Mahler Symphony #4: Your Inner Mahler

Apr 30th, 2013

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Mahler Symphony #4: Your Inner Mahler


As I end the 2012-2013 Peoria Symphony Orchestra season, I enter into the dreamy, Freudian world of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, perfect for the coming Spring.  It is one of his most performed, most enjoyed, and most commented on symphonies. Some call it innocent, some sardonic, some say it is paradoxical, bittersweet, and yet childlike. It was certainly one of Mahler’s favorites. It is the last of his own works he conducted – programmed with the New York Philharmonic just shortly before he fell ill and returned to Europe and died. One thing is certain; it is a spiritual symphony, one that on its surface is congenial and innocent yet achingly profound and wise at deeper levels.

Musically it evokes aspects of the classical era, certainly the romantic, and even, if I dare, Danny Elfmann. It is deceptively simple and tuneful yet very sophisticated formally. Mahler composed it in sections and then rearranged the sections until he had the structure he wanted – almost like putting together a puzzle. Certainly it tells a great tale, perhaps a cautionary one.

Theodore Adorno writes that Mahler Symphonies are story-like and full of “characters” that return throughout – transformed by their journey. Indeed, I believe that his symphonies are cinematic in character, and this is one reason why 21st century audiences find them so appealing. The Fourth is no exception. It possesses the quality of a children’s movie actually meant for adults. It has marches, play, waltzes, fantasy, and even funny little characters telling us stories. Finally, it ends in a beautiful lullaby.

When I describe it as childlike but achingly profound, I mean that this symphony, beckons us to take a step back from the adult webs we weave and enter, childlike and trusting, into a world still full of wonder – a world that surrounds us but is hidden because we have lost our way. A message appropriate for Turn-of-the-Century European society, it is even more so today. And, its 19th century cultural evocations of a child’s sense of beauty, play, and innocence, still resonate clearly. The musical language of film scores (combining the components of the sonic with the visual and dramatic into intense psychological meaning) draws much of its referent material from composers such as Mahler.

Every time I conduct this work, I am reminded of Jerzy Kosinsky’s novel and award-winning film from 1979, “Being There”, starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. I encourage you to view it before you attend the PSO’s performance on May 11th.  For in many ways, this film represents the same ideas present in Mahler’s masterpiece. Like Mahler, Kosinsky poignantly comments on adult farse in relation to simple, innocent wisdom and tacitly poses the question – “who are the children here?”

If you treat yourself to this film, you will enjoy Peter Seller’s character “Chance” or “Chauncey Gardiner” as he enters the complex world of Washington powerbrokers and media desperation with his simple view of life and paradoxical profundity. For, you see, Chance is much like Mahler, or the way Mahler saw himself. He is an outsider in his own world – observing reality through his own prism and offering a truthful perspective on our existence that throws us off kilter. The difference is that Mahler is aware of his situation, and Chance, it appears, is not. In fact, we are about ready to dismiss poor Chance as a mere oddity until the very last second of the very last scene. Suddenly, we are struck by a reality much more profound and wonderful than we realized was possible. I won’t ruin it for you – but it is brilliant. I hope you watch it.

And so Mahler, after play and fantasy, song and dance, and even a little allegory (told to us by a mistuned violin), ends his charming little symphony with a prayer, a bit more play, and a great revelation. Then, a lullaby – leaving us to our own dreams – or nightmares.

Mahler, with wise and weary affection, bids us, through his beautiful symphony, to give up our misconceptions, our prejudices, fears, and misguided machinations. For, only through adopting a child’s courage, trust, and simple wisdom will we realize the wonders of Mahler’s world. Or, perhaps, once again realize the blessings of our own. After all, Life is a State of Mind.

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