Symphony No. 4

Composer: 

        Gustav Mahler’s excruciating beautiful music is laden with the melancholy and presentiment of hopelessness that often infused late nineteenth-century Romanticism.  His large-scale symphonic works often require large numbers of performers (in great variety), and can challenge the endurance of the audience, as well as that of the players.  More recognized in his time as conductor than as composer, he assiduously composed in summers, while pursuing a strenuous conducting career that was brought to an early end by heart disease.  He was married in 1902 to the famous--some would say infamous--and beautiful Alma Schindler, a woman almost twenty years his junior. They had two winsome daughters, one of whom, Maria (“Putzi”) died tragically at the age of four in 1907.  It is said that Alma bitterly blamed him for tempting fate by writing his Songs on the Deaths of Children.   Constant bickering with singers and the virulently anti-Semitic press in Vienna led Mahler to New York City in the same year, where he became a star conductor with the Metropolitan Opera.  His success there led him to an appointment with the New York Philharmonic in 1909 as principal conductor--a rival of Toscanini.  Life was fulfilling, for he enjoyed working with the professionalism of the players there; but that year was marked not only by great success with the première of his Eighth Symphony, but by grief at the discovery of Alma’s affair with the famous young architect, Walter Gropius of Bauhaus renown.   She married the latter after Mahler’s death, and later enjoyed a dalliance with the equally famous painter, Oskar Kokotchka, as well as with other artistic geniuses.  Mahler was heartbroken, and even consulted Sigmund Freud.  After one more season in New York Mahler’s ill health forced his return to Europe, where he died of bacterial endocarditis in May of 1911.

        Against this backdrop of personal stress and grief, Mahler seems today to be the perfect creator of intense, existentialist reflections on the dual banal, yet transcendent, nature of human existence.  His personal--and to my mind it is uniquely so--rumination on life’s meaning can be somewhat prolix and repetitive at the symphonic level, or penetratingly aphoristic in his songs.  His wrote primarily symphonies and songs--some would say that even in his symphonies he is speaking through song.  His first symphony was completed in 1900, and he was in the midst of composing his tenth at the time of his death.  While the first three are imposing and long works, exploring themes of desperation in love, life’s suffering, and the rôle of the natural world in humankind’s life, the Fourth is the most accessible, in nature, length, and required performers.  It is a more joyful work, and sings of the pleasures of heaven in the last movement through a soprano soloist.  Her sinister counterpart appears earlier, in the second movement, in the guise of the “Devil’s Fiddle”--played by the violin soloist who has retuned the violin for a stark sound quality.  Much of this work contains Mahler’s typical contrasts of ethereal, elevated musical style with a coarse, pedestrian commonplace style--the bitter irony of life’s nature for him.

        As we all know, the world changed in permanent and profound ways shortly after Mahler’s death.  In most respects the cataclysm of World War I was the turning point of modern history--all that was before passed away, and the horrors of the ensuing times began.   Mahler’s introspection seems to understand that the “Guns of August” were near.  His life’s epitaph perhaps is best heard in his poignant song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.  Serenely and acceptingly his soul departs the world and its tragedies . . .

 

                                 . . . I am dead to the bustle of the world

                                 and repose in tranquil realms.

                                 I live alone in my heaven,

                                 in my love, in my song.

 

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan