I am lost to the world – Gustav Mahler’s 4th Symphony

Mahler reaches deep into our hearts. He shows us all sides: beauty and horror

I am lost to the world – Gustav Mahler’s 4th Symphony

Arnold Schönberg , representative of the 2nd Viennese School and creator of 12-tone music, found many of Gustav Mahler’s themes banal and criticised his music ruthlessly at the time. After Mahler’s death, on the other hand, he said in a memorial speech: “I believe unshakably that Mahler was one of the greatest people and artists. Mahler had striven for the very highest and also achieved it.”

Gustav Mahler grew up in a joyless childhood. The father was domineering and violent. The mother suffered from the father’s fits of rage. Five of her twelve children died at an early age. Gustav took refuge in dream paradises. His absent-mindedness in everyday matters was striking. As a four-year-old, he found an old piano in the attic and began to compose before he could play the scales. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, little Gustav answered: a martyr.

The horn, the “Wunderhorn“ (miracle horn) in his 4th Symphony from 1899 to 1901 moves the listener in the heart. All movements correspond in the most intimate and meaningful way. Mahler demonstrates the core philosophy of Romanticism, the “as if”, the ambiguity of being. In a rush of anticipation of modernity and also postmodernity, Mahler points to a core sentence of Joseph Beuys’ cultural revolution: “The revolution is us!” We have to become aware of the ambiguity of being, of the world. We think ourselves into the utopia of silence, of redemption, of being held and enjoy being safe and secure. At the same time, we know about the reality, the violence, the destruction, the disruption and exploitation of the planet and the human being. The pipe dreams of art merely form a thin transparent skin over the nightmare of reality. Like Caspar David Friedrich’s mountain hiker (“Bergwanderer”) looking over the clouds into paradise, knowing full well that under the cloud cover war, death and daily crisis have the upper hand. Thus, in Mahler’s 4th Symphony, the listener is quickly carried to paradisiacal heights. We want to give ourselves over to the beauty of the melodies and sonic delights, and are willing to overlook discords and oblique interjections. But the attachment to the earthly and unpleasant, the disturbing, remains unmistakably constantly present. Man is given a glimpse into the world of beauty and of finally being safe, of the long-lost security, of the protection of the soul.

Knowing full well that the world is different. The ideal world does not correspond to reality. Down here the discords sound:
– the unattainable limit of global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius
– the man-made climate change
– the rise in sea level
– tornadoes, hurricanes, heavy rain, floods
– horrible animal husbandry, extinction of species, destruction of forests, extermination of rainforests, our main source of oxygen
– poisoning of the waters, the oceans and the air we breathe
– littering of the world and contamination of the earth and all life

The human being with sense? Does that exist? Adaptable are the plants, the instinct-driven animals, the geology in its constant change of adapting to fire, wind and water.

Can the present inhabitant of the world be held responsible for all of this? The causes already lie in the time of romanticism, in the 19th century: industrialisation, child labour in coal mines, enslavement of people for cheap production processes. Fortunately, that has been overcome!? Today, people sensibly drive an e-car, completely emission-free. I don’t have to think about the fact that children have to scrape the cobalt for batteries out of collapsing mines with their hands. I don’t have to think about the fact that lithium mining is turning flourishing landscapes into poisoned wastelands. And neither about ethnic groups being oppressed, exploited and exterminated. At the end of the day, it’s an expensive but cost effective vehicle. The environmental footprint is much larger than with an internal combustion engine.

Mahler celebrates a romantic longing for a small harmonious world. However, the “as if”, the ambiguity disturbs the idyll from the very first second. The wind players grumble. Sometimes grotesque, sometimes ghostly, then loud and garish and full of irony, the notes and themes leap at the listener. On a special solo violin, Death strums his fiddle – is it a dance of death?

At the beginning of the 3rd movement of the symphony, I ask myself: where is Beethoven now? As if from spiritual heights, unearthly, beautiful sounds of the cellos and violas, reminiscent of Beethoven, descend and calm the plane of the soul and its world. Horns and timpani gently bring us out of the dream and little by little it becomes quite clear that the earth can take no more! No whitewashing any more, the contradiction, the “as if” rides as an apocalyptic horseman through the still beautiful landscape of the soul … For the filth, the violence, the bloodthirstiness have already undermined the soul space and the saints sit at the table at the great feast and laugh at it. They slap their thighs and enjoy the goings-on.

And then the 4th movement, which throws us out of the last paradisiacal illusion. All the usual suspects, the saints, St Peter, St John, St Luke, St Martha make common cause with Herod. St. Ursula, the education saint, laughs along. St. Cecilia, the saint of church music, accompanies everything with heavenly sounds. A poem from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” crowns the 4th symphony and is sung by a soprano voice:

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures, so can dispense with earthly things!
No worldly turmoil is to be heard in heaven!
Everything lives in gentlest repose!
We lead an angelic life!
We are, however, at times quite merry!
We dance and jump, we skip and sing!
Saint Peter in heaven looks on!

Saint John drains the blood of the little lamb!
Herod, the butcher looks out for it!
We lead a patient, innocent, patient,a lovable lamb to its death!
Saint Luke slaughters the ox without giving it thought or mind!
Wine costs not a penny in heaven’s cellars!
The angels, they bake the bread!

Tasty herbs of every kind grow in heaven’s gardens, good asparagus,
beans and whatever we desire, Whole dishfuls are ready for us.
Good apples, good pears and good grapes!
The gardeners, they let you have anything!
Do you want roebuck or hare?
In the middle of the street they come running to us!

Should, per chance, a day of fasting occur,
all the fish immediately swim up to us with joy,
there’s Saint Peter already running with his net and
bait to the heavenly fishpond!
Saint Martha must be the cook!

No music on earth can compare with ours.
Eleven thousand maidens are bold enough to dance!
Even Saint Ursula herself laughs at the sight.
No music on earth can compare with ours.
Cecilia with her relatives are excellent court musicians!
The angelic voices delight the senses!
So that everything for joy awakens.

Mahler’s 4th Symphony ends with silence and applause. – We can no longer wonder that everything is as it is. We’ve all been wrong! We are the hypocrites! Purification, re-sanctification, healing, we want to go back to a former state; what switch to flip? Man-made karma, guilt, forgiveness, forgetting? – These must be just phrases.

Mahler reaches deep into our hearts 120 years ago. He shows us all sides: beauty and horror. With the jingling of bells, the roll of timpani and the beating of cymbals, he lets it all dance over us … The symphony begins again.


Music recommendation:
CD Leonard Bernstein, Mahler Symphonies 1-4
CD Claudio Abbado, Mahler Symphony No. 4

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Date: January 15, 2023
Author: Hermann Achenbach (Germany)
Photo: Im-lost-to-the-world by Hermann on Pixabay CCO

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