Guest Post: When Mahler’s Fourth Was New Music, by Brian Long

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

The first symphony by Gustav Mahler to be performed in the USA was his fourth. That historic moment occurred in New York on 6 November 1904 when Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra. This was less than three years after the composer conducted the world premiere in Munich and a year before the work reached London. Considering how important New York – and in particular Leonard Bernstein as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic – was to become for the arrival of Mahler’s music in the 1960s, it is perhaps not surprising that the New York Times published an extensive article on the symphony and its composer on the day of its premiere. It is by any standard a remarkable article for a daily newspaper about a composer who must have been as good as totally unknown to readers – Mahler did not arrive in New York until three years later. The article even included six hand-written musical examples.

Under the headline Gustav Mahler – His Personality and his New Symphony, Richard Aldrich penned a perceptive and detailed introduction to the composer and his fourth symphony. Aldrich was himself at the beginning of a twenty-one year career as music critic of the New York Times, having taken up the position in 1902. At the time, the music world knew only five symphonies by Mahler. So Aldrich takes the fourth symphony on its own merits in a way that nobody can who knows the full Mahler story as we do today. His article is, then, a fascinating time capsule and an excellent example of early critical reception of a composer who even today divides audiences and critics alike.

Aldrich writes that Mahler was “in some quarters acclaimed as the coming man … who is destined to work for the preservation of the older traditions against the movement that is all for ‘programme’ music, for symphonic pictures of persons, things, scenes, chapters of human life, and systems of philosophy.” Mahler as the preserver of “older traditions” is certainly not how our world sees him, and the composer famously once said that the symphony should “contain the whole world.” It is interesting that he came across to an early critic such as Aldrich as the opposite.

Our intrepid critic spotted the differences between Mahler and his contemporary and friend, Richard Strauss. Aldrich argues that “Mahler is no friend of the modern conception of programme music as it appears in the most extreme form in Strauss’s later works.” He employs an insightful take on Mahler’s relationship on the word and program music, and it is in the face of such thinking that we should recall that at the time of writing, he was unaware that Mahler’s next three symphonies – number five, six and seven – would all get by without voices. He quotes Mahler saying that his music “comes to a programme as to the ultimate ideal explanation of its meaning in language; with Strauss the programme is as a task set to be accomplished. When I conceive of a great musical picture I always arrive at the point where I must employ the ‘word’ as the bearer of my musical idea.” Here, too, it is interesting to contemplate what lay ahead for Mahler. His eighth symphony and his Song of the Earth are both works that start with the word rather than starting with a musical idea that eventually demands words as he characterises his first four symphonies.

Aldrich closes his article by describing Mahler as a “strangely attractive personality” whose “achievements in composition are such that it is time his music was introduced to the attention of American music lovers.” Little could he have known how subtly prophetic his words would become and how New York was to become an essential element in Mahler’s breakthrough in the last half century.

Further reading:

The article Gustav Mahler – His Personality and his New Symphony in the New York Times of November 1904 is available via its website.

The A to Z of Carnegie Hall: M is for Mahler 

Mahler and His World, Edited by Karen Painter (2002)

Barney Sherman, at Iowa Public Radio, saw Brian’s post and noted that the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony will be performing the chamber version of Mahler’s 4th this weekend, with Jason Weinberger conducting. The program will also kick-off Weinberger’s Mahler’s Songs enterprise. Weinberger has written about and made available a wealth of Mahler-related resources and information that may be found by clicking here.

About Brian Long: Brian Long studied music in Melbourne and Vienna, where he lived from 1991 to 2001. He teaches in the Arts and Cultural Management program at the University of Melbourne and is currently researching the efficacy of self-management in orchestras. Brian Long has also created, for anyone who would like to join, a terrific platform for classical music discussions and listening: the Great Composers Appreciation Society. Each month, we select music to listen to and discuss. Along the way, we share our concert experiences and discuss all manner of things musical.

Listening List:

Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 (1899-1901)


1. Bedächtig, nicht eilen
2. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast
3. Ruhevoll, poco adagio
4. Wir geniessen die Himmlischen Freuden. Sehr behaglich

For Soprano and Orchestra:

4 flutes (3rd, 4th also piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd also English horn), 3 clarinets (A, B♭, C)(2nd also clarinet (E♭), 3rd also bass clarinet (B♭), 3 bassoons (3rd also contrabassoon), 4 horns (F), 3 trumpets (F, B♭), timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, sleigh bells, tam-tam, glockenspiel, harp, strings

On Spotify: Jonathan Nott/Bamberg Symphony Orchestra

On YouTube: Claudio Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra

With thanks to Brian Long, below are his timestamps for the Abbado/Lucerne performance and other guidance for listening (links to the relevant GCAS posts are indicated for each movement):

First Movement (link)

The first movement of Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony is in sonata form. Or perhaps I should say that it is in a modern version of sonata form. The symphony was written in 1899-1901, well over a century since the sonata form had – in the hands of Haydn and Mozart – become the standard form for the first movement of a symphony. So we should probably expect that things have come along quite a bit. The basic outline of the Mahler movement is as follows:

Three bar introduction (note the use of sleigh bells)
0.10 first “subject” in tonic key (G major)
1.40 second subject in dominant key (D major)
5.15 development section
10.21 recapitulation section (more about this below)
11.28 recap’ of second subject (in tonic key, G major)
13.26 coda (closing section)

So what might you notice about this kind of sonata form when compared to the same form in the hands of Mozart or Beethoven?

  • The first and second subject areas are much richer in melodic material. Where Mozart or Beethoven might treat an eight-bar melody as more then enough to make a first or second subject, by the year 1900 melodies can be much longer, more amorphous and harder to pin down.
  • Often these subject areas include developmental elements long before the development section proper. In text-book sonata form the themes are played out in the exposition and then varied and developed in the development section. By the time of Mahler, variation and development can occur almost anywhere, and it is not unusual for a melody to be varied as soon as it is stated for the first time.
  • The recapitulation is much less a literal repeat of the main themes. There will hopefully be some audible connection between the first statement of a theme and its later repeat in the recapitulation section, but the repeat may be quite different in many ways.

One of the elements of sonata form with which Mahler liked to experiment was the beginning of the recapitulation, and his fourth symphony is a good example. You could be excused for not hearing the beginning of the recap’ at 10.21 in the video. The break at 10.32 seems like a better candidate. In fact, what Mahler does here is to crunch the various melodies of the first subject as if pushing together an old-fashioned telescope. Elements of the recap’ are pushed forward into the last bars of the development section (10.21), and 10.32 on the video (which feels like a traditional recap’) actually uses later melodies from the first subject. It is as if the beginning of the recap and the end of the development are layered on top of each other and all the themes of the first subject area impatiently rush on to stage to see what is going on! But in general, the use of sonata form in this movement is quite “classical.”

Second Movement (link)

The second movement of Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony is one of my favourites from his entire output. I think Mahler’s scherzo movements are some of his best music. They often contain little gems of orchestration or instrumental colour, moments of black humour or irony and surprise. This one lacks the menace that features in some of the later scherzos. It is a real joy to listen to. Here are a few of the little “gems” worth listening out for and looking for on the video.

  • At 16.24 on the video you will notice the first violinist (also known as the concertmaster or leader) swap to a second instrument. You may already have read that this movement is famous for its “scordatura” violin solo. Scordatura means to “mistune” a string instrument and in this case the spare violin is tuned a whole tone higher than normal. This means the strings are under more tension and this gives the instrument a more penetrating, whining sound that Mahler wanted.
  • If you are looking for a spot at which to compare the scordatura solo violin and a normal violin look here:

23.57 normal violin
24.09 normal violin
24.22 normal and scordatura violin together
24.33 scordatura violin all on his own

  • When a string player glides continuously between two notes the effect is known as a glissando. String players are trained not to do this but to play the first and second notes cleanly without the slide. But such glissandos are popular among fiddlers and folk violinists and play a part in the “schmaltz” music of Vienna’s cafe’s and taverns, even today. Mahler sometimes wants his string players to perform such slides. They are an important (but subtle) part of the first movement, and right at the end of the second movement (25.49) you can also see and hear the cellos performing such slides to good effect. Notice how the players slide their fingers down the string rather than lifting them. The ability to pull-off such slides in Mahler’s music in a tasteful but meaningful fashion is what sets some orchestras apart as great “Mahler orchestras.” It is not easy!
  • At 23.07 Mahler uses a really neat trick that is so subtle it is barely noticeable. The violins of an orchestra are normally divided into two large groups: the firsts and seconds. As the beautiful new section flowers at 23.01 they both play the note D, an octave apart and the effect is like shimmering sunlight. At 23.07 Mahler asks them to swap notes: the firsts go from playing the lower of the two notes to the upper, and the seconds go vice-versa. No big deal. But Mahler asks both groups to slide to their respective next notes so that the whole violin section indulges in two slides that cross each other. At the end the notes are the same. So it is not about a change in harmony. It is simply a fleeting orchestral touch that passes in less than second like a bee alighting on a flower as it opens. Listen a few times, and with the volume up. I hope you pick it up.

I could listen to this movement all day! I hope you get as much from it, too.

Third Movement (link)

The third movement of Mahler’s fourth symphony is a glorious slow movement. Structurally it is organised as a set of double variations. This means there are two themes – one after the other – that in turn recur and are varied. The structure is thus:

26.26 Section A
30.59 Section B
34.43 Variation of Section A
36.58 Variation of Section B
40.22 Second variation of Section A
44.25 Coda (closing section)

I think this music is pure gold. Mahler’s later slow movements are usually darker and more troubled. At this stage of his life he could still write music of touching innocence, blue-sky visions, fragility, humour and gentle melancholy. For me this music is very “conversational.” Mahler loved long walks in the alps of Austria and Italy, often in the company of friends. This music feels like a musical record of just such a convivial walk and conversation. I hope you enjoy it, too.

Fourth Movement (link)

The last movement of Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony is a song called The Heavenly Life. The text comes from a German anthology called the Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn). Mahler wrote many songs to its texts, particularly during his early years as he wrote his first four symphonies (which, as a result are often known as the Wunderhorn symphonies).

The song predates the other movements of the fourth symphony by some eight years and is sometimes played or recorded outside its symphony setting.

Mahler wrote songs throughout his life, and his symphonies and songs are intimately linked. It is well worth getting to know some of his songs as you explore his symphonies.

In the case of the fourth symphony, Mahler mined the song for melodic material in the first three movements and the song thus works like a culmination to the symphony. It uses a straight-forward song form based on the verses of the text. The singer is asked to perform in a “childlike, cheery manner without any parody,” and there have been performances using boy sopranos, which is the sound Mahler was after. The singer in the video is Magdalena Kožená, the wife of Simon Rattle.

Bonus Track. One of our GCAS members spotted this great explanation and demonstration of the scordatura violin.

Additional Information on the First Movement. In his book, Gustav Mahler, the Symphonies, Constantin Floros includes charts delineating the musical structure of symphonies in more detail. For the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Brian Long has associated the “Mm” (measure or bar) indications on the relevant charts with timestamps for the Abbado/Lucerne video. For Floros’ descriptions accompanying the Mm markings (a few of which are noted below), go to the links indicated for each section.

Exposition (link)

Mm 4=0.10
Mm 8=0.23 (theme in the cellos and basses, then horn)
Mm 18=0.49
Mm 22=0.59 (variation of cello and bass theme, still in the low instruments)
Mm 32=1.27 (main theme in clarinets)
Mm 38=1.40
Mm 47=2.09
Mm 58=2.51
Mm 72=3.38
Mm 91=4.26

Development (link)


Recapitulation (link)


Credits: The source for the image at the head of the post may be found here.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: When Mahler’s Fourth Was New Music, by Brian Long

  1. Curt Barnes

    Very interesting news article, and good of the Times to keep its archives intact. I’m gratified that what’s impressive to me about the symphony turned up in recognizable description in Aldrich’s words: “…though its scoring is extremely ingenious and goes into numberless subtleties of orchestral technique and unusual instrumental effects…” Also noted that the soprano who performed isn’t named. Wonder whether we would know her today. Anyway, thanks, Brian. I return the compliment!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: Brian made a real find here, didn’t he? This brings to mind that, if I recall correctly, Brian makes it a point to read a paper from 100 years previous each day. (Brian will, I hope, correct me if I’m misremembering!) It’s always instructive. from so many perspectives, to get these eye and ear witness accounts–and to think that the article contained 6 hand-written musical examples!

  2. David N

    When I was researching Vol. 1 of the Prokofiev, I was amazed by the primitive quaity of most of the press crits for SSP’s appearances in America (perused on ancient microfilm in the Newspaper Library up in Colindale). The usual analogies were with woolly mammoths, Cossacks and Scythian hordes. The two who stood aside from all this guff – chief perpetrator one Krehbiel – were Aldrich and Olin Downes. Also impressive, Olga Samaroff – one-time Mrs Stokowski – who interviewed Prokofiev very intelligently.

    On which note, sadder than I can say to learn of the death of one of the real good ‘uns, Andrew Patner the Chicago critic, with whom I’d had a friendly and amusing communication about a troll he’d unmasked. He was respected by Muti, among others. And he wasn’t much older than me, I was shocked to read. So much I wanted to talk about to him.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: There are so many who undervalue critics, and yet critics are of particular significance in giving us a record of the history of the reception of music, among so many other things. It’s important, therefore, to respect and honor those who have integrity and the ability to assess with knowledge and sound judgment. It’s impossible, of course, to predict what history will yield, but to do one’s best honestly and authentically is far more valuable than is often acknowledged. Andrew Patner, by all lights, was one such critic, and what a tragedy to lose him so soon.

  3. Brian Long

    While I was trawling the net for early Mahler reviews, I also came across this article:

    It is from 1926, so is quite a bit after the Aldrich article and after Mahler’s death. Still, it makes fascinating reading from a time when Mahler was from being a household name.

    p.s. I believe there is a way for readers to access such material for free via JSTOR.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Brian: Your trawling leads to a lot of pure gold! Thank you so much for noting this. It doesn’t look like this particular article is available to read for free, though generally, there is a method for that on JStor. I’m hoping it may be available to those interested (including me) through a library.

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