All Classical Radio James Depreist

The soul dissipating: Mahler’s connective tissue

Oregon Symphony musical director David Danzmayr discusses the relationships and inner meanings of Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.

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Gustav Mahler in 1892, photographed by Leonhard Berlin-Bieber.
Gustav Mahler in 1892, photographed by Leonhard Berlin-Bieber.

Gustav Mahler’s music is well-known and loved for its emotional complexity. His symphonic works can take you on a sonic rollercoaster that will leave you wrung-out (in a good way). This season, the Oregon Symphony will give you two opportunities to experience the intensity of Mahler’s music. You can hear his Fourth Symphony on April 22-24 and his Fifth Symphony on June 10-12.

You should hear both, if possible, because they are interrelated. 

To get a roadmap of these two great symphonic works, I talked with David Danzmayr, Music Director of the Oregon Symphony via a Zoom call. His answers have been slightly edited and condensed for clarity and flow.

David Danzmayr conducts Oregon Symphony in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Nov 7, 2022. Photo by Jason Quigley.
David Danzmayr conducts Oregon Symphony in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Nov 7, 2022. Photo by Jason Quigley.

Oregon ArtsWatch: So how are these two symphonies linked?

David Danzmayr: In basic terms, Mahler’s Fifth starts where the Fourth finishes. 

Some conductors speak of how Mahler’s Fourth is a positive symphony but nothing could be further from the truth. The Mahler Four explicitly deals with a child dying. It plays on Mahler’s fears. When he grew up, a lot of his siblings were taken out of the family home in a coffin. He had a great sensitivity to that and may have led to his obsession with the fear of death. That fear goes all the way through to his Ninth Symphony where he composes his own death. 

OAW: I looked up Mahler’s life. He was the second of fourteen children. Five of his siblings died in infancy while three others did not live till mature adulthood

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DD: The last movement of the Fourth Symphony is based on a song that he wrote earlier. It is called “The Heavenly Life,” and it was originally paired in a song cycle with a song called “The Earthly Life.” The text of “The Earthly Life” basically has a child singing to the mother, “Give me bread,” and the mother answering, “We don’t have bread. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I will get bread; don’t worry.” Then the child dies in the song. 

In “The Heavenly Life,” the child describes heaven where everything is plentiful and how wonderful it is to be there. There’s a lot of hopefulness. When Mahler started the Tenth Symphony, which he didn’t finish, he wrote a movement called “Purgatory.” It is about the afterlife. Mahler converted to Catholicism in order to get the job as the director of the Vienna Hofoper. The idea of heaven in Catholicism offered him a viewpoint that he didn’t get elsewhere. 

If you know Schubert’s Erlkönig, then you have a similar idea to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The father in that song is riding like crazy with his young son, who is having fever-dreams and dies at the end of the piece.

The Fourth Symphony begins with sleigh bells that remind me of horses pulling a sleigh. Initially the sleigh is slow, but in the fourth movement, the horses get whipped into a frenzy and the sleigh is racing through the countryside, much like the horse in the Erlkönig song.

OAW: So give us a roadmap through the Fourth Symphony.

DD: The music starts normally in the first movement, but it gets a little bit more intense. There are effects to suggest this, like the bows hitting on the strings. In the middle of the first movement, there’s a trumpet fanfare that is also the fanfare that opens the Mahler Five. So you know that something is not quite right. The fever-dream has some nice Viennese ballroom-like passages, but it starts to turn bad. 

Things turn for the worse in the second movement where Mahler designates that the violin that the concertmaster plays is death playing the fiddle. Alma Mahler claims it was inspired by a painting of Arnold Böcklin. The violin is tuned in a way to sound harsh, grotesque, and foxy. It should not sound like a beautiful violin solo. It should sound quite ugly. The music gets kind of crazy, shifting the dynamics back and forth. There are all kinds of odd things in the orchestra that suggest groups playing against each other. One group plays pianissimo against another group that is playing fortissimo. When everyone is playing softly, another group interrupts with loud accents. The result is discomforting and shaky and weird. All that is interspersed with a gentle Austrian countryside theme.

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"Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle," Arnold Böcklin, 1872.
“Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle,” Arnold Böcklin, 1872.

DD: The third movement is one of the most beautiful pieces that Mahler ever wrote. It is a long, letting go of things. At the end of that movement, he quotes a song that he wrote earlier: “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” which is translated as “I am lost to the world.” It’s a meditation that suggests someone who is not connected to this world anymore, and sometimes it is a meditation on death. It’s not quite clear. It gives the feeling of someone looking at the world from above – disconnected – as if you have died but not realized it – and you wonder why you are not in the world.

There are chords in the woodwinds that go higher and higher, and then Mahler removes the first basses, and after that he takes out the clarinets, then you end up with the highest regions of the flutes and violins finally fading out. It’s like the soul dissipating.

In the fourth movement, you have “The Heavenly Song,” and it ends in silence. 

OAW: A silence that suggests a continuation?

DD: Yes. The Fifth Symphony starts with the trumpet solo from the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. Mahler designated the movement as a funeral march. The tempo is in the step of a Kondukt (conduct), which is the traditional Austrian funeral march. If you go on YouTube and view a Habsburg funeral march, that’s the same style. 

DD: So from the Fourth Symphony, this vision of heaven, he continues with by opening with a funeral in the Fifth Symphony. You have loss and grief. You go from shock to anger in the second movement to disbelief and near-madness in the third movement. In the fourth movement, we have acceptance, and finally we try to find some feeling joy in the fifth movement. 

For me, this is a clear path from the Fourth to the Fifth. I may be wrong, but that is the way I see it. 

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OAW: What will you pair on the concert program with the Fourth?

DD: We will play Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra, which features the incredible Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling. She sang the Fourth with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic a few years ago, and I have worked with her before. She’s fantastic. The songs from Golijov are very beautiful. The first one is in Yiddish. It will give us a connection to Mahler’s music. The second song is in Spanish and the third in English. Golijov wrote it in response to a friend’s death in an accident.

OAW: Sounds enticing! What will you be doing with the Fifth Symphony?

DD: We have programmed the Fifth with Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G Major, which will feature our superb principal flutist, Martha Long. 

The Mozart will go well with Maher. In Mozart’s music there is always a bit of melancholy in his music. He was someone who was happy and elated in bursts. He was clearly a bit manic. Karl Böhm pointed that out in an interview. So there’s a connective tissue between Mozart and Mahler. 

OAW: You won the second prize in the 2013 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition. That gives you a special connection.

DD: Yes, and that was when I got to meet Marina Mahler, the granddaughter of Gustav Mahler. She is a very nice lady!

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OAW: Wow! That is super cool! A direct connection to Mahler right here in Portland!

DD: And I hope to give our audience that connection at the concert hall. Our orchestra is playing at an exceptionally high level. Everyone listens and really plays together. It’s like a chamber ensemble blown up to a much larger size.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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One Response

  1. Hey James,

    That was very interesting to read. I plan to be there at the fourth and look forward to it. I happened to meet and talk with Marina Mahler some years back in New York. Yes, she was fascinating to talk with. It was at a three-day Mahler symposium at Weill concert hall/Carnegie Hall and Mahler scholars came from all over the world to talk strictly about the three years he spent in New York. The power of Mahler’s music is truly breathtaking.

    Good to hear about all this again.

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