Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Heavenly Life: What Mahler Tells Me

"Hell is for Children" Pat Benatar

I dislike biographical intrusions into pure music, and Mahler's music is no exception, though the meme that Mahler's music is biographical dies hard. As a devout Mahlerite since the age of 8, I would defer the biographical elements of his symphonies, and think about the notes. Lately, Mahler's 4th symphony is my favorite; it is perhaps his clearest symphonic statement, and perhaps even his most perfect work. Musicologists often point out that Mahler's study of Bach influenced his approach in the 4th, and that fact might indeed inform the mastery of contrapuntal musics that appear in the symphony; but Bach does not account for the economy of scoring, voicing, and emotion that characterizes this work.

A look at the second movement, In gemaechlich Bewegung, can illuminate these characteristics of the 4th symphony in general. Apart from the key signature of 3 flats, the instructions for the performance already tells us something is up: the solo violinist is to have 2 instruments available, one tuned (gestimmt) a step above (ganzton hoeher) the other, and to be used for the famous fiddler on the roof (the theme of death himself?) introduced in the 7th bar. Death certainly loves a scherzo, and a scherzo loves death: who better to dance with? The solo violinist is forced into two minds by two tunings: this bifurcation captures the color pattern for the movement, and prepares for the 2 modulations (C and F, at 1 and 3, returning to 3 flats again at 5, with another flirtation with C at 6) in the outer form. We simply can dispense with Alma Mahler's injections of inspiration for these harmonic movements: that the solo violin is symbolic of the danse macabre. We allow the score and the theme to speak for themselves. Music does not leap across sign systems to symbolize something outside itself. Music, if it 'symbolizes' anything, 'symbolizes' within its own sign system--- other music.

2 violins and 2 other keys in the outer structure of the 2nd movement play off the counter-melodies and counterpoint in a fascinating development. At 9, the score instructs us to a come prima mood, and again in F, sets up perhaps the most ethereal music ever written, which occurs at 11, the modulation to D which announces what some might call an apotheosis of this earth. After the play of oscillations between scherzo and trio, Mahler transfigures trios and scherzos forever in these stunning 26 bars of heaven on earth. The glissandi of the strings lifts the key of D above the plaintive clarinets (4th bar of 11), whose song rises beneath the falling violins, who Mahler instructs to play molto expressivo, and leads them to an edgy "B-natural" in the 15th bar of this section, against the taunting harp arpeggiating the D major triad. The sixth (B-natural) against the fifth (A) is of two minds, and beckons the solo violinist to speak again at 12.

Mahler returns from apotheosis to scherzo after the stranger-tuned violin has its last word. The most spartan harmonies are reductions of scherzo-phrenic, contrapuntal voices wrapped around each other, invaded by a violin and violinist tuned outside the harmonic contour of the movement. This is not children's music, but music that has known itself from past and present.

Not quite kindertotenlieder, it is nonetheless a music that looks to its innocence and experience, as Blake would have it. Does Mahler give innocence the last word, as a voice tuned to the other? The final movement might suggest this were the 1st three movements missing. The nurse from Blake's second "Nurses Song" rushes in to disrupt the final movement from resting in the child's view of heaven. She shocks with speed and urgency the listener back to the scherzo, and the simple sounds of the 3rd movement and the lullaby of the first. Nessun dorma!

Everyone likes to talk about death when they talk about Mahler. Arnold Boecklin's painting inevitably comes up when the 4th symphony is considered. I'd rather think about the music. Though we all hope hell is not for children, they do not get to play in this most enchanting of symphonies.


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