After the transcendence of the second, and the cosmic proportions of the third, audiences didn’t expect a quieter, relatively shorter work. What had happened was that Mahler had written one final song to end his third symphony with, but decided to cut it out because he felt the loving and powerful orchestral movement was a good enough ending, and also because the work was already bordering on 2 hours which is crazy long for a symphony. Instead, he took this song and wrote an entire new symphony around it, with each movement alluding to the song. The third and fourth share melodies, but even so the fourth is easily an independent work. Mozartian in its writing, and the large orchestra is still the smallest forces called for any of his symphonies, and it is toned down a bit with the typical focus on chamber like solos, duos, trios…the work opens with childlike wonder, imagination and playtime outside, adventurous and pastoral. The next movement is a scherzo in which a solo violin plays in a “gypsy” manner. The third is a large and gradual, subtle set of variations that build up to a grand climax before dying off. The finale is a song for soprano and orchestra, a child’s idea of what heaven is like. Despite the peaceful moments, the entire work is a paradox. On the one hand it involves youthful innocence and naivety about the world, and on the other it is very aware of death and danger. Even the opening sleigh bells, which you’d associate with Christmas and fun in the snow, is paired with jarring chords as the soprano sings about Saints slaughtering animals without any sympathy. Even after death there is death.
One of Mahler’s later song cycles was based on a set of poems by Friederich Rückert, the same poet had inspired Mahler to write his equally famous Kindertotenlieder. Of all of Mahler’s song cycles, this was the last one I’d come across, and coming to it, I had gotten exactly what I expected: beautiful melodies, fantastic orchestration, and unique harmonies, all sprinkled with Mahler’s personal touch to make them a set of gorgeous songs. However, unlike typical song cycles, this collection doesn’t “have” to be performed together, the only thing connecting the songs are the poem’s themes. But it would be silly to perform any by themselves instead of the entire set [maybe the wonderful and introspective Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen could be performed as a stand alone, but why do that and ignore the rest of the poems?]. Because there is less cohesion to this cycle than others, there is no set order for the songs to be performed. That is left to the conductor’s artistic interpretation. Here I am, after dinner, drunk and feeling lonely, listening to the type of music that makes me feel connected to everyone. If that makes any sense. As in, whatever negative thoughts I have, whatever dark emotions, I can at least empathize with or sympathize with others who have felt similar emotions before and who do so today. That’s why Mahler is so consistently relevant, to me.
This painting depicts Sir Simon Rattle conducting Mahler’s second Symphony at my local concert hall, Symphony Hall, in Birmingham. This painting stands gloriously by the entrance to the concert hall and is a sight to behold!
“St Anthony preaches to the fishes, and his words are translated in the tipsy sounding language of the clarinet… and they all come swimming up to him, a glittering shoal of them, eels, carp and pike with their pointed heads, I swear while I was composing, I really kept imaging that I saw them sticking their stiff immovable necks out of the water and gazing up at St. Anthony with their stupid faces, I had to laugh out loud… The Bohemian music of my childhood home has found it’s way in many of my compositions, but especially in my "St. Anthony Preaches to the Fishes”.”