets sound out the grim fanfare rhythm Mahler later used to begin the Funeral March of his Fifth Symphony. How do we get back to the land of lost content glimpsed at the beginning? Mahler simply stops the music, and the Mozartian theme starts again in mid-phrase, as though nothing had happened. All the main themes now return, but the dark disturbances of the development keep casting shadows, at least until the brief, ebullient coda.

The second movement, a Scherzo with two trios, proceeds at a leisurely pace (really fast music is rare in this symphony). Mahler described the first theme as ‘Freund Hain spielt auf’: the ‘Friend Hain’ who ‘strikes up’ here is a sinister figure from German folk-lore: a pied-piper-like figure whose fiddle playing leads those it enchants into the land of ‘Beyond’ – death in disguise? Mahler evokes Freund Hain’s fiddle ingeniously by having the orchestral leader play on a violin tuned a tone higher than normal, which makes the sound both coarser and literally – more highly-strung. Death doesn’t quite have the last word, though the final shrill forte (flutes, oboes, clarinets, glockenspiel, triangle and harp) leaves a sulphurous aftertaste.

The slow movement is marked ‘restful’, but the peace is profoundly equivocal. Mahler wrote that this movement was inspired by ‘a vision of a tombstone on which was carved an image of the departed, with folded arms, in eternal sleep’ – an image half consoling, half achingly sad, and clearly related to the Freund Hain/Death imagery in the Scherzo. A set of free variations on the first theme explores facets of this ambiguity until Mahler springs a wonderful surprise: a full orchestral outburst of pure joy in E major – the key in which the finale is to end. This passage looks forward and backward: horns anticipate the clarinet tune which opens the finale, then recall the whistling boys’ flute theme from the first movement. Then the movement slips back into peaceful sleep, to awaken in …

… Paradise – or, at least, a child’s version of it. Sleigh-bells open the finale, then the soprano enters for the first time. Possibly fearing what adult singers might get up to if told to imitate a child, Mahler adds a note into the score: ‘To be sung in a happy childlike manner: absolutely without parody!’ At the mention of St Peter, the writing becomes hymn-like, then come those troubling images of slaughter. The singer seems unmoved by what she relates, but plaintive, animal-like cries from oboe and low horn disturb the vision, if only momentarily. At last the music makes its final turn to E major, the key of the heavenly vision near the end of the slow movement. ‘No music on earth can be compared to ours’, the child tells us. Then the child falls silent (asleep?), and the music gradually fades until nothing is left but the soft low repeated tolling of the harp.

from notes by Stephen Johnson © 2009

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