Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mahler Symphony No. 4: Vienna Philharmonic

The Vienna Philharmonic performs Gustav Mahler'’s Symphony No. 4, first movement, with Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860, into a Jewish family in Kaliste, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and now part of the Czech Republic. In  February 1897, at age 36, Mahler converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism, chiefly to secure a post as artistic director of the prestigious Vienna Court Opera. Nevertheless, his music retained his Jewish heritage and influences. "This, in the eyes of those who hated his innovations, far from removing his Jewish stigma, drew attention to it," Paul Johnson, a historian writes in A History of the Jews, quoting from Alma Mahler's book Gustav Mahler: Letters and Memories (1946):
"He was not a man who ever deceived himself," wrote his wife, "and he knew that people would not forget he was a Jew. . . . Nor did he wish it forgotten. . . . He never denied his Jewish origin. Rather he emphasized it."
Mahler composed the Fourth Symphony, with four movements, between 1899 and 1901. The first four symphonies are often called  "Wunderhorn" symphonies because many of their themes originate in earlier songs by Mahler from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poems published in the early 19th century. The symphony, infused with childlike innocence and wonder, was first performed in Munich, Germany, without acceptance by the public.

In his posting on Symphony No. 4, Peter Gutmann writes:
It's hard to believe nowadays that such a thoroughly lovely work encountered indifference and hostility by both audiences and critics. The 1901 Munich premiere, led by the composer, was booed and condemned as baffling and tasteless. The local antipathy may have stemmed from thwarted expectations for a colossal successor to Mahler's earlier work or perhaps the lack of insightful programmatic guidance, but clearly was fueled by the professional enmity created by his reforms at the Opera and further stoked by anti-Semitism (even though Mahler had converted to Catholicism as a condition of his Vienna post —an irrelevant detail to devoted bigots). Yet, even in America, that cradle of tolerance and free thinking, a 1904 New York concert was greeted as a "drooling and emasculated musical monstrosity, … the most painful musical torture to which [the critic] has been compelled to submit."
Mahler's symphonies, hardly performed during his life, became out of fashion for decades after his death in 1911 at the age of 50. The anti-Romantic mood changed after the Second World War. Leonard Bernstein has been credited with giving Mahler new life in the 1960s, making his music popular on both sides of the Atlantic. With all due credit to Bernstein's influence, it might also have to do with the changing sentiments after the destructiveness resulting from a world caught up in the mania of war.

After its end, the world was ready to hear Mahler.

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