Symphony No. 4 - A Brief Essay
Mahler's Heavenly Symphony

by Stan Ruttenberg

Commentators often characterize this as Mahler's most accessible symphony; or as Mahler's break with the Wunderhorn period, afterwards becoming polyphonic in his writing; or as Mahler's most classical symphony; or as childlike and innocent; or some combinations of these elements. In fact, there is partial truth in these assertions, but they should not be taken at face value. There are many much more complex facets to this Mahler work, as the great experts have explained. I rely for this essay on the following four: Donald Mitchell, our honored guest at MahlerFest XIV, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn years, 1981 revised edition, University of California Press, and his latest work The Mahler Companion, Oxford University Press 1999; Henry-Louis de La Grange, our honored guest at MahlerFest XI, Gustav Mahler - Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904), Oxford University press 1995; Constantin Floros, Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies; 1994; and Theodor Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, University of Chicago Press, 1992. These works are highly recommended for more detail and insight than can be offered here. I am also indebted to Jonathan Carr for his insightful comments; his book, Mahler: A Biography, is a fine introduction to Mahler the man and musician.

Accessibility: This assertion is more truth than myth. The Fourth is about the same in duration as the First, averaging about 55 minutes, but, of course, conductors vary all over the place in their tempi in both symphonies. The Fourth is also the most lightly scored of the Mahler symphonies - no heavy brass, i.e., trombones or tuba, and there are fewer horns, trumpets and woodwinds than usual, and a slightly smaller string section. The musical character tends to be light and serene, with some playful moments, but a few moments of darkness appear. It is perhaps the shortness of the work, the lightness of the orchestration, and the wonderful tunes throughout that, starting in the 1940s, helped to make this work the beginning of the wide acceptance of Mahler in our times.
The structure of the Fourth, however, is anything but simple - counterpoint in the first movement, extensive variations in the third movement, and a fourth movement which seems to have the kernels of some major thematic elements of the preceding three movements, as Kelly D. Hansen explains in his Notes. After the Vienna premiŔre, a hostile critic complained: "This symphony has to be read from back to front like a Hebrew bible." He did not understand that his distress was really at the core of the symphony's genesis and structure. The reason may well be that Mahler composed the fourth movement first, the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Leben, in 1892, at the time he was reworking his First Symphony, well before he started to work on the earlier moverments; the Symphony No. 4, was not completed until 5 August 1900.

Polyphony (counterpoint): Many commentators insist that Mahler's polyphonic writing starts with his Fifth Symphony. Mitchell remarks in the Mahler Companion that this is merely a careless repeat of an old canard, as Mahler's symphonic works till then were certainly not devoid of counterpoint. Mitchell notes, in the Companion, that it is in the first movement of the Fourth that for the first time in a Mahler symphony we are confronted by a show of that hyperactive motivic counterpoint which, in the succeeding instrumental symphonies, was to be a hallmark of his 'new' polyphonic orchestral style. Mahler remarked, as de La Grange writes: "that he thought that he had never before made quite as much use of polyphony. 'The thousand little pieces of mosaic that make up the picture are shaken up and it becomes unrecognizable, as in a kaleidoscope, as though a rainbow suddenly disintegrated into millions of dancing drops so that the whole edifice seems to rock and evolve.'" On the other hand he remarked to his confidante, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, that part of the first movement had given "untold trouble," and that every "student who has been trained in it [counterpoint] would use it at this point with the greatest of ease." Mahler is not known for being 100% consistent.

Classical form: The first movement, indeed, has sonata form in its structure, but the ironic scherzo is scarcely the innocent dance of Haydn or Mozart. The third movement, variations, the only symphonic movement Mahler wrote in this style, does fit the classical form. But a song for a fourth movement! That scarcely fits into the "classical" mold. Is this, then, Neo-classical, a call back to the past, as later evinced by Hindemith, Stravinsky, or Prokofieff's "Classical Symphony"? Mitchell, in the Companion argues: No. He writes, in The Wunderhorn Years, after discussing the complexities of the first movement, "Undoubtedly the complexity of this passage [first movement, bars 233-8] was part of the aesthetic game that Mahler was playing in his Fourth Symphony: an outwardly simple-minded, even backward- looking symphony (an early manifestation of neoclassicism?), that creates a peculiar world of its own by contradicting, in developments of a demanding complexity and sophistication, the anticipation of simplicity and guilelessness that the very opening of the work seems to arouse (though only momentarily) [e.g., the sleigh bells against a simple theme in woodwinds].
Mitchell then remarks in The Companion, "The Fourth, to my mind, represents a manifestation of Neo-Classicism peculiar to Mahler himself, an awareness of and reflection on the role he himself and his work(s) in progress might play in the still evolving history of the idea of the symphony. The Fourth, or one significant dimension of it, spells out the impossibility of rolling history back or complacently attempting to continue in the line of - wake of, rather - the Great Tradition." So much for this being a "classical" symphony.

Childlike: Adorno, in his provocative but dense little book, argues the thesis that Mahler's symphonies are like novels - the themes are characters, who appear, disappear, and appear later in much transformed guises. He also characterizes the Fourth as representing "innocence, e.g., the innocence of the child who describes heaven in the Fourth movement, and experience." Mitchell, as seen above, argues that the innocence only seems to be innocence, and as the symphony is indeed composed backwards, then why does experience come first, followed in the last movement by innocence?
Adorno has a somewhat non-conventional idea that the sleigh bells at the beginning are really "a fool's bells, which, without saying it, say: none of what you now hear is true." Jonathan Carr points out to me "as for why the whole thing begins in a very complex way and becomes simple, may be the philosophical/religious/metaphysical point behind the whole work: 'Except that ye become as little children ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'"
The music is, itself, easy to listen to, and that perhaps is why the Fourth is one of the most played of all the Mahler Symphonies. Mahler's friend and great champion, Willem Mengelberg, conducted a total of over 400 concerts with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in which a Mahler work was featured. In over 200 of these concerts, it was the Fourth Symphony!

Brief history: Mahler was happy with this work, confident that he had produced a symphony that everyone could understand and like. However, the Fourth met hostility from the critics from the beginning. They had been used to Mahler's providing a "program," but except for the words of the fourth movement, he did not for this one. The public also took its time to warm up to it. After the gigantic Second and Third, what could they make of a simple opening of sleigh bells, with flutes 1 and 2 mimicking them and flute 3 playing a "naive" little tune? The one success Mahler enjoyed with the Fourth is when, at the invitation of Mengelberg, he conducted it twice in one concert. Alma was confused later when, in her writings, she said that Mahler conducted it once and Mengelberg the second time, another myth repeated too many times by careless commentators.
Mahler revised the Fourth constantly after rehearsals and performances. Mahler's last correction happened at a rehearsal in New York a few weeks before he became too ill to conduct and then left for Vienna to die of a streptococcus infection in his heart, the bacilli having localized in his defective mitral valve. During the rehearsal, Mahler heard a "wrong" note. He stopped the orchestra and asked who had played incorrectly. It turned out that the "wrong" note was in the score of one of the orchestral parts. Mahler immediately asked that the publisher be cabled with the correction.
There are many printed editions which do not conform well with the final, "Critical," edition prepared by the Mahler Society in Vienna and published in 1963. Even that edition had mistakes in spelling, placement of clefs, etc., but no wrong notes. Just published, James Zychowicz's book (Oxford University Press), Mahler's Fourth Symphony, describes the evolution of the score through the various manuscripts and versions. His final chapter contains fourteen pages of changes and corrections, e.g., reducing woodwind doublings and changes or clarifications of both dynamics and tempo markings. It is the "final" and best corrected edition which Robert Olson conducts at MahlerFest XIV.

St. Ursula: Mahler described the sunny third movement as "having St. Ursula's character written all over it." Mitchell remarks that it is clear that Mahler did not know the legend of this saint or he could not have made such a mistake. In the Fourth movement, the Wunderhorn poem says, "Eleven thousand virgins are set dancing, and St. Ursula herself laughs to see it." Why is she, the most serious and dour of all the saints, so happy?
The legend of St. Ursula stems from an inscription in the choir of a church in Cologne, built by the wealthy Roman merchant, Clematius, possibly in the memory of the virgins who suffered under the Emperor Diocletian. In about 1105, when the walls of Cologne were extended, a lot of bones presumed to be those of the virgins were dug up, in a location which had hitherto been beyond the perimeter.

DIVINIS FLAMMEIS VISIONIB. FREQVENTER ADMONIT. ET VIRTVTIS MAGNĂ MAI IESTATIS MARTYRII CAELESTIVM VIRGIN IMMINENTIVM EX PARTIB. ORIENTIS EXSIBITVS PRO VOTO CLEMATIVS V. C. DE PROPRIO IN LOCO SVO HANC BASILICA VOTO QVOD DEBEBAT A FVNDAMENTIS RESTITVIT SI QVIS AVTEM SVPER TANTAM MAIIESTATEM HVIIVS BASILICĂ VBI SANC TAE VIRGINES PRO NOMINE. XPI. SAN GVINEM SVVM FVDERVNT CORPVS ALICVIIVS DEPOSVERIT EXCEPTIS VIRCINIB. SCIAT SE SEMPITERNIS TARTARI IGNIB. PVNIENDVM.

BY DIVINE FLAMING VISIONS OFTEN WARNED, AND THROUGH THE GREAT MAJESTY OF THE MARTYR-SITES OF THE HEAVENLY VIRGINS, WHO URGED HIM WITH THREATS, COMING FROM THE EAST, CLEMATIUS, ACCORDING TO OATH - HE A MAN OF CONSULAR RANK - OUT OF HIS OWN MEANS ON HIS OWN ESTATE, REBUILT THIS BASILICA FROM THE GROUND IN CONSEQUENCE OF A VOW. SHOULD ANY ONE LAY THE BODY OF ANY ONE HERE, OTHER THAN THE VIRGINS, ON ACCOUNT OF THE GREAT MAJESTY OF THE BASILICA, LET HIM KNOW THAT HE WILL BE PUNISHED WITH ETERNAL FIRES.' [Translation by Jonathan Carr.]

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the legend started with a pilgrimage of some virgins to Rome in the fourth century. They were killed by Huns in the vicinity of Cologne on their return. The legend grew in the 8th century or so to a few thousand virgins. The final version is that Ursula, a British Princess, betrothed to a pagan king, wanted to escape this fate. The King allotted her ten handmaidens and eleven ships, each to contain 1,000 virgins, and one year to "think it over." Thus Ursula and the ten handmaidens took 11,000 virgins to Rome in the 11th century (think of the logistical nightmare!) to be blessed. Huns killed them all on their return. However, in the cold reality of history, the Huns were long gone by 1100.
Thus, the 11,000 virgins ended up in Heaven, all happy to be with the saints, to eat the cooking by St. Martha, eat the bread baked by the saints, and have all the fresh vegetables, meats, and cheap wine they wanted. No wonder they danced! No wonder that St. Ursula laughed to see her girls so happy! Well, make of it what you will, that is my interpretation.
Thanks again to Jonathan Carr, I close with his remarks. "How much Mahler knew of all this [Ursula and the virgins] is not at all clear. But, pace Adorno, I cannot believe that Mahler meant the work and its last movement in particular to be ironic. What did he write to Alma? - 'My Fourth ... is all humour, naive etc. It is that part of me which is still the hardest for you to accept and which in any case only the fewest of the few will comprehend for the rest of time.'''
But whatever, this is a lovely work, to be enjoyed just for its sheer beauty, without need to "understand" it.


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