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“The Art and Alchemy of Conducting” — and Mahler’s Fourth

As all Mahlerites know, the opening of the Fourth Symphony is both magical and mutable. A preamble of chiming sleigh bells and flutes dissipates to a cheerful violin ditty that coyly retards as it ascends to the tonic G. Mahler writes “etwas zuruckhaltend” (“somewhat held back”). But really anything goes.

The champion retarder is Willem Mengelberg, in a famous 1939 recording with his Concertgebouw Orchestra. It sounds like this.

Since this passage is inherently playful, conductors can get away with that and we gratefully smile. Since Mengelberg was a Mahler disciple whose performances Mahler liked, since Mahler was well-known to change his mind about such details, since Mahler’s other disciples (e.g., Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer) take a much smaller retard, there is no official version.

Mahler himself last conducted the Fourth Symphony in New York – with his New York Philharmonic in 1911. We know two pertinent details about that performance, which came a decade after the symphony was composed. The first – barely believable — is from a member of the orchestra interviewed by William Malloch in 1964. He testified that Mahler had the violins swoop up to the G with a glissando starting perhaps an octave lower. The second detail is something I just learned from John Mauceri’s recent Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting.

Mauceri – a conductor teeming with ideas about how music should be performed – discovered that Mahler’s New York score bears a notation in the conductor’s hand that insists that the sleigh bells and flutes not retard along with the violins – a startling instruction, because if followed literally it demands that for one and half beats the sleigh bells and flutes are out of synch with the first violins (and also the clarinets, by the way).

Mauceri recounts sharing this discovery with his mentor Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein, it turned out, was aware of it already. Then why didn’t you do it? Mauceri asked. “Because I chickened out,” Bernstein said. And then Bernstein changed his mind. As Mauceri notes, it’s all documented in sound.

Here is Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic recording.

And here is Bernstein’s subsequent Vienna Philharmonic recording, in which the sleigh bells and flutes don’t slow down.

The difference is so subtle you might call it insignificant but it is not. What Mahler is suggesting, in 1911, is that he has composed a kind of musical mosaic in which the two components, rather than blending, are wholly distinct. (Mauceri likens the effect to “a musical cross-fade . . . the aural equivalance of what happens in a movie when one scene dissolves into another.”) And indeed this was a direction Mahler pursued in his later symphonic style. Personally, I now prefer the passage without the “traditional” retard in the sleigh bells and flutes. It would be interesting to hear it juxtaposed with a Mengelberg retard in the violins.

Mauceri’s book shares other such details. It remarkably succeeds, it seems to me, in combining a fluent narrative for neophytes – what does a conductor do? – with detailed examples felicitously described.

In Porgy and Bess, for instance, Mauceri observes that both “Summertime” and “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” bear the same metronome marking. And yet today we always hear the first sung slower than the second. Both, Mauceri points out, are lullabies – and Gershwin, he believes, is making a point of that. Mauceri follows suit in his own Porgy and Bess recording.

The composer whose intentions most interest me is Antonin Dvorak. I feel I know a few things others do not. There is no question in my mind, for instance, that the violin tremolos in the C-sharp minor section of the New World Symphony’s famous Largo were inspired by the chill of winter. We know from Michael Beckerman’s pathbreaking research that Dvorak was here inspired by the death of Minnehaha, in Longfellow’s famous Hiawatha poem of 1855. If you read that passage, it’s partly about the weather:

Oh the long and dreary Winter!
Ever thicker, thicker, thicker
Froze the ice on lake and river,
Ever deeper, deeper, deeper
Fell the snow o’er all the landscape,

The opening of the Scherzo of the New World Symphony was inspired by the Dance of Pau-Puk-Keewis at Hiawatha’s wedding. That, I am sure, is why Dvorak introduces a triangle – it’s inspired by the bells on his moccasins. The reason I am sure is that there is also an Indian dance in Dvorak’s American Suite – and it, too, uses a triangle.

And what difference does that make? Dvorak did not write a programmatic symphony. He did not expect us to hear the tremolos and think: “winter.” We are not intended to know that the triangle has anything to do with footwear. Rather, these are private associations that guided Dvorak toward delicious instrumental touches.

On the other hand, it seems to me that knowing that the G minor theme of the first movement of the New World Symphony is an elegiac “Indian” theme does tangibly bear on musical interpretation. As with the C-sharp minor “Indian” theme in the third movement of the American Suite, we have here a plaintive tune for unison oboes and flutes, a flatted seventh, a drone accompaniment, and a pianissimo reprise. I like the conceit that the hushed reprise (which in the case of the symphony is assigned to second violins, not firsts) evokes the fated extinction of the Native American. All of which suggests to me that this little theme deserves a slower tempo than the main Allegro molto. And everything I know about the symphony’s first conductor, Anton Seidl (the hero of my book Wagner Nights: An American History), tells me that he would have slowed down here.

Bernstein was a conductor who happened to insist that there was nothing “American” about the New World Symphony. When he recorded it with the New York Philharmonic, he would not have known about its close relationship with The Song of Hiawatha, because Beckerman hadn’t yet discovered all that. In his Philharmonic recording, he takes the G minor theme briskly – at 3:03 here. See if you think it conveys Dvorak’s empathy for the Native American.

How important are a composer’s intentions, whether implicit or explicit? My thinking is more lenient than Mauceri’s. I prefer “Summertime” at a slower tempo than “A Woman is a Sometime Thing.” We know that Gershwin told John Bubbles, the original Sportin’ Life, to pick his own tempos. Was he equally lenient with Abbie Mitchell and Edward Matthews? Based on other reports, I would say: very probably.

My favorite performance of any Porgy and Bess number is Ruby Elzy’s version of “My Man’s Gone Now” at the Gershwin Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl. It combines the pathos of a Billie Holiday with the high notes of a Leontyne Price. It also is shaped by an un-notated range of tempo and nuance no singer would attempt today.

Stravinsky is the antipode who insisted that there was only one correct way to interpret his music. But Stravinsky’s own Stravinsky recordings don’t back that up. He also insisted that his music was only about itself. And yet there can be no doubt that the finale of his Symphony in Three Movements was inspired by specific newsreel images of World War II. This is a topic I have addressed at length in this space. Here is the evidence.

A lot of the music we hear – a lot more of it than we realize – was inspired by stories, characters, and pictures. The opening of Mahler’s Fourth is a likely example. The New World Symphony is an example. The Symphony in Three Movements is an example. For the most part, the evidence is unrecoverable. But the attempt can matter. Wagner, in one of his essays, said the highest goal of musical interpretation is to extrapolate such meanings (he offered as an example a story for Beethoven’s Op. 131 String Quartet).

Anyone conducting the New World Symphony needs a story for the idiosyncratic ending – why is there a dirge, and a final chord diminishing to silence? In this instance, we can plausibly infer that Dvorak is thinking of the ending of his source poem – Hiawatha departing into “the purple mists of evening.” And what about that funeral march in the slow movement of his G major Symphony? The entire movement is obviously story-based. But we have no clues at hand. So conductors have to invent a story and run with it. Many don’t bother.

I remember once asking this question of Gerhardt Zimmermann, a wonderful Dvorak interpreter who now teaches at the University of Texas, Austin. “What’s the slow movement of the Dvorak G major Symphony about?” His story tumbled right out. I no longer remember what it was, and it isn’t important. It doesn’t matter if it happens to conform with Dvorak’s story, whatever that might be. What matters is that the story works for Gerhardt.

(For much more on Dvorak’s extra-musical meanings, here is the pertinent “PostClassical” broadcast. And here is a pertinent article for the Times Literary Supplement.)




  1. The idea of the sleighbells slowing down has always seemed to me rather absurd. I have no doubt that Mengelberg must have been a fantastic Mahler conductor, but I would imagine that the Fourth, with its delicate classical form, is in many ways the symphony least suited to Mengelberg’s ultra-romantic approach. Would that we could have gotten a second or third or seventh from him. Simon Rattle’s approach, the sleighbells slow and then the main body of the movement very quick, always struck me as a much better romantic approach.

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