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Mahler’s Fourth at the MSO

Sep. 20, 2012
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Was Mahler the new Beethoven? The groundbreaking Ninth Symphony as well as Beethoven’s later sonatas and quartets provided direct antecedence to Mahler, who so startlingly combined the passion of 19th-century romanticism with a newfound neurotic intensity that spoke so directly to the anxiety-ridden tenor of the times. Like Beethoven at his most experimental, Mahler never abandons the constraints of formal composition for nonlinear dissonance, giving his works an immediacy that speaks to the heart of the listener like no other.

Composed between 1899 and 1901, Mahler’s lovely Fourth Symphony does not quite follow this pattern and seems like a transitional reprieve from his usual idiom. It’s a charming dream-like reverie offering a lighthearted departure from the Third Symphony’s somber evocation of nature’s forbidding majesty. Yet the Fourth bears warning signs at the end of each movement of the sturm und drang yet to come in the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. 

The first movement is introduced with flutes and sleigh bells; the woodwinds maintain a restrained charm and forbearance untypical of Mahler. But the composer’s inherent tension cannot long be restrained, becoming more apparent as the movements progress and hinting at the great horn passage of the Fifth Symphony. Yet, the brilliant subtlety of Mahler’s innovative imagination provides endless variations of tonal splendor, concluding, predictably, in a dramatic forte. 

Next, a moody scherzo introduces a more cynical evocation of humor with a lighthearted, high violin passage evoking a traditional figure of German art—a medieval skeleton playing a danse macabre, though Mahler never allows this quaint musical Disney-like imagery to become more than a digression resolving toward a contemplative, almost listless concluding undertone.

The third movement is one of Mahler’s most beautiful adagios and typical of his developing psyche. Described as a processional march, its lyrical beauty leads to a heart-rending second counter-motif reminding us of the underlying despair that will characterize Mahler, but once again the composer’s reticence only creates an anticipatory calm.

The fourth is a gentle evocation of nature’s guileless innocence, concluding in a bucolic vocal finale presenting a childlike view of heaven complete with a feast for the saints. The text, which mentions asparagus, apples, angels baking bread and wine that does not cost a penny, is taken from a song cycle written in 1892, but used by Mahler in several works. Referenced here as a piece for soprano and orchestra, this unusual conclusion to one of Mahler’s most accessible works is too lovely to be “cute,” but as the orchestra fades quietly away, we might differ with the saints saying, “There is no music on Earth that can compare to ours,” at least when the music of Mahler is performed.

Edo de Waart conducts the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony Sept. 20-21.


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