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A Flutists Look at Mahlers 4th

Mark Sparks | November 2016

    Normally flutists tend to see themselves as Romantics, but only in the most general sense, indulging in the peculiarly personal and quite sensuous joys of making music on the flute. In historical context, this sense of romanticism about playing the flute is usually (and somewhat inappropriately) associated with the flute’s popularity in late 19th and early 20th century France. In reality, looking a bit further east to Germany and Austria, the real birthplace of the Romantic movement, the flute never experienced the renaissance it did in France in spite of Boehm’s modifications. In that part of the world it seems flutists were invited to the party out of a sense of social obligation, but never actually got a seat at the table.

Big Romantic Picture
    During Gustav Mahler’s lifetime (1860-1911), the inspiration of Richard Wagner was still very much alive in the minds of German and Austrian Romantic composers, but overall, change was coming. Artists on all fronts gradually sought to find new forms to embrace the approach of a new paradigm, Modern Individualism.
    Nietzsche wrote of a superman and nihilism, which inspired Richard Strauss to compose Also sprach Zarathustra (1896). Schoenberg found his new 12-tone system to be a perfect fit for the German Expressionists’ exploration of the dark corners of the subconscious, while in France Claude Debussy and the Symbolists, along with their Impressionist cohorts, dissolved the boundaries of tradition in their own manner. In Russia, young Igor Stravinsky took note.

Faustian Flute
    Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) marked a turning point in French aesthetics and ultimately changed the entire course of Western music. For flutists, the piece provided a foundation for the identity of generations to come; the strength of which continues undiminished to this day. Debussy almost certainly believed that the intimate, sensual, and personal voice of the flute was the ideal vehicle to carry the message of the new age, finally turning the page on Wagnerianism.
    Conversely, Germanic composers since the High Baroque had long struggled to find a place for our beloved fife in their musical language, and the late 19th century Romantics were no different. They favored grandiose expression to communicate the big ideas of the time. For example, Mahler’s 8th Symphony, “Symphony of a Thousand,” features enormous choruses and a gargantuan orchestra to grapple with Mahler’s own inner turmoil concerning Catholicism, Heaven and Hell, Faust and the Eternal Feminine, and, well, just about everything else. On the surface the flute, with its comparatively limited range, appears to have gotten lost in all the hullabaloo.
     This is a debatable point, however. For example, few would argue that the flute is not utterly central to Schoenberg’s forward-looking Pierrot Lunaire, one of the landmark German works of the new age. Ironically, Mahler, bridging the gap between the old and new worlds, may have understood the nature of the flute just as well as Debussy.
    I believe that the flute is so crucial to Mahler’s 4th Symphony, which is often regarded as his most beautiful and concise work, that the piece could not exist without it. In fact, Mahler used the evocative nature of the flute very effectively in other works too. His final Das Lied von der Erde elevates the flute to transcendental beauty, and his first major orchestral work, Das Klagende Lied, features a story about a mysterious flute-like singing bone.

Simple but Not
    The theme of Mahler’s Symphony #4 (1901) is childhood and its complex yet naive state. This is of importance to flutists in particular, because of all the states which the flute is capable of expressing, the mysterious quality of naïveté seems innately and singularly organic to the instrument. For example, it is no accident that Ravel begins his Mother Goose Suite with the flute.
    I think this uncanny ability of the flute to project childlike wonder may be due to the apparently simple, yet curiously amorphous process of producing tone, in which the player must both create both an air reed and resonance without touching the vibrating edge. One must feel the vibration across space and use the imagination. Even more, to a very large degree the instrument seems to project the energy of the particular individual playing, much of which cannot be fundamentally altered. This personal sound is perfect for capturing the deceptively simple nature of childhood wonder.

Flute in the 4th Symphony
    Mahler’s early symphonies tend to touch upon themes first developed in his earlier songs, particularly those that were based upon a collection of folk poems called Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). The entire fourth symphony grows out of a song titled Life in Heaven from 1892. Its text describes a childlike view of heavenly pleasures. He expanded the song into the fourth movement of the symphony where it is performed by a soprano soloist. Much of the thematic material in the symphony can be traced back to two contrasting thematic cells, originally from the song.
    Fully orchestrated, both themes are introduced by the four flutes. The first opens the symphony, featuring a strangely haunting melody of grace-note half-steps and open intervals in the minor mode.

    The second is a directly contrasting thematic unit in A major, which is declamatory, joyful and carefree in character. Again it is introduced by the entire flute section in unison:

    The use of the flutes to introduce each theme is central to the piece. The first theme in E minor evokes the naive, mysterious and sometimes frightening world of childhood. Its elements are then symbolically subordinated to accompaniment, along with a scale motive, with the appearance of second theme. This theme becomes the dominant melody of the symphony and develops into the transcendental music of the final movement. It retains the opening grace-note motive, but in whole steps, and in contrast to theme one, features thirds, long notes, and dotted rhythms. It is harmonically centered on the dominant scale degree. The entire symphony can be viewed as an exploration of the relationship between theme one and theme two.

    In order to achieve this, Mahler takes us on a journey from the Neo-Classical first movement  into the second movement, which thematically develops the contrasting elements. It establishes the idea of two worlds. One is mysterious and derived from theme one, which is depicted first by the horn and flute and then by the distorted music of the solo violin. The other is a heavenly world that is gradually revealed in the dreamy passages at numbers 3, 9, and 11. The themes of these sections originate from the second theme in the first movement and are characterized by whole-step trills, the interval of a third, and occasional dotted rhythms in a major key.
    The third movement, Ruhevolle, grows from these sections, morphing into a set of variations over an ostinato based on theme one, in a manner very similar to the slow movement of Beethoven’s 9th. Interspersed with sections in the minor mode, these variations gradually accelerate in tempo and climax at number 12. This is where the real turning point in the symphony occurs with a sudden transition to E major. The originally innocent-sounding theme two, first stated by the flutes, now is transformed into the bold statement of the horns at measure 320.
    It is difficult not to draw parallels with Beethoven’s 9th symphony in which the first three movements of the symphony are somewhat of a prelude to the final movement. However, whereas Beethoven composed an entire section of music to start the fourth movement in which previous material is discarded before proceeding further, Mahler brought about change suddenly, like a moment of epiphany which alters things to come. This is an idea that Mahler explored in all of his early symphonies but perhaps never as clearly as in the 4th.

Final Say
    The finale opens with a lovely, simple folk melody that sounds entirely new but is actually derived from flute theme 2. The initial second-inversion major triad has been quietly developing during the piece and now becomes central to the symphony. Its basic elements (the major mode and the emphasis on the dominant) coalesced at the climax of the slow movement and now reach their final destination in this melody. This music always accompanies the textual passages concerning the joys of heavenly life as seen through a child’s eyes. One cannot avoid thinking that this music must have been very personal to the composer, whose own childhood was marred by poverty, an abusive father, and the death of siblings. Music from flute theme one is also very important in the fourth movement and always accompanies text concerning the humbler duties of heavenly life, such as fishing and cooking.
    The final passage of the symphony, beginning at number 12, is one of the most famous and beloved passages in music. Almost all of the melodic material is related to flute theme two, sometimes quoting it directly, as in the following English horn motive.

    In the last bars, the essential nature of the theme is finally made clear and accompanies text expressing that no earthly music can compare with the music heard in heaven. The flutes have the last word, with their dotted rhythm from theme two, accompany the text: “To pleasure all things awake.”

    The question still remains: did the identity of the flute actually get lost in the maelstrom of German Late-Romanticism? What the flute lacks in range it makes up for in character, as Debussy was keen to point out. Admittedly, while the flute was not recognized as a serious voice for sonatas and concertos, its importance in the context of ensemble and orchestra actually grew at the turn of the 20th century as composers looked for more personal expression through detailed and novel orchestration.