Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

18 Feb 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Christine Schäfer

  • Igor Stravinsky
    Apollon musagète, ballet in two tableaux (revised 1947 version) (34 min.)

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 4 in G major (65 min.)

    Christine Schäfer Soprano

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on performing Mahler’s symphonies (Part 1) (11 min.)

“Two iconoclasts tamed” – is how this evening’s concert could be titled, for in Stravinsky’s ballet music Apollon musagète, 20th century modernism has never been so classically balanced. And also in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, we meet a composer who often enough challenged and pushed his audiences, but in the case of the Fourth Symphony, he struck an unusually relaxed tone.

After Mahler’s lengthy and heavily orchestrated gigantic Third Symphony, the Fourth comes across like a detox treatment. With its comparatively speaking light orchestration, and lasting only an hour, this work includes performance markings such as “recht gemächlich” (very leisurely) and “sehr behaglich” (very comfortably), warning us against emotional excess. And then, the finale – no monumental climax, but a song of almost tantalizing simplicity. But one should not allow oneself to be fooled: just as in Mahler’s other symphonies, the Fourth also contains a twist. Moods change almost unnoticeably, expectations are dashed, and in the apparently naive idyll, yawning chasms are never far away.

In a similar way to Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète also creates a counter world to earlier, more expressive works. Stravinsky, who had shaken the music world with ballets such as Le Sacre du printemps, cultivated a more controlled tone in subsequent compositions, based on older forms and models. In Apollon musagète, his inspiration is French music of the 17th century. The ballet describes an encounter between Apollo and three muses, but no real narrative is developed. Stravinsky’s dramaturgical and musical intention in this work is the greatest possible balance rather than dynamic development. 

Chaste Music on a Gold Background

Igor Stravinsky’s Apollo ballet and Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

No backcloths or stage machinery. No recourse to monumentalism as in their preceding works – the Pan myth in Mahler’s Third Symphony, the Oedipus myth in Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. The scores presented here – Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète – are among their creators’ lightest and most transparent works. Mahler’s eliminates trombones and tuba from his typically huge orchestral forces; Stravinsky banishes wind and percussion from the platform and composes what hardly anyone would have expected from him: airy string music.

In both cases the muse’s kiss must have been delicate – as they themselves admitted, it heightened the composers’ affinity for pure tonal colours. Mahler defined the “basic atmosphere” of his symphony as “the uniform blue of the sky which is harder to suggest than any changing and contrasting tints” and compared his Fourth to a “picture painted on a gold background”. Because anything else would be too varied, Stravinsky preferred a homogeneous scoring. His concept was “white ballet”, the very essence of classical dancing, and he found that “the absence of many-coloured hues and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness”.

Is it rhythm? – Apollon musagète by Igor Stravinsky

Recourse to small instrumental forces wasn’t Stravinsky’s original idea, but he was glad to oblige when asked to write a ballet for performance at the Library of Congress in Washington in 1927 – not least because he had at his disposal for a European premiere the services of George Balanchine as choreographer and Coco Chanel as designer. “Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge who commissioned it asked for a work of 30 minutes’ duration employing an instrumentation appropriate to a small hall,” wrote Stravinsky in his autobiography (1935-36). “The choice of the subject and the choice of the string ensemble were my own.” And so was born a pragmatic, controlled music – with no trace of the hyperactivity of earlier works.

This ballet in two scenes, which Stravinsky composed in Nice, tells the story of Apollo’s birth and his indoctrination of the muses: he gives Calliope a tablet and stylus for the greater glory of poetry; pensive Polyhymnia lifts a finger to her lips to indicate mime; and Terpsichore unites both these arts in dance, for which Apollo grants her the place of honour on Parnassus.

The score’s appearance is one of crystalline clarity and purity, seldom comprising more than six parts and unusually diatonic. Its relationship to Stravinsky’s great ballets resembles that of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll to his Ring cycle. Actual parallels between his Apollo ballet and Wagner’s miniature, which extend from motivic allusions to occasional use of the key of E major, were remarked early on and even criticized. Stravinsky’s true models, however, are to be found in Baroque and Classical music – Wagner would never have dreamt of writing a formally rather conventional set of variations that introduces the eponymous hero with a neo-Baroque violin solo. And yet, this music is not as pure and innocent as the composer claims. Stravinsky’s explicitly stressed iambic structure of the melody, borrowing from poetic metre, is exploited as material for variation that could hardly have been developed in this fashion without a knowledge of jazz. The final chords of Terpsichore’s Variation and the Pas de deux are delayed by suspensions that one would be more likely to expect in pop songs. Even on Parnassus one has to keep up with the times.

“Linger a while, thou art so fair” (Goethe’s Faust) – Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4

Will a composer who needs four movements for his First Symphony, five for the Second and six for the Third carry on with this pattern until reaching a twelve-movement Ninth? Gustav Mahler was aware of the limits he had brushed against with his Third Symphony, completed in 1896, a work of unprecedented vast dimensions, and now he retreated. For three years Mahler the composer brought out no new symphonies; meanwhile Mahler the conductor conquered one of the leading musical institutions of the day: in 1897 he was appointed “artistic director” of the Vienna Court Opera. Not until the summers of 1899 and 1900 did he again find the energy to compose a new symphony, completing the fair copy during the Christmas holiday of 1900 – an almost symbolic gesture acknowledging the turn of the century.

For the last time in a symphony, Mahler immerses himself in the world of the Knaben Wunderhorn lieder: the Fourth ends with a setting of the poem Das himmlische Leben, after the development section of the first movement has already announced the opening theme of the coming Fifth Symphony. The finale’s soprano solo is, along with the solo violin tuned up a tone in the second movement, the sole extravagance of this symphony. It begins with the composer donning a jester’s cap: sleigh bells accompany flute staccati and cease only when the violins – pianissimo and “quite leisurely” – glide into the main theme with a nostalgic falling sixth. This delicate, pre-modernist irony gives way increasingly to its yearning undertone: the D major second theme on the cellos reflects this beginning, rising effusively to a sixth leap, embracing the note it has happily reached and from there spinning out a melody that recalls an old German children’s song Weisst du wieviel Sternlein stehen? (“Do You Know How Many Stars There Are”).

It’s not easy coming to grips with such a seemingly childlike humoresque. Unsurprisingly, this work was subjected to the psychoanalytical interpretation of childishness as well as the concentrated dialectics of the German musicologist-philosopher T. W. Adorno: “Hardly a theme, not to mention a movement by him that can be taken literally as what it appears; a masterpiece like the Fourth Symphony is an As-If from first note to last.” Adorno’s frequently quoted view does not, however, correspond to what Mahler himself said about the work: irony is certainly one element of the Fourth; the “blue sky” and “gold background” mentioned earlier, however, surely fall into quite a different category.

The Fourth Symphony arose out of the world-embracing Third, whose movements are an attempt to reflect the stages of creation: Mahler turned its originally intended seventh movement into the finale of the Fourth. Admittedly there is something blunt and outspoken, even rustic, in the tone of “heavenly life” as extolled here. At the end of each stanza there is a brief chorale melody, followed by radical variations of the sleigh-bell motif from the first movement. But gradually the music regains its original serenity and returns to its harmonic goal of E major. This key is reserved for the last stanza, to be performed “very tenderly and mysteriously to the end”: “There is simply no music on earth that can compare with ours” – music pondering its own impossibility. So impossible that Mahler has the singer “mispronounce” the word Musik – putting the stress on the first instead of the second syllable: impossible music, dying away on the harp’s and double basses’ low E.

But, then, what symphonic unit of time would set itself up against heaven’s when even the music of us earthlings “can’t be compared” with that of the heavenly philharmonic? Nevertheless, if ever there were musicians whose creations come at least close to heaven, Gustav Mahler was surely one of them. Apollo and his muses will have taken good note of it.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Christine Schäfer was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany. She received her vocal training at the Berlin University of the Arts with Ingrid Figur and in classes with Aribert Reimann und Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Arleen Augér and Sena Jurinac also played an important role in her artistic development. Her international career really took off following her appearance as the soloist in the premiere of Aribert Reimann’s Nachtträume at the Berliner Festwochen in 1988. Christine Schäfer’s repertoire includes both early and contemporary music as well as lyrical and the great coloratura roles. Whether on the opera stage, the concert platform or in chamber concerts and lieder recitals, her appearances are enthusiastically received all over the world. The magazine Opernwelt named her “Singer of the Year” in 2006; in the same year, she won the music critics’ award as “Star of the Festival” for her performances in the Mozart roles of Cherubino and Donna Anna at the Salzburg Festival. A recipient of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (2008), she was also appointed a member of Berlin’s Academy of Arts in the autumn of 2009. Since 1995, Christine Schäfer has been making regular guest appearances in both orchestral and chamber concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker: In March 2009 she was most recently heard with the Berliner Barock Solisten in works by Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.

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