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8.550527 - MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 4 (Russell, Polish National Radio Symphony, Wit)
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successors in two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music, among other things creating a symphonic form that included in it the tradition of song in a varied tapestry of sound particularly apt for a twentieth century that has found in Mahler’s work a reflection of its own joys and sorrows.
Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in the world. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child, and the first of fourteen to survive, he was born in Kaliste in Bohemia in 1860. Soon after his birth his family moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectual self-improvement, to the running of a tavern and distillery. Mahler’s musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.
It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, and later in the position of the highest distinction of all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary .In Vienna he effected significant reforms in the Court Opera, but made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family’s future before his own imminent death, which took place on 18th May, 1911.
Although his career as a conductor involved him most closely with opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composer consists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death, and his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in Das Lied von der Erde. The greater part of his music was written during summer holidays away from the business of the opera-house.
Mahler started work on his fourth symphony in the summer of 1899, two years after his appointment to the Court Opera. He had completed his third symphony in 1896 and now, as his stay at the Villa Kerry at Alt Aussee in the Salzkammergut drew to a close, he hurried to write down musical ideas for a new symphony as they occurred to him, having occupied himself in July and early August with the correction of proofs of the Third Symphony and of the Klagende Lied. The following summer he was able to find at least something of the necessary peace and seclusion at his newly acquired property of Maiernigg on the Wörthersee to complete the short score of the new symphony, which was orchestrated during the winter in Vienna and first performed in Munich on 25th November 1901. The symphony, which takes as its final movement a song setting written and orchestrated in 1892, is the last of the three using texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), the seminal collection of folk-songs made by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano and published in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the spirit of which imbues the whole symphony. The song, referred to by Mahleras Das himmlische Leben, that forms the finale of the Fourth Symphony had earlier been intended as a seventh and final movement for the Third Symphony, following the suggested programme to that work as “What the child tells me” but instead proved the source of a new work. The Fourth Symphony has throughout the suggestion of beauty and innocence that the poem itself and its musical setting embody, reflecting not only the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn but also the beauty of the countryside in which the symphony was written, the imagined terrors of the second movement dispelled by w hat follows.
The Fourth Symphony is scored for an orchestra of four flutes, two doubling with piccolo, three oboes, one doubling on cor anglais, three clarinets in B flat, A and C, doubling with two E flat clarinets and a bass clarinet, three bassoons, the third doubling on contra-bassoon, four French horns, three trumpets, timpani, bass drum, triangle, sleigh-bells, glockenspiel, cymbals and tam-tam, harp and strings. This provides the opportunity for a rich variety of orchestral colour. There is an element of mock-classicism in the first movement of the symphony, in its thematic material, its textures and in its use of classical first movement form, the whole, however, essentially Mahlerian in its apparent ingenuousness, its use of orchestral colour and in the contrasts of mood introduced in the central development. The movement ends with a quasi-improvisatory passage for French horn, an apparent reminiscence of Mozart, after which the violins gently lead into a conclusion of increasing excitement.
The second movement, generally described as a Totentanz (Dance of Death), is in the form of a Scherzo with two Trios. It makes use of a solo violin tuned up a tone, in the role of a ghostly fiddler, the repeated Scherzo contrasted with the Ländler type Trios, introduced by horn and trumpet respectively. The third movement is started by the lower strings, suggesting at first the language of Brahms, but going on to a miraculous varying of the theme, in major and minor version, combining with it the wider structure of sonata-rondo form. The oboe leads into a minor version of the thematic material. The major key is restored for a further set of variations, followed by are turn of the material in the minor key. This is succeeded by a set of variations on the major key theme, now in the form of a series of dances, an Austrian Ländler, a Minuetand a wilder dance, and are turn to material from the first pan of the movement. The concluding section, with its string arpeggios and harp glissandos leads to a gentle and tender final passage.
The song that ends the symphony and from which the mood of the whole work is derived is in strophic form, a series of five verses, some separated by brief orchestral intervention. The score carries a worried injunction to the conductor to provide an exceptionally discreet orchestral accompaniment to the song, a detail not exceptional from a composer who was at the same time one of the greatest conductors of his time and who took particular care to ensure, as far as he could, that his own music should be performed exactly as he wanted. The initial instruction Sehr behaglich (very comfortably) expresses the general mood of music that reflects the simple ingenuousness of the text, without ever faltering into triviality. Das himmlische Leben is a beautiful conclusion to a symphony of singular beauty.
The English soprano Lynda Russell was born in Birmingham and studied at the Royal College of Music in London, in Paris and in Vienna. Her many prizes and awards include the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Scholarship. She has sung in many of the leading opera-houses of the world. At home she has appeared at Glyndebourne, with Opera North, Opera Northern Ireland and the English National Opera, with the last of these at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She has appeared widely in oratorio and in concert performances, including a BBC television recording of Handel’s Messiah with Harry Christophers and The Sixteen and a televised performance of the German Requiem of Brahms for BBC Wales. Other engagements have taken her to the major cities of Europe as a concert and recital singer.
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