AT THE GATES OF PARADISE. Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 4

Let us remind the audience that there hasn’t always been such an acute interest in for Mahler’s works. After the Second World War Mahler’s works remained unpopular both in Europe and in Russia (USSR). Performing traditions conceived by Mahler himself, espoused by masters such as his student and friend Bruno Walter and his friend and interpreter Willem Mengelberg in 1920s-1930s, were gradually becoming a thing of the past. A true Mahler cult inspired by the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, existed before the Second World War in Leningrad, often visited outstanding German and Austrian conductors such as Bruno Walter and other Mahler’s students including Otto Klemperer, Fritz Stiedry (who for some time directed the Leningrad Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra), or Oskar Fried, who like Stiedry had sought refuge from Nazism in the USSR, and was encouraged by Mahler himself who had set him to perform his Symphony No. 2 in Berlin. In the 1940s Mahler’s earlier symphonies were still performed by conductors such as Rakhlin, Rabinovich, and Mravinsky.

But in the post-war years, Mahler’s expressiveness turned out to be behind the times in the West and the keys to his ambiguity and, in particular, to the postmodernist irony (which makes him to some extent the forerunner of postmodernism) were largely lost. Just like during the life of the composer, his music was reduced to being defined as “music for conductors,” “esoteric” and in some cases even “fabricated.”

Little by little, it was not until the 1960s that Bernstein, Boulez, and Haitink began to perform it again, and in Russia it was Kirill Kondrashin and Gennady Rozhdestvensky who conducted the full cycle of his symphonies. By the end of the 20th century, however, the need to find new approaches to Mahler became evident, which was reflected in a more restrained and analytical interpretation of his works by Boulez. Complete collections of “the complete Mahler’s symphonies” were released by Abbado, Muti, Chailly, Boulez, Eschenbach, as well as twice by Bernstein. Finally, Mahlerfest-1995 was held in Amsterdam — “Mahler’s Bayreuth” — dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the first Mahler Festival held in 1920. Both festivals featured all Mahler’s works and a similar festival attended by ten orchestras took place in Leipzig in 2011, organized by Riccardo Chailly.

The aforementioned series of concerts by Teodor Currentzis constituted a milestone in the world’s Mahleriana.

According to Inna Barsova, the author of the recently reissued monograph Mahler’s Symphonies, the difficulty of Symphony No. 4 lies in its apparent “simplicity,” with its not so straightforward reference to the Viennese classics (such as the sonata form and the “Schubert” melody in the first part) as a result of which Mahler faced accusations of mocking old-fashionedness, while his attempts at innovation were misunderstood and some of his first performances were utter failures.

The orchestra here is much smaller than in other of Mahler’s symphonies. What is unusual for the history of European symphonies, the finale includes a vocal part — namely Mahler’s song Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden (The Heavenly Life, 1892) set to words from a collection of German folk songs by Arnim and Brentano — Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) (1806-1808) — the musical themes of which are developed in the previous parts and also used in Symphony No. 3. The song was originally intended by Mahler for its finale and was entitled What a child told me.

It is a utopian idyll seen through the “shining eyes of a child,” but this text was not chosen by Mahler by chance. Moreover, it is interwoven with the spirit of carnival and the grotesque inherent in popular consciousness, on which the composer himself elaborated. Within it, the angels, similar to the Singing Angels of Van Eyck, or rather, the ones from The Annunciation by El Greco, sing and play musical instruments (this motif is often repeated in European painting) while others bake bread, St. Peter catches fish, St. Marta serves as a cook, and eleven thousand virgins swirl in a dance to the music of “Saint Cecilia with her loved ones.”

Mahler’s own statements on the meaning of this song in the symphony are contradictory: initially he mentioned “symphonic humoresqu,” though later he denied the presence of any elements of parody in the finale. This song as well as Urlicht (Primeval Light) included in the finale of the Symphony No. 2 was taken from triply reworked Mahler’s vocal cycle to different texts by Arnim and Brentano from the collection of the same name Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn); pieces from this cycle will be performed within a concert. Mahler also used one more song from this collection in his vocal cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), connected in turn to his Symphony No. 1.

Barsova reasonably relates Mahler’s work to the ancient tradition of “aclassical” art: if classical art is based on the principles of balance, proportionality, equality of parts, completeness, the “aclassical” gravitates towards an open form, allowing elements of unpredictability: a new harmony arises from it through the struggle of opposing principles that can take the form of various guises, from the ironic to the grotesque, change places on the go, be parodied, reinterpreted [1]. It is exactly the lack of understanding of this peculiarity of Mahler’s aesthetics — both during the life of the composer and after — that led his work to be dismissed as “barbaric” or “inharmonious.” It should be noted that it is precisely these features of Mahler’s symphonic style to which conductor Teodor Currentzis is particularly sensitive.

After almost a three-year break in his work, largely due to being overloaded by work at the Vienna Opera, Mahler completed Symphony No. 4 (based on sketches made one year prior to that) during a three-week period in the summer of 1900. In this work, in Barsova’s opinion, the struggle of harmonious and disharmonic principles unfolds according to the principles of Good and Evil, immortality and death. Mahler himself for the first time refused to elaborate on this or provide any detailed commentary to the audience, but some of his statements on No. 4 are noted in his letters and memoirs of friends and relatives. We believe that a degree of similarity can be noted in the structure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15. In the first movement of both, the childish dominates, which, after going through all kinds of transformations and tragic tests, is resolved by it being overcome — in Mahler’s work by deliberately naive idyll and in Shostakovich’s — by the sense of a certain stoic calm.

The symphony opens with three bars of jingling bells, accompanied by the appoggiatura of flutes, with an inherent shade of infantility, which chimes with the song of heavenly joys in the fourth movement. This musical theme will return several times during the symphony, in the first movement serving to distinguish between different movements and underscoring the appearance of a disharmonic beginning; in the latter movement, it separates the stanzas, while fitting into the context of childishness.

The “disharmonious” first appears in the development of the first movement with infinite variability of the main and subsidiary lyrical parts, that are subject to various distortions and shifts. Then it triumphs in movement two (essentially the Scherzo) with the dance of death, which according to the memoirs of the composer’s wife was inspired by the Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Arnold Böcklin (1872). Within the aforementioned work, death is embodied by a medieval folk character — “Friend Hein” (hence the role of the solo violin tuned a tone higher). This dance of death is contrasted, as in the third movement of Symphony No. 1, with two serene and harmoniously strict trios.

Harmony is restored in movement three (an Adagio), at times truly contemplative as with the main theme and at times deeply emotional subsidiary theme and their variations (Mahler admitted that for him, their contrast was represented in a vision of a mother’s face, loving and sorrowful at the same time). They lead to explosion of outro, which was compared to the “open gates of paradise,” in anticipation of the main theme of the fourth and final movement. Here the song Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden is performed by a soprano, a reflection of a naive childhood dream featuring an unparalleled heavenly paradise.

Here, in the symphony’s meditative finale, with its song and a properly Mahlerian “deceived expectation” of an apotheosis, the idyll finds its perfect expression after a new, relaxed stage of confrontation between the two principles marked again by revisiting the first three bars of the symphony. However, the philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno found the finale, as well as the whole symphony, being not so much a dream of a newfound paradise but rather a nostalgic dream of paradise lost. Furthermore, against the backdrop of general reproach, with which the first performances of the symphony were met, one might vie the perceptive opinion of the music critic Arthur Seidl as rather welcome, insofar as he goes against the grain in observing that “Mahler, in fact, is a God-seeker. His secret inner being constantly turning to the mystery of existence, examining the immensity of the world with true religious zeal.”


Michael Meylac,
professor emeritus of the university of Strasbourg

[1] Inna Barsova. Symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Second edition. SPb: Novikov edition, 2010. Pages 11-19.