29 Mar 2012

Mahler – Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911) – Mahler spent the summer of 1900 in creative seclusion. His new villa in the village of Maiernigg on the Worthersee in the Austrian state of Carinthia was as yet incomplete, so he finished the 4th Symphony in a tiny hut surrounded by forestland. It was one of three such structures he would build during his composing life to separate himself from the distracting noise of the world. Two are now tourist attractions.

THE MUSIC – Mahler had begun work on the 4th symphony in 1899 but the ingredients were not all created from scratch. The music of the final movement dates back to 1892 and a particular collection of songs he composed that February. Many were destined to become part of the epic folk-cycle Das Knaben Wunderhorn but the stand-alone Das himmlische Leben (“Heavenly life”) was intended to be an important component of the massive 3rd Symphony. Indeed, melodic material from this song can be found in that earlier work but Mahler soon realized that it deserved more elaborate treatment. With a technique not uncommon in Mahler’s oeuvre, he used an idea from one symphony to inform another. Much like the trumpet fanfare in the 4th Symphony’s first movement that foreshadows the 5th Symphony, the “Leben” song fragments of the 3rd Symphony’s fifth movement find their apotheosis in the 4th. There is a decidedly “Classical” feel to the score of the 4th Symphony and the work employs a much more concentrated emotional profile than the prior symphonies. The child’s view of heaven depicted in the 4th Symphony’s closing movement is largely responsible for this overarching simplicity but there is also a sense that Mahler was attempting something novel with this work. Interestingly, he does not supply explanatory titles to the first three movements (a rarity to this point in his career) but rather allows the music, in all its sunny subtlety, to speak for itself.             

THE WORLD – 1900 was the year of the first Zeppelin flight in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Also that year, the first line of the Paris Metro opened, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory and Italy’s King Umberto I was assassinated.

THE CONNECTION – Mahler 4 has been performed at least three times since 1990 by the Utah Symphony. The most recent concerts were in 2003 under Keith Lockhart.