Since I’m a trombone player by training, and this is the only Mahler symphony that doesn’t include my instrument, I have always felt that Mahler’s Fourth was the “little” Mahler symphony, the runt of the litter. If any of the music disproves that, it would be this movement. There is a lightness to this music that doesn’t require three trombones and a tuba, or an entire regiment of percussionists.
After the second movment’s digression to the key of C minor, this movement is firmly rooted in the key of the symphony. The narrative tonal scheme from the Third Symphony has been abandoned, and the piece opens in an explicit G major, with some wonderful string writing. My Instrumentation students would do well to study how the cello is often the preferred melodic instrument in lines that would be perfectly playable by the viola. The lower instrument simply has greater resonance and by placing the melody on the higher-pitched strings, Mahler achieves greater expressive power. I am frustrated by most orchestration texts that include several pages of paean to the violin and then give shorter shrift to the viola, but there is something to it, I’m afraid.
Mahler has structured this opening section in very clear phrases with very clear cadences, which is not always his habit. In m. 37, after an imperfect authentic cadence on the home key, there is a long extension and transition to the next key. Mahler signals that the section is nearly over in the same way that Bach often did, by introducing the subdominant. In this instance, it sounds oddly fresh, even though every first-year music theory student knows that the subdominant (or IV chord) is not at all a rare bird. It’s just that Mahler has done an effective job of holding it in reserve and now (m. 47), lands on it in a significant way.
The transitional passage that follows is masterful. The pizzicato bass line from the first few measures gives continuity while the horns and oboe sound the notes that pivot us into the new key, e minor. Mahler’s use of musical material is tightly controlled–even though he introduces new themes here, they are built over a structure that is related to the accompaniment of the G-major section. One also can’t help but admire the way that, for Mahler, the orchestra itself is an instrument, rather than being a collection of instruments. A great example is the dovetailing of the melody in m. 66 from oboe to the first violins. Those three overlapping notes allow a smooth transition of timbre–more like a pianist coloring notes by managing flow of wrist and hand than an organist pulling stops. Throughout this passage, the oboe and violins seem to be doing this trading off–the effect is like an impossible instrument.
One instrument that is used sparingly in this movement is the bass clarinet. I’m intrigued by Mahler’s approach to this instrument in all of his music, but in a twenty-minute movement (by Bernstein’s baton), there are barely ten notes, all within the texture. Mahler calls for the third clarinetist to “double” on bass, but many of the changes seem very quick for that.
The e-minor moment doesn’t last long–it is developmental in nature and doesn’t have the cleanly defined phrase structure of the G-major section, and in fact shortly (by measure 91) lands on a pedal D to prepare for the G-major material which follows. The sense of contrast, though, in tempo, scoring, tonality and formal construction is crucial to building a movement of this size and scope.
Measures 97-99 again show a transition in melodic responsbility that struck me first as an interesting heterophonic approach to changing orchestral color, but on closer inspection reveal that Mahler is using canonic technique, a relatively rare tool for him and for his era.
The next G-major section, beginning in m. 107, is, according to Mahler’s score, a variation. It is developmental in nature, but also shares constructive elements with the first section in that it is composed of discrete phrases with clear cadences. Mahler indicates a faster tempo, and so we move quickly through this section, which isn’t as developmental as it might be–perhaps because there is more of a tonal plan reminiscent of rondo form, where the tonic key returns several times rather than a rounded binary in which the tonic is always the goal of the music. Strangely enough, the tonic is not the ultimate goal!
Orchestrationally, mm. 179-191 are fascinating. A trio between oboe, English horn (another instrument used sparingly here in this movement) and horn moves between key centers, implying (but not comfirming) g-minor. A fantastic color follows this trio as four flutes in their weakest register take on the melody for a moment before passing it on to the cellos, reinforcing the crucial intervals.
A conductor from years ago used to state that small intervals create tension, but large intervals create drama. To that, I would add another function, suggested in Peter Schubert’s book on 16th-century counterpoint–a leap establishes a musical space which steps must then fill in. In this instance (mm. 188-190), the flutes emphasize these space-defining leaps and the cellos fill them in without assistance.
The goal of this transition has been C-sharp-minor, and on arriving there, Mahler writes a passage that could have come directly from the music of Jean Sibelius–mm. 195 to 200–but immediately after, he is back to Mahler. C-sharp-minor morphs to one of Mahler’s major-minor moments in mm. 214-221, this time on F-sharp. This would seem to be yet another common-tone modulation, as the ambiguity of chord quality allows the pitch F-sharp to become the aural focus. Mahler takes advantage of this by shifting F-sharps role from fa to ti, and making it the leading-tone of the home key, G major.
Here begins a truly fascinating passage from a compositional standpoint. To be successful, any slow movement must build to some sort of climax that instead of quiet and mediative is full-bodied, energetic and provides the necessary contrast to make a complete statement. For Mozart, the technique was often the Romanza structure, as in the D-minor Piano Concerto or the Grand Partita serenade. For Beethoven and Brahms, the technique is often rhythmic diminution combined with fugato, as in the Eroica symphony or the Brahms’ Second Symphony.
Mahler approaches this moment through the dance, by reference to folk and popular idioms. A 3/4 version of the opening theme morphs into a landler in m. 237. This landler becomes a polka in m. 263, barely before we have understood the first dance. Very quickly, this polka comes off the rails with the instruction to bump the tempo up another notch in m. 278, where the dance seems to lose control completely.
Measure 283 is a return to the opening material, and this section would seem to suggest a calm recapitulation that will cadence nicely in the home key, buy Mahler has two more surpises in store.
The first is an ending to this abbreviated G-major section (suggestive again of rondo form) that moves toward a tonic note of E, just as it did the first time. The music should be wrapping up, but clearly Mahler is on his way out again. Instead of e-minor, however, in m. 315 there is an explosion in E-major, the fullest, strongest texture of the symphony so far. The brass are in full force, and take the lead. G-major to E-major is a remote modulation, and the E-major section leads (with a note from the bass clarinet darkening the texture wonderfully in mm. 330-331) to C major, the subdominant.
From here, it should be a quick move to a cadence on the home key. The dominant, D, appears, but when the music moves to G major, in m. 340, we realize that D isn’t the dominant, but a temporary tonic. G feels like a subdominant, then, which means that the movement can’t be over. Over the last few bars, though, there is no move to a dominant-seventh on D and G-major has appeared for the last time in this movment. Mahler ends the movement on a dominant chord, a half cadence. A peek ahead to the last movement reveals that it, too, is in G-major and begins on the tonic chord. The last two movements are, thus, inseparable. The third movement is incomplete without the fourth, and the fourth movement has a twenty-minute introduction.