Mahler's Fourth

Program Notes

Mahler’s Fourth

Our previous concert in the Classics series was called “Heavenly Preludes” and explored various themes, including death and the afterlife. Although the program for “Mahler’s Fourth” was not purposely designed with these same themes in mind, the Wagner and the Mahler are linked to these themes. While Mahler’s idea on heavenly life “through rose-colored glasses” is clear, Wagner’s is less so, as Tristan and Isolde merely long for it as an escape from their hopeless love.

A more concrete connection between the pieces can be drawn between the Wagner and the Schoenberg. Through his stunning use of chromaticism, Wagner did his utmost to push conventional tonality to the limit. Schoenberg breaks through those limits, furthering the Western art music tradition with his meticulously structured atonality. Perhaps the absence of applause between the Wagner and the Schoenberg provides an opportunity to reflect on this connection.


Prelude to Tristan and Isolde
Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

“He looked into my eyes. His suffering tormented me; the sword – I let it fall!”

-Isolde, Tristan and Isolde, Act I, Scene II

Richard Wagner’s Prelude to his opera Tristan and Isolde is one of the most well-known pieces in classical music, inspiring reactions as intense today as when it was penned. The composer Giuseppe Verdi is reported to have said that he “stood in wonder and terror” before Tristan and Isolde.

Wagner began working on Tristan when he was also busy producing the single largest musical project of the nineteenth century: the four operas known as the “Ring Cycle.” During that time, he became captivated by the medieval legend of the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde and their forbidden love.

Politically, Tristan and Isolde are enemies. In an effort to create peace between the two kingdoms, Isolde’s father held a tournament. King Mark of Cornwall sent Tristan to win Isolde’s hand for him, and Tristan is successful. On the voyage back to Cornwall, as Tristan is bringing Isolde to her new husband, the two drink a love potion (depending on the version of the story, this may or may not have been accidental). Despite marrying King Mark, Isolde remains hopelessly in love with Tristan and Tristan with her. 

Wagner said this story was filled with yearning and intensification, inevitably followed by relapse: “From the timidest lament in unappeasable longing, the tenderest shudder, to the most terrible outpouring of an avowal of hopeless love, the sentiment traverses all phases of the vain struggle against inner ardor, until this, sinking back powerless upon itself, seems to be extinguished in death.”

Written in 1863, Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde has been admired for its slow recounting of pure emotion. Its form is almost imitative of a set of variations, joined together in a seamless pattern of tension and resolution that, with only small exceptions, feels as natural as breathing. One of Wagner’s most significant compositional contributions, the leitmotif, is used here. A leitmotif is a short musical fragment, usually a specific melodic or rhythmic figure that represents a character, situation, object, or idea. In Wagner’s work, leitmotifs are not static; they evolve – as does the character or idea they represent – along with the drama. Although the leitmotifs remain recognizable throughout, Wagner casts them in a variety of harmonic lights, giving them new connotations. This is an effective way for a composer to create foreshadowing or to provide the audience a window into his characters’ thoughts. The versatility of these motifs renders them core musical material.

Another element worth noting in Wagner’s Prelude is his beautiful and skillful use of chromaticism. While the term chromaticism may have some slightly threatening connotations in the context of music, especially for the staunch lover of earlier classical music, its use in the nineteenth century was really in tune with the word’s literal meaning: color. This use of pitches not strictly included in the tonality of a piece pushed the boundaries on what expressive tools were available to composers.

Chromaticism was not new to the nineteenth century, but few, if any, composers took it to the lengths Wagner did with his modulations giving way to sometimes kaleidoscopic shifts in perspective. Musicologist Rob Kapilow calls Tristan and Isolde “the most perfect embodiment of this revolutionary chromatic language.” In the context of Tristan and Isolde, Wagner used chromaticism as a way to emphasize the dualisms in the story, with tonality standing for yearning and atonality negation of desire.

From the very first notes of the Prelude, the gradual unfolding of each gesture heightens the effect of the phrase, rendering each event extraordinarily concentrated. The opening swell begins in the cellos with a four-note idea often referred to as “the sorrow” or “longing” motif. This opening phrase is at the center of the Prelude, developing into the “desire” or “yearning” theme. Wagner uses two elements to increase tension: silence and deceptive cadences – points of arrival at the end of phrases that finish “deceptively” in a chord other than the one we expect in the tonal context. The silence in place of resolution makes us almost hold our breath, while the deceptive cadence propels us into a new iteration of the melody. This helps to heighten in the music – and in us – the sense of unfulfilled desire, which eventually moves back toward the opening iteration, creating an almost cyclical overall form, even though we’ve heard no satisfying resolution!

“The look” or “glance” motives also appear early in the Prelude, again first emerging in the cellos as if from the earth. Its uncertain, dotted rhythm creates a relatively short fragment, but it is a central theme heard throughout the Prelude and the rest of the opera and, of course, refers to the look Tristan and Isolde exchange that encourages Isolde to spare Tristan’s life.

Most of Wagner’s leitmotifs have both a philosophical meaning and a dramatic one. The leitmotifs used here are also strikingly similar to each other, which enables Wagner to easily slip from one to the next without an obvious break in the phrase. This freedom of movement also lends itself to the layering of melodies, which makes the texture wonderfully complex. The “love potion” motif, or “the drink of atonement,” as it is also called, is derived in this way at least in part from “the glance,” and the relationship between the two themes becomes central to the Prelude.

In the last moments of the Prelude, we find ourselves in a sort of epilogue; there is no new music. Wagner outlines this section: “All forward momentum has been frustrated, and resolution is nowhere to be found – emotionally and dramatically, there is nothing but longing and yearning … the poetic idea behind … [is the] lovers’ main struggle against inner ardor [tied to their seeking death as an escape from desire].”

Renowned conductor Bruno Walter declared, “Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss …” Although he disliked much of Wagner’s music, Richard Strauss said, “Tristan and Isolde marked the end of all Romanticism. Here the yearning of the entire nineteenth century is gathered in one focal point.”


Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

When Arnold Schoenberg finished his Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 in 1928, it was not an immediate success. The piece’s stark atonality seemed jarring and unfamiliar to music lovers, and devoid of traditional tonal markers. In fact, Variations is actually highly organized, as is almost all of Schoenberg’s music. Despite his being largely misunderstood, Schoenberg is praised by many as one of the giants of twentieth-century composition.

Schoenberg is probably most well known for first proposing the idea of a new kind of tonality, dodecaphony, or twelve-tone technique. Around the turn of the century, he felt that music and its development had reached a plateau. He also thought that Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde had pushed music as far as it could go while remaining within the limits of the traditional Western scale-based system. In his twelve-tone system of tonal organization, all the pitches within an octave – all the black and white keys on a piano – were used equally, without key-motivated preference. Melodies including all twelve pitches he called “tone rows,” and writing music with this new system, he hoped, would begin a new freedom in musical expression.

Along with two of his students, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, Schoenberg formed what is now known as the Second Viennese School. Gramophone’s editor-in-chief, James Jolly, writes that Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg “became famous for music what [their] fellow Viennese Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler were for psychoanalysis, what Secession artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele … and others were for painting and design, or what Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, [etc.] ... were for literature. It was a city where no one looked back.”

It was not Schoenberg’s objective to cause an uproar with his twelve-tone technique, although obviously he was not unaware of the impact his work could have. Challenging centuries of musical tradition was bound to bring intense opposition. As Huscher notes, “the riot that disrupted the concert on March 31, 1913, which presented music by Schoenberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, was even more violent than the famous one at the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring just two months later.”

Schoenberg explained, “I am conscious of having broken through every restriction of a bygone aesthetic; and though the goal toward which I am striving appears to me a certain one, I am, nonetheless, already feeling the resistance I shall have to overcome; I feel now how hotly even the least of temperaments will rise in revolt, and suspect that even those who have so far believed in me will not want to acknowledge the necessary nature of this development … I am being forced in this direction … I am obeying an inner compulsion which is stronger than any upbringing.”

Unsurprisingly, dodecaphony became one of the most contentious points of the twentieth century. Despite being predominantly viewed as a radical, Schoenberg saw himself as a traditionalist. Rather than creating anything completely new or different from what had come before, he aimed to simply carry traditional classical music forward into a new century. “I do not attach so much importance to being a musical bogey-man as to being a natural continuer of properly understood good old tradition!”

In 1926, Schoenberg took up a post at Berlin’s Prussian Academy of Fine Arts. This was the first time in his life that he’d had consistent work, and he remained relatively silent as a composer while he continued to refine his concept of dodecaphony. The Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 was his first large-scale work which adhered to his new tonal construct. A listener may find the piece challenging at first, but Variations follows a fairly traditional form: an introduction and theme followed by nine variations and a finale.

Schoenberg was particularly fond of the music of Beethoven and Brahms, and he understood and constructed his variations in a way similar to theirs. However, of all the composers he admired Bach’s work the most and went so far as to embed the letters of Bach’s name into his Variations. Commentator Phillip Huscher describes an incident when a critic from The New York Times mistakenly claimed that Schoenberg had derived the main theme from the letters of Bach’s name. Apparently, Schoenberg replied to this that “my ‘sentimental’ gesture was no different from Beethoven quoting Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the Diabelli variations.”

Variations opens with a shrouded introduction that expands to include the whole orchestra. This comes to a breath, after which the theme emerges in the cellos, plaintive and melancholy. Schoenberg was exceptionally skilled at orchestration, and he painted each of the elements of his piece with extreme care. Each variation is distinct, many lasting no more than a minute. Variation II has a particularly delicate texture rendered by the use of a smaller chamber ensemble consisting of two solo strings, winds, and brass. Variation IV is marked Waltzertempo and is a sort of gentle Viennese waltz. Variation VII is both the softest and one of the most complex. Huscher describes it as intricately wrought and filled with shifting sonorities.

The last two variations, VIII and IX, lead directly to the Finale, which is also full of contrasts in tempo and color. Another technique first used by Schoenberg, although not a completely new concept, is in evidence here and is partly responsible for the success of the startling contrasts. This technique is called Klangfarbenmelodie, and it describes the “splitting of a melodic line among instruments to enrich the color or texture.” As the longest variation, the Finale adds considerable breadth to the work.

Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 was premiered in Berlin by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1928 under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler. At this point in Schoenberg’s career, having a conductor of Furtwängler’s stature show interest in his work was a significant affirmation.


Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures / and avoid the earthly things. / No worldly tumult / does one hear in Heaven! / Everything lives in the gentlest peace! / We lead an angelic life! / Nevertheless we are very merry: / we dance and leap, / hop and sing! /

No music on earth / can be compared to ours … / Even Saint Ursula herself is laughing! / Cecilia and all her relatives / are splendid court musicians! / The angelic voices / rouse the senses / so that everything awakens with joy.

Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, written in 1899–1900, is one of the composer’s more accessible pieces. However, it also displays a number of stylistic elements characteristic of the greater body of his work. As with others of his symphonic works, the Fourth Symphony is constructed around a program; in this case, a song that he had written years earlier entitled Das himmlische Leben. Das himmlische Leben is in turn based on the poem Der Himmel hangt voll geigen, or “The World Through Rose-colored Glasses,” a joyful description of heaven by a child, and presenting a series of pictures of heavenly life, including references to biblical characters and Christian saints. In this version of heaven, as in the version in Mahler’s Second Symphony, there is no judgment; all is peaceful and bountiful.

Sometime after completing the Fourth Symphony, Mahler wrote to his friend and confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner that he “only wanted to write a symphonic humoresque, and out of it came a symphony of normal dimensions.” It’s not altogether clear what he meant by “normal,” but it’s safe to assume that he meant the piece he ended up with was quite a bit larger than a humoresque (literally, “short and lively”) both in length and instrumentation. The Fourth, though, is still smaller than his first three symphonies.

Despite his original idea of creating a symphonic humoresque, Mahler still planned on having six movements, including three of his Wunderhorn songs. In the end, though, Mahler bowed to symphonic convention, and composed four movements, the first three of which follow conventional forms, and called for reduced instrumentation (relative to some of his other works), with a program that is definitely less metaphysically ambitious. The reduced instrumental forces also produce a lovely chamber-like texture – although this did cause him to comment after the premiere, “the inadequacy of the players was all the more noticeable because of the subtlety of the instrumental parts.”

Mahler manages to conjure an almost ageless idiom with this symphony. By hinting at the classical in the opening movement, maintaining the classical form in the second with its almost Mozartean inclinations, and by leaving little thematic quotes as breadcrumbs along the way, Mahler constructs a whole experience that leads you in its wake to the uncommonly beautiful song finale. In fact, some of the elements in the first three movements were placed where they were specifically to connect to the finale. This displays a level of unity not often found in nineteenth century music. The melodic breadcrumbs he leaves become increasingly clearer as the work progresses. Musicologist Peter Rivers explains that Mahler “concentrates thematic and tonal development like a spiral which only finds its true fulfillment in the song finale.”

Mahler also wished for the first three movements to describe (as much as the text in the last movement) the supreme sweetness of heaven. It’s not surprising, therefore, that more sketches and drafts of this symphony survive than of any of Mahler’s other works; he revised extensively in search of the subtle balance of elements and form that would unequivocally support Das himmlische Leben, the symphony’s raison d'être.

The first movement, marked Bedächtig, nicht eilen, or “moderately, not rushed,” opens in the woodwinds and with gentle sleigh bells! He called these bells “schellenkappe,” or “fool’s cap and bells.” The use of schellenkappe is one of the elements present in the song finale. Overall, the first movement is elegant and gracefully phrased. The beautiful lilting melody is contrasted against a more declamatory version of similar thematic material. In terms of any programmatic element – associations outside the music – Mahler is not explicit. He did explain the trumpet call that he refers to as der kleine Appel, or “the little call to order,” to Natalie: “When the confusion and crowding of the troops, who started in orderly ranks, becomes too great, a command from the captain recalls them at once to the old formation under his flag.”

The second movement, In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (“moving leisurely, without haste) is a scherzo and trio. In this movement, Mahler calls for something unusual: the concert master is to have two violins ready to play, “one of which is to be tuned a tone higher [scordatura], the other at normal pitch.” This unfamiliar use of the violin is accompanied in the score by the marking “wie eine fidel,” (“like a fiddle”), indicating something of a more rustic, “folk” style of playing.

Mahler described the image that occurred to him for this movement: “The thousand little fragments of the picture are frequently subject to such a kaleidoscopic rearrangement that it’s impossible to recognize it again. It’s as if we saw a rainbow suddenly disintegrate into a thousand million dancing, ever-changing droplets, and its entire arc waver and dissolve …”

 The themes present in this movement all seem to share the same origin, which gives the impression of a theme and variations form. Even the trio themes are derived from the original scherzo material. In fact, both the inner movements adhere, albeit not always strictly, to the variation form. The third movement, which Mahler has indicated Ruhevoll, poco adagio (“peacefully, somewhat slowly”), is a set of double variations (these are the first “real” ones). At the premiere, Mahler commented to Natalie: “Will they find out, I wonder, that the third movement consists of variations – and the second, too?” At another time, Mahler also compared this movement to the “unvarying blue of the sky.”

The final movement is marked “Sehr behaglich” (“very comfortably”). All of the references in the preceding movements coalesce in a sense of fulfillment, no doubt equal to the meaning Mahler is trying to share. This freedom from all earthly burdens is expressed almost as a simplification of earlier material that Rivers calls “a mystery in sound … sehr zart und geheimnisvoll bis zum Schluss (very gentle and mysterious until the very end).” This fades continually through the final notes, until it dies away completely.

About the movement titles or indications, Mahler remarked to Natalie that he could have labeled them with descriptives instead but chose not to. Although he shared images and associations with her, he suppressed them from the public prior to the premiere. He did, however, once tell Natalie what his personal conceptions of the work meant to him: the first three movements “breathe the serenity of a higher world, one unfamiliar to us, which has something awe-inspiring and frightening about it. In the last movement, the child – who, though in a chrysalis state, nevertheless already belongs to this higher world – explains what it all means.”

At a time when he was increasingly reluctant to explain himself, the poem Der Himmel hangt voll geigen remains the only official text to accompany the symphony. By keeping any larger program to himself, Mahler leaves the listener to form more profound attachments. Unhindered by Mahler’s impressions or intentions beyond what can be clearly heard, the music can become more deeply personal. Ultimately, the interpretation is up to the listener.

Rachele Gilmore

Rachele Gilmore has established herself as one of Americas most sought after coloratura sopranos, and continues to thrill audiences around the globe combining what Opera Newsdescribes as a “silvery soprano…with an effortlessness that thrills her audience.”  A regular performer in America, Europe and Asia, Ms. Gilmore is consistently praised for being “the vocal standout” and a dynamic actress; “displaying more talent and charm than any one person should be allowed to possess."

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