The dark side of childhood

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is probably the easiest to listen to for non-Maherians. It is rather short compared with other Mahler symphonies, and its structure seems simpler, less dense and more directly understandable than other works by the Austrian composer. It is also a symphony that is quite singular for the climate of happiness, innocence and appeasement that seems to emerge from it. But one must be wary of appearances, and in Mahler’s work irony and melancholy are always lurking in the shadows.

Mahler began writing his 4th symphony in the summer of 1899, while on summer vacation in Styria, three years after completing the 3rd symphony. At that time, he was at the helm of the Vienna Opera house and was conducting many symphonic concerts, and he was therefore extremely busy and exhausted by his work as a conductor. This undoubtedly partly explains the singularity of his 4th symphony, which stands out from his other symphonies by its brevity, and especially by its particularly concentrated and compact form. As Jens Malte Fischer explains in his biography of Mahler, the Czech composer himself said about this symphony that he originally intended to write a ‘symphonic humoresque’, but that the work had turned into a normal-sized symphony.

The use of the term ‘humorous’ in music comes from German romanticism, and more particularly from Robert Schumann, who was inspired by the writer Jean Paul, to compose his Great Humoresque in B flat major. This term of humoresque refers to mood rather than spirit. Here is what Mahler himself told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner about the ‘mood’ of his symphony:

What I had in mind here was extraordinarily difficult to bring off. Think of the undifferentiated blue of the sky, which is harder to capture than any changing and contrasting shades. This is the basic tone of the whole work. Only once does it become overcast and uncannily awesome – but it is not the sky itself which grows dark, for it shines eternally blue. It is only that it seems sinister to us – just as on the most beautiful day, ina forest flooded with sunshine, one is often overcome by a shudder of Panic dread. The scherzo is so mystical, confused and uncanny that it will make your hair stand up on end. But soon you’ll see, in the following Adagio – where everything sorts itself out – that it wasn’t meant so serious after all. (Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, Yale University Press)

This is a far cry from the childlike and idyllic symphony that is often presented to us. The fact is that with Mahler’s music nothing is simple, which is a horrible banality to write, but it may be useful to remember this so as not to expect an unambiguous interpretation of this deeply ambiguous music. As Fischer explains, this symphony shows the influence of Jean Paul’s writings on Mahler, and in particular his definition of humour as the ‘sublime inverted’. For Jean Paul, the humorist ‘measures the world of the infinity against the finite world and sees a connection between them, resulting in a laugh that contains both anxiety and greatness’ (Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, Yale University Press). Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is thus a work full of humour and irony.

The recording of Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, the principal conductor of the London Philharmonic orchestra until 2021, shows that the Russian conductor has dug deep in the complexity of this symphony. His vision seems to me to be soaked in an acid worthy of his Russian compatriot Kirill Kondrachin, a feeling reinforced by the famously dry acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall where this album was recorded during a concert given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

What is striking from the first movement, marked ‘Bedächtig. Nicht eilen.‘ (Moderately, not rushed), this is the particularly slow tempo adopted by Vladimir Jurowski, one of the slowest in the discography. This initial tempo gives a form of gravity, even heaviness to Mahler’s music, or in any case a very pronounced melancholy that goes against the light and joyful image we have of this symphony. The strings sound silky, and almost transparent, with almost no vibrato, which brings out the sharp and strident sound of woodwinds and the rough and robust sound of brass. The contrast between these different sections gives a dissonant and disturbing vision of this first movement.

In the second movement, ‘In gemächliger Bewegung. Ohne hast.’ (Leisurely moving, without haste), Jurowski once again imposes slow tempi and acidy sounds, the strings sounding sometimes quite razor-sharp, the woodwinds and brass still sounding as acidic and bitter as in the first movement. Jurowski brings out the rough edges in this music, which seems to be projected under a harsh light, conveying its almost phantasmagorical and expressionist shades, which is not without reminding us of the art of the Viennese Secession.

The third movement, an adagio marked « Ruhevoll. Poco adagio. » (Peacefully, somewhat slowly), begins in a climate of great serenity, expressed by a soft and slow melody first played by the lower strings. Mahler said that this movement was inspired ‘by the vision of a tomb on which was carved an image of the departed, with folded arms, in eternal sleep’, an image which, as Stephen Johnson explains in the disc’s booklet, is ‘half consoling, half achingly sad’. From this first theme, Mahler develops variations that lead to an orchestral tutti expressing an explosion of joy, before the movement returns to the initial atmosphere of serenity and recollection. Jurowski and the musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra manage to conclude this movement in an incredibly calm and gentle way.

It is in this climate of serenity that the last movement, « Das himmlische Leben: Sehr behaglich. » (The Heavenly life: very comfortably). This movement is composed of a short orchestral prelude, which seems to prolong the previous movement, before the soprano sings the song of ‘heavenly life’. This song was original included in the Lied cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn before Mahler decided to withdraw it and use it as the finale of the Fourth symphony. Once again under its ‘joyful’ and ‘childlike’ appearances, what this music conveys is filled with great melancholy, and even a certain violence, with the evocation of the lamb condemned to a certain death:

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn’t cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

The Russian soprano Sofia Fomina gives a remarkable interpretation of this song, with a technical strength typical of the Russian singing school, a remarkable diction, which allows us to fully appreciate the poetic richness of the text as well as a soulful expressiveness evoking both the joy and melancholy contained in this music. Around her Jurowski shapes a deeply complex orchestral framework, alternating the expression of joy in the first stanza, before unleashing the violence of the orchestra in the second and third stanzas, a violence mainly expressed by the stridence of the woodwinds as well as a certain dryness in the strings. The irony written by Gustav Mahler seems to turn into sarcasm under the direction of the Russian conductor. Then comes the last verse, which seems to mark the return to a more serene climate, but as Fischer rightly remarks, ‘there is no comforting conclusion, no sense of triumph, no wise smile. Instead, the movement dies away sombrely in the low notes of the harp and a final morendo of the double basses. The humoresque is stifled, choked by the course of the world.’

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