Gustav Mahler was born in July 1860 at Kalischt, Bohemia (now Kaliste, Czechoslovakia). He was the son of a Moravian-Jewish merchant and distiller and his early years were ones of extreme poverty. He began learning the piano at the age of 6 and gave his first public recital in 1870. He studied briefly in Prague before entering the Vienna Conservatory in 1875. Whilst there, Mahler composed and played in performances of his piano quintet and violin sonata.
Mahler left the Conservatory and began a career as a conductor in 1880. He spent time at a series of regional opera houses until he became Head of Vienna Opera in 1897. Here, he upgraded the expected level of performance, removed the significant ‘cuts’ made in performances of Wagner’s operas and expanded the repertoire by introducing many new works. He had a difficult relationship with his performers. He ruled with an iron fist, the result of his artistic honesty and ambition. Mahler believed that opera was the highest form of art, not mere entertainment.
In 1907, Mahler resigned from the Vienna Court Opera and in 1908 moved to America to conduct the New York Metropolitan Opera. He was appointed to the New York Philharmonic in 1909. However, his time in New York was not positive as he had a low opinion of American concert-goers and musicians.
In February 1911, Mahler was diagnosed with bacterial endocarditis and returned to Vienna where he died on 18th May.
During his lifetime, Mahler was considered by the public to be a gifted conductor with a habit of writing over-long symphonies. Mahler considered himself to be a composer forced to spend most of his time conducting. His compositional output consisted of Lieder, song-cycles and 10 monumental symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death. His orchestral music is clear, complex and full of musical imagery from the heavenly to the banal. The ‘feel’ throughout the symphonies is that of personal tragedy and hope projected onto a universal scale. His orchestration continued the innovations introduced by Berlioz. Mahler’s flair for finding unusual and effective combinations of instruments is always distinctive. He believed that the symphony should take in the whole world and the highly original structures of his symphonies do this. They are loosely based around classical structures but develop in an unpredictable and organic manner.
Mahler’s work was banned by the Nazis in the 1930s and was largely forgotten until the 1960s. However, his symphonies became some of the most popular concert works of the 1970s.
Symphony No. 4
This symphony was completed in 1900 and Mahler conducted the first performance in Munich during November 1901. It is the simplest of all his symphonies and the least overshadowed by dark thoughts. Its central idea is the expression of a child’s view of heaven. The vision is naïve in the extreme – the emphasis being on the quantities of food and drink that abound in heaven – and yet is presented in so apt and charming a way that the desired effect is immediately created.
After a brief introduction featuring the four flutes and jingle bells, a graceful and lilting violin melody creates the comfortable and unhurried atmosphere of good humour, which continues throughout the symphony. The second group of themes is soon introduced on the cellos. The bells usher in a repeat of the first subject, which is extended. The flutes introduce a new theme that is heard in later movements. An expressive horn recitative makes way for a brief and jubilant coda.
The second movement is in the form of a scherzo. An introductory passage for solo horn makes way for the first violin that Mahler instructs should be tuned a tone sharp and played ‘like a fiddle’ (implying a street musician’s fiddle rather than an orchestral one) so it has no charm of sound. Mahler referred to this movement as ‘Freund Hein spielt auf’ (Death strikes up). The third movement begins with a beautiful and restful melody, which is developed in a set of variations. The double basses link the variations by plucking an ostinato bass. In the last variation there is a violent outburst of the full orchestra where the ostinato is played with full force on the timpani. The clamour gradually dies away and the movement ends quietly with the unearthly sounds of violin harmonics, supported by the flutes.
In the final movement the soprano solo sings the child’s announcement that she really is in heaven, enjoying its gastronomic delights. The words are taken from ’Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (The Youth’s Magic Horn), an anthology of German folk-poems that had already provided inspiration for much of Mahler’s music. The stanzas of the poem are separated by lively orchestral interludes based on the opening of the first movement. After the last of these we hear a new melody, a gentle dance-like tune referring to St Cecilia and her heavenly musicians, mentioned in the next stanza. After this last verse the movement slowly fades away to a peaceful close.