What a concertmaster needs to bring to Mahler’s 4th symphony

Holly Mulcahy offers sound advice:

The second movement of Mahler’s 4th symphony has a notorious concertmaster solo in it. It’s not a super-technical or virtuosic solo, but it’s a solo that requires some planning beyond just practicing it.

The solo requires two instruments…

Read on here.

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  • The premiere of my 4th symphony was in November 1901 in Munich with the Kaim Orchestra under my direction. Later I conducted it again in Amsterdam in the Concertgebouw with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (1904) and in New York at the Carnegie Hall in January 1911 with the New York Philharmonic.

    Concerning the violin solo I asked my publisher to print into the score the following (translated into English) at the beginning of the 2nd mvmt.: “The 1st solo violin must be provided with two instruments, one tune a whole-tone higher, the other tuned normally.”

    I’m so happy that finally a guest concertmaster tells us after more than 100 years the news that this is indeed a two violin job, that’s it’s wise to practice the solo and also the entire 2nd movement and to experiment with strings and take care of the shoulder rests. Why has this taken so long???

    • Dear Gustav,

      Maybe the article was not written with you in mind, but rather for people who study the violin and have not yet been introduced to the score, or indeed non-violin-playing members of the public who enjoy getting a bit behind-the-scene information about how your works cabn be performed.

      I thought that, as a well-known perfectionist who often explains things in very detailled annotations in your scores, you of all people would be delighted how systematic and conscientious Ms Mulcahy is about fulfilling your instructions.

      Anyway, since I might never get a chance to write to you again, how shall I play the written low F at the end of the trumpet solo in your 5th symphony? Your score clearly says “Trompete in B”, and I’m sure you know that we can only go down to bottom f#, unless you want it to sound dodgy. Most of my colleagues don’t even play that note. Hints please! Thanks a lot!!!

      • Gustav is busy at the moment but he asked me to explain that you need a second instrument for that note, the “Trompete in A” I think it is.

        Then the difficulty disappears. He also said you should practice the switch.

        • 🙂

          Actually, some early twentieth century Bb trumpets had a “switching” valve that would put them in the key of A. You might be on to something … shame Gustav did, for once in his life, write detailled instructions into his score.

      • Actually flutists and piccolo players have the same issue in many of Mahler’s symphonies. He writes us down to low Bb and even A. It’s a never-ending source of discussion on flute chat boards and we have lots of fun finding solutions.

        Like the concertmaster’s 2 violins, every time someone encounters one of these notes, you’d think it was the 1st time the symphony was being played.

      • “Violinist.com covers the classical music industry, providing news, reviews and interviews of interest to violin performers, teachers, students, and fans.” So this post must be for the fans, I suppose. If performers, teachers and students really do need advice about some obvious and selfexplaining stuff (or sound advice as Norman Lebrecht named it) you got a problem, I’m afraid.

        • Dear Gustav,
          I see that you won’t be impressed by anything that is not serious and profound. Well, there are wannabes and cultural low lifes like me who enjoy a bit of insider gossip, and it actually enhances our enjoyment of music, pathetic though that may be. Let’s say Violinist.com also tends to the lighter side of the discourse on classical music, and I for once enjoyed it a lot.
          PS: What’s your instrument? Any profound insights you could share on performing a tricky solo? We musicians love to gossip an share.

  • With all due respect to the 2 violin situation in Mahler 4, this is not anything new or unusual. Mahler 4 is standard rep and since the day it was premiered 116 years ago concertmasters have been using 2 violins. What’s the big deal?

    What might be newsworthy would be if suddenly a concertmaster decided to play it on ONE violin, transposing it. Now that would be new and interesting.

    Wind and brass players double instruments constantly, esp in Mahler. In Mahler 4 alone you’ve got 3rd bassoon doubling contra – which doesn’t happen often, 3rd oboe doubling
    cor anglais, 3rd clar doubling bass clar and 2 flutes doubling piccolo. That’s 5 players besides the concertmaster who are bringing 2nd instruments to the Mahler 4 party.

    Yet concertmasters who don’t do Mahler 4 often seem to feel it is really big deal when they do it. Just look around the orch. You’ve got 5 wind colleagues in Mahler 4 doing exactly the same thing. Are they being written up in Slipped Disc about it?

    • It’s even the other way round: Mahler often specifies in the score that he wants a trumpet player to change from the (older, lower) F-Trumpet to the (“modern”) Bb and back. In the Finale of the 7th symphony the first trumpet should play on the old F, the standard Bb and a “kleines Piston in F” which is a bit like a brass band Eb soprano cornet.

      Guess what trumpeters do: They play the lot on the modern C, some using a piccolo trumpet for the “kleines Piston”. Good job no-one takes too much notice of us in the back row. That’s why we like it when the solo violin does something utterly spectacular, like swapping violin in mid solo 🙂

      But maybe that’s part of the story: Mahler knew, “Das Auge hört mit!” If you do a visual stunt, like “raise bell of the horn upwards”, it has an effect on the listener as well, apart from the actual acoustic effect – and the psychological effect on the performer.

    • Bravo! For a pro there is no big deal with the 2nd violin job for this symphony since 1901. One of my US-american colleagues in heaven would have said: “Shut’n up and play yer fiddle.”

    • “What might be newsworthy would be if suddenly a concertmaster decided to play it on ONE violin, transposing it. Now that would be new and interesting.” Actually it is neither. What it is is a cheating compromise that is not true to the composer’s intentions. As I mentioned in one of my other comments here, I have personally seen two different concertmasters do that because apparently it was easier for them to rewrite all those scordatura solos for themselves than to play on up-tuned violin as printed.

      • No matter how you slice it it’s not a big deal. It’s over the top when concertmasters make such a fuss over this solo, drawing attention to themselves rather than the music. They are reinventing the wheel every time Mahler 4 comes around. It’s gimmicky and cheap and if wind or brass players did this everytime they changed instruments in Mahler 4 it would be tiresome. Play your part, do what’s written and don’t grandstand. It’s tacky,

        • It was no one else but you who just two days earlier suggested above here that playing this solo a certain way would be “newsworthy”, “new and interesting”, so I am glad that you are now agreeing with me that it would not. To be sure, this is in fact a rather difficult movement for a concertmaster to do really well, but other than that I certainly agree with you: “drawing attention to themselves rather than the music” is not how fine musicians should behave.

          • Except that Mahler KNEW that gimmicks like the concert master swapping violin in mid solo, wind players raising the bells of their instruments in the air etc WOULD draw attention to the performer. He could simply have written, “try to make it sound fierce,” or, “lead”, but he obviously thought that bit of showmanship here and there might do the music and its reception through the audience some good. Like it or not, it’s part and parcel of Mahler. It’s the shamelessly operatic aspect of his concert music.

          • You may be right about Mahler’s “showmanshippy” intentions in some other cases, but in this one his idea of using a separate “highly strung” fiddle for a few particular concertmaster passages is consistent with a purely musical purpose and is quite effective in its realization.

        • Holly Mulcahy simply shared her personal checklist and practice routine for that solo. I see no tacky grandstanding. Actually, wind players also exchange hints and tricks how to prepare for particular solos or solve little problems left by the composers. Why the anger?

  • As also in the Saint Saens Danse Macabre the concertmaster needs to keep a very clear head to make sure they are playing the right instrument at the right moment – I’ve certainly seen this go wrong in performance. Clarinettists are used to switching instruments – violinists certainly are not.

    • Bizet. Carmen. Mountain Interlude. The harp accompanies the flute. Everyone is waiting for that magical moment the clarinet takes over the melody and the flute wil hover above.

      At which point the clarinet player realizes too late that he is still holding the A-Clarinet from the piece before and makes a brave attempt to finger the melody in F sharp major rather than the somewhat easier F natural.

      Good thing it was the dress rehersal, not the concert. I’m sure it never happened to her again 🙂

    • Why Danse Macabre? In that piece E string is the only one that is tuned differently (half step down) and it is not too difficult to play the entire piece without any need for a second fiddle.

      • Really?? So the non scordatura tutti part can be played on a violin where the E is tuned to Eb without too much of a problem. I don’t think so somehow. Heifetz could probably manage – but not lesser mortals.

  • I’ve seen Mahler 4 played several times and there seems to be two schools of thought regarding performance. One is that the leader, or concertmaster, simply plays the scordatura fiddle and sits out the rest, relying on his desk partner to play the non-scordatura solos.

    The second is where the leader switches Instruments and plays EVERYTHING, including the non scordatura solos. This can be nerve wracking for the audience as the constant switching of fiddles can look precarious at best! I once saw the Concertgebouw Orchestra where the leader hung the unused fiddle by the scroll from the music stand ledge where it swung gently until the oscillations subsided. I kept waiting for a crash every time a page was turned.

    It is possible to buy strings that are specially for scordatura tuning but I’ve never encountered anyone who uses them.

  • I’ve seen Mahler 4 played several times and there seems to be two schools of thought regarding performance. One is that the leader, or concertmaster, simply plays the scordatura fiddle and sits out the rest, relying on his desk partner to play the non-scordatura solos.

    The second is where the leader switches Instruments and plays EVERYTHING, including the non scordatura solos. This can be nerve wracking for the audience as the constant switching of fiddles can look precarious at best! I once saw a Concertgebouw Orchestra performance under Haitink where the leader hung the unused fiddle by the scroll from the music stand ledge where it swung gently until the oscillations subsided. I kept waiting for a crash every time a page was turned.

    It is possible to buy strings that are specially for scordatura tuning but I’ve never encountered anyone who uses them.

  • There is of course a third way of doing Mahler 4: I have personally seen two different concertmasters whom I don’t want to name who managed the entire symphony on one fiddle without any retuning at all but just altering the timbre a bit by playing poco ponticello in scordatura passages to make it sound a little more strained and tense. Please don’t tell Gustav…

  • When Mahler conducted his 4th in Carnegie Hall he had the soprano soloist sing from the back of the orchestra, not up front to the conductor. I’ve attended almost 20 different performances of the 4th in my 64 years and have only seen it performed this way once. Maybe it’s not indicated to be performed this way in the score, but if GM did it, why don’t more conductors do it that way?

    • Because most sopranos in most concert halls sound better for the audience when they are in front of the orchestra rather than behind it, and also because standing right next to the conductor improves communication between the two of them which helps the ensemble.

  • “What? A string player using two instruments in the same piece? And some wind players using three sometimes? Wow – what an incredible accomplishment!” – said percussionists and couldn’t stop laughing for a long time.

    • Oh, I’ve read really detailed accounts by percussionists trying to find a matching/contrasting pair of gongs for Mahler II …. or how to re-assign the individual percussion instruments in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre to enhance co-ordination in the section …. no, they are just as bad 🙂

      • My point is not whether they are good or bad, but simply that each one of them plays dozens of different percussion instruments on a regular basis.

        • My point was that they are as ready to share/chat/brag/argue about what they do as any other instrument players. The main point of argument in this blog was that Holly Mulcahy “dared” to share her experience with Mahler IV, and to this moment I don’t get why people were unhappy about this.
          I did enjoy this blog a lot though (and I probably over-commented a lot …) and learned a couple of things. I had been e.g. ignorant about Viennese flute low note extentions and other things, and it was nice to hear people’s thoughts on Mahler aesthetics.

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