Classics V: Mahler’s Symphony No. 4
Saturday, March 24, 2018
Often associated with the minimalist movement of the late-20th century, John Adams (b. 1947) is frequently associated with the names of slightly older contemporary composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Though his music is in some respects an outgrowth of minimalism, Adams is perhaps the least minimalist of the group as his musical influences reflect a wide variety of styles while exploiting some of the techniques commonly associated with that style: slow harmonic movement, rhythmic and melodic repetition, subtle dynamic fluctuations. In Adams’ music, these elements are combined with denser and more varied textures so that a repetitive ground to the music is suffused with splashes of color and melody that attract the ear to new and constantly changing elements. Over the past 30 years Adams’ music has come to be among the most frequently programmed of all late-20th century composers. His oeuvre spans a variety of genres from solo piano and chamber music to large scale orchestral works and, his most famous compositions, operas. His first opera, Nixon in China, helped establish Adams as a major figure in contemporary classical music. His most recent opera, Girls of the Golden West was premiered in San Francisco this past November. Adams’ music has gained an even larger audience in recent years through its inclusion in the soundtrack to the video game Civilization IV (2005).
The Chairman Dances is a work that grew out of John Adams’ 1987 opera, Nixon in China, based on the events surrounding President Nixon’s historic visit to communist China in 1972. While The Chairman Dances is not a part of the opera itself, it does contain some music from it. The work represents a surrealistic vision involving Mao Tse-tung (The Chairman) and his wife, Chiang Ch’ing, dancing a foxtrot evoking memories of their past, especially Madame Mao’s life as a movie actress in the 1930s. The piece is in one movement consisting of continuous sections each having a varied instrumental emphasis and a particular rhythmic or melodic idea that predominates each section. The work opens with the consistent pulsing rhythms that carry through most of the composition. The sound in each section builds through a cumulative layering of rhythmic and melodic motifs until a sudden change occurs approximately half way into the piece. Here a broad lyrical melody arises out of the strings reminiscent of a big band. Gradually the pulsing returns through several more, brief sections as the tempo also steadily returns to its original pace. The work closes with the basic pulsing motif in the piano and percussion slowly disintegrating as if drifting away in a dream-like vision.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is mainly known for a handful of frequently performed concert works, primarily his Enigma Variations, the Cello Concerto, Cockaigne Overture, and the Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1, which includes the theme that has become standard at graduation ceremonies. But Elgar was a prolific composer, despite a relatively late start on his path. Born to a modest home and with little formal musical training, achieving recognition was hard won for Elgar. His first successes as a composer came in his mid-30s, and wide recognition arrived only with the premiere of the Enigma Variations in 1899 at the age of 42. For the rest of his life, however, Elgar stood as the preeminent British musical figure admired and sought after by the elites of Edwardian England’s hyper class-conscious society. In 1904 Elgar was knighted by King Edward VII. In that same year a friend and supporter, Frank Schuster, proposed the idea of a festival celebrating the music of Elgar at Covent Garden, and it was this event that gave rise to the work performed here, In the South (Alassio), op. 50.
Though not one of his more well-known works in the U. S., In the South is considered an important work in the development of Elgar’s symphonic style. Originally planned as a symphony to be premiered at the 1904 festival, Elgar scaled back his work to what he called a concert overture, but ultimately takes the form of a symphonic poem. During the winter of 1903-04, Elgar and his wife, Alice, traveled to the Italian Riviera for an extended holiday and for him to work on his new composition. The South, then, is a reference to the southern region of Europe by the Mediterranean Sea. Alassio is the name of a seaside town, situated between Genoa and Nice, France, that the Elgars found most inviting and enjoyable during their visit.
The work is a series of impressions that arose in Elgar’s imagination as a consequence of visiting a place so rich in both natural beauty and ancient history, and both elements figure significantly in the five continuous sections of the piece. Elgar wrote that In the South was “conceived on a glorious spring day in the Valley of Andorra,” and is “meant to suggest the Joy of Living in a balmy climate, under sunny skies, and amid surroundings in which the beauties of nature vie in interest with the remains and recollections of the great past of an enchanting country.” Well, maybe not all conceived in a single day since we know that the dramatically surging opening theme was written years earlier and is actually related to the subject of Variation XI of Enigma, which describes George Sinclair’s dog, Dan. One hears in this opening section reverberations of Richard Strauss in the boldly rising theme and the prominent horns. Elgar’s music is confident and evocative as themes arise to conjure rustic villages of northern Italy and the serenity and glory of nature, both mountain and sea. As the music becomes more agitated Elgar seems to be depicting the Roman army engaged in battle. The music recedes and is replaced by a lyrical theme played in the solo viola, a melody referred to as “canto populare” conjuring the sense of a simple folk song, but Elgar casts the melody in a variety of exquisite and subtle orchestrations. The folk song is cut off by the return of the heroic opening theme and signaling the beginning of the closing sections of the piece. A brilliant and dashing coda brings the work to a fittingly exuberant close.
“Gustav Mahler’s so-called Symphony No. 4…is nothing but a silly joke, in poor taste, a really silly joke.” So wrote one critic following the Berlin premiere of the symphony in 1901. This sentiment was echoed by virtually all critics upon their first hearing of this new symphony. They had expected the Mahler of the Second Symphony (the complete Third Symphony wasn’t premiered until a year after the 4th) and this new symphony was a drastic change from that earlier work. While fans of Mahler may disagree about which of his symphonies is the pinnacle of his achievement, none today would dismiss the Fourth as a joke. It is different, though, from its companions in many ways. The Third is Mahler’s longest symphony using a huge orchestra vocal soloist and two choruses. The Second Symphony is also written for large forces of orchestra and voices. By comparison the Symphony No. 4 is a miniature. The shortest of his symphonies, it clocks at around an hour (close to the First Symphony in performance) and requiring the smallest orchestra of all of his symphonies, omitting trombones and tuba, and incorporating a soprano soloist in the final movement. Nonetheless, the Fourth is essentially tied to the previous three in important ways. Most significantly, the last movement of this symphony was composed much earlier, first as a song for soprano and piano and later intended as the last movement of the monumental Third Symphony.
Mahler is famously quoted as having said, “A symphony is like the world, it must embrace everything.” In truth, Mahler’s symphonies together are a long meditation on life and all that it encompasses. Each symphony is separate, but part of a whole. This is nowhere more true than in his first four symphonies, so while the Fourth is superficially different from the previous three, it is intimately connected to them. The connection is not so much based on shared external themes but how these symphonies seem to arise out of a common sense of poetic expression that captivated Mahler’s artistic and creative imagination. Big questions of life, death, God, eternity, and meaning are all essential to these works, yet they address these subjects in different ways. Around the time he was composing the Fourth symphony, Mahler confessed that, “Music is vastly superior to poetry; it can express everything. Thanks to a modulation or an interrupted cadence, it can communicate directly and in universal terms what the other arts are forced to describe or circumscribe.” Words are simply incapable of the expression that music can achieve.
Thinking about the Fourth Symphony, however, leads us to see it through the lens of the finale, as Mahler almost certainly did, and then follow the path Mahler created as it moves toward its ultimate destination. The heart of the Finale is the song Mahler titled, “Das himmlische Leben” (Heavenly life), which originated in the collection of ostensible folk poetry known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The youth’s magic horn). Mahler tapped this collection for a variety of works between 1887 and 1901, including the Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies, yet the only song from the collection he waited to include as part of a major work was this one, originally titled “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (Heaven is hung with violins), which depicts a child’s vision of heaven. The movement is filled with a pastoral grace and playfulness that utterly captures the text’s mood and character.
The first movement is the most complex thematically and structurally, yet still conveying a sense of childlike otherworldliness. The sound of enchanting bells and woodwinds lead into the first idea presented in the strings played with a kind of kitschy Viennese flair that initially drew criticism from those early critics. The overall mood is nonetheless playful and relaxed. A sense of of intimacy and warmth is created by the soloistic and chamber-like character of the orchestration. The middle section achieves the emotional climax of the movement through a dense piling up of themes leading to a long pedal-point in the low instruments that eventually finds its way back to cheerful charm of the opening.
The second movement has a kind of humorously diabolical feel to it, created in part by the higher-tuned violin that fiddles through the scherzo sections. Mahler instructs the violin to play aggressively like a street fiddler. The sound of the violin has long had associations with death and an early version of the movement bore the title “Freund Hein spielt auf” (Death strikes up), intimating the essential character conveyed here. A pair of calm, country dance-style trio sections provide balance to the somewhat sinister fiddling.
A glorious and intensely lyrical theme of great tenderness and beauty serves as the basis for the set of variations that constitute the slow third movement. Mahler himself thought this was his best slow movement and it would be hard to argue differently. The range and depth of emotion is extraordinary as Mahler leads us from the opening serenity to the pinnacle of ecstasy and the depths of despair. The concluding fanfare with thundering tympani that gently recedes to shimmering strings seems to take us to the threshold of paradise.
The final movement introduces the soprano singing a child’s idea of life in heaven, alternatingly tranquil and excited. Large sections of the poem’s text are set off by long, prayer-like phrases in the voice followed by bustling music that describes heavenly activities. The final stanza of the poem brings the only lines Mahler significantly repeats: “Kein musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,/Die uns’rer verglichen kann werden.” (There is just no music on Earth/That can compare to ours). Perhaps only, that is, with the possible exception of this sublime music Mahler has given us in this world.
© 2018 Robert S. Katz, Ph. D.