January 23, 2012

The Mahler Puzzle

“Gustav Mahler is the composer of contradictions and paradoxes. He is the composer of ambiguities, contrasts, complexities and cognitive dissonance.” (from “Mahler 4, a contradiction” by Kenneth Woods)

This weekend, the RPO will present its second Mahler Symphony of the 2011-2012 Season with a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, January 26 and 28 in Kodak Hall.

When starting work on his Fourth Symphony in 1899, Mahler composed backwards, beginning with the finale. The last movement of the Fourth Symphony is built around a song entitled Das himmlische Leben (Heaven’s Life) which draws its text from a collection of German folk poems, Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Mahler composed Das himmlische Leben as a free-standing piece in 1892 and toyed with the possibility of using it in the finale of his Third Symphony before deciding that the song should be used in a different symphony. The song (which will be performed this weekend by soprano Christina Pier, pictured below) is sung from the point of view of a young boy, and describes a vision of heaven as a place where no one ever goes hungry. Click here to read the full text and translation.

Thematically, the final movement of the 4th Symphony can be viewed as an extension of the themes expressed at the end of the “Resurrection” Symphony. The end of the 3rd movement of Symphony No. 4 briefly works up into a thunderous, transcendental trumpet fanfare akin to the finale of the Second Symphony, but quickly dies down, and transitions into the tranquil description of heaven in the Fourth movement. While the finale of the Second Symphony takes us to the gates of the afterlife, the finale of the Fourth Symphony goes through those gates, and shows us what the other side might be like.

Mahler's Fourth is often characterized as being lighter and ‘happier’ than many of his other works—it is one of his shortest symphonies, is scored for a relatively small ensemble, and begins with a jovial flute/sleigh bell motif. However, in true Mahler fashion, this cheerfulness often belies a darker undercurrent and is subject to extreme and sudden shifts throughout the piece, from major to minor and from cheery to tragic. As conductor Kenneth Woods notes in his blog A View from the Podium, the Fourth Symphony is “often described as his simplest and most straightforward work…but it’s also his most multi-layered, most contradictory, most enigmatic, most paradoxical work. Nothing in this piece is as it seems.”

Leonard Bernstein devoted one installment of his popular 1960s “Young Person’s Concert” educational series to an examination of the contradictions and paradoxes to which Woods refers. In the program, entitled Who is Gustav Mahler?, Bernstein uses the Fourth Symphony to illustrate the ways in which Mahler was a “double man.” Among the doublings identified by Bernstein are the problem of being both a conductor and a composer (a problem with which Bernstein was personally familiar) as well as Mahler’s inner conflict between child-like purity and tormented adult, between smart adult and innocent child, and between the Slavic folk music of his birthplace and of his Jewish background, and the ‘traditional’ Western music of the Classical idiom. As Bernstein describes, it was this sense of inner conflict, this battle between two Mahlers, that made his music so powerful and so original. Click here or below to watch Bernstein’s entire program.

If you came to the RPO’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony and loved it, the Fourth Symphony is just as great, but in a different way. While Mahler 2 is monumental, powerful, and awe-inspiring, Mahler 4 is made up of many different elements that briefly come forward and then fade into the background—alternatively playful and whimsical, mournful, ferocious, beautiful, and serene, the Fourth Symphony is filled with dichotomies that are woven together into something complex and characteristic of the man that wrote it.

Arild Remmereit conducts Mahler's Fourth January 26 at 7:30 pm and 28 at 8 PM in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. The program also includes Peggy Stuart Coolidge’s Blue Planet, Lehár’s “Vilja Lied” from The Merry Widow, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Emperor Waltz, and Imre Kálmán’s “Heia in den Bergen” from The Gypsy Princess. Tickets start at $15 and can be purchased online or by calling 454-2100.

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