Program Notes: Classical IV – Heavenly Voices
Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was his most understated and transparent, concluding with an orchestral song based on a German folk poem that presents a child’s view of heaven. Soprano Heather Hill sings the final movement of the symphony as well as a Mozart aria and a short work by a 12th-century composer, poet, and abbess Hildegard von Bingen, which serves as the basis for the only purely orchestral work on the program, Rainbow Body, by American composer Christopher Theofanidis. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(January 27, 1756-December 5, 1791)
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (Let me explain, oh God!), K. 418

Mozart composed many stand-alone works for solo voice and orchestra now called “concert arias.” These works were created for different reasons, e.g., for actual concert performance or for insertion or substitution into a pre-existing opera. Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! was written for his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber Lange to insert into a 1783 performance of a comic opera, Pasquale Anfossi’s Il curioso indiscreto (1777), hoping to show off her abilities. 

The scene in which this aria was inserted is at the end of Act 1, where Marchese Calandro wants to test his bride Clorinda’s fidelity. Calandro persuades a friend who also is engaged to marry, Count di Ripaverde, to court Clorinda. At his second attempt, Clorinda begins to waver. Stricken by conflicting emotions, she sends the Count away to his own bride, Emilia. The aria begins softly with a lovely oboe solo, as the soprano sings of her grief over being in love with one who loves someone else. A long melisma on the word “piangere” (weeping) amplifies her grief. The music becomes increasingly agitated as she pleads with the Count she has just fallen for to run away from her and to his love, despite how much she wants him to stay. 


Hildegard von Bingen
(1098- September 17, 1179)
‘Rainbow Body Theme’ from Ave Maria, O auctrix vite
(1176 AD) 

In the Middle Ages, one of the few avenues for women to improve their social and educational status was to join a religious order. Hildegard was sent to a convent in Disibodenberg, Germany, at age fourteen and used the resulting opportunities to become an influential Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, poet, philosopher and medical practitioner. Her primary musical compositions were sacred monophonic works, some of which were inspired by visions. Ave Maria, O auctrix vite is a Responsory for the Virgin included in the Dendermonde Codex (1176 AD). It presents the Virgin Mary as an active force in spiritual life. 


Christopher Theofanidis
(born December 18, 1967)
Rainbow Body

Christopher Theofanidis was born in Dallas, Texas. As a composer, he has won several prizes, received fellowships and commissions, and had performances of his works by many leading orchestras around the world. In 2007 he was nominated for a Grammy award for best composition for his chorus and orchestra work, The Here and Now, based on the poetry of Rumi. Theofanidis is currently a professor at Yale University, and composer-in-residence and co-director of the composition program at the Aspen Music Festival. 

In his words, “Rainbow Body was the coming together of two ideas—one, my fascination with Hildegard of Bingen’s music (the principal melody of Rainbow Body is loosely based on one of her chants, Ave Maria, O auctrix vite), and two, the Tibetan Buddhist idea of ‘Rainbow Body,’ which is that when an enlightened being dies physically, his or her body is absorbed directly back into the universe as energy, as light. This seemed to me to be the metaphor for Hildegard’s music as much as anything…” 

Rainbow Body has been one of the most performed new orchestral works of the new millennium, having been performed by over 150 orchestras internationally. 

Gustav Mahler
(July 7, 1860-May 18, 1911)
Symphony No. 4 in G major 

When Mahler began writing symphonies in the 1880s, they had become symbolic of the full depth and breadth of human existence. Mahler professed influences from Bruckner, Wagner and Brahms; the size and scope of Bruckner’s music combined with the expressive aspects of Wagner’s orchestration and the clarity of Brahms’s formal structures allowed Mahler to construct symphonies that he saw as “worlds,” deep, personal statements of life experience. For all their perceived depth and meaning, however, initial responses to Mahler’s early symphonies were mixed and it wasn’t until much later that they became popular standard works for orchestra. In the time leading up to the Fourth Symphony, Mahler experimented with all sorts of textural possibilities, and this symphony is a culmination of that experimentation, exploring possibilities in handling simple melodies in relatively simple formal structures, and attempting to achieve intensely personal, intimate sounds and feelings in a large orchestral context.  Symphony No. 4 was completed in 1900. It is the third of three symphonies inspired by Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of poems from German folklore. It borrows a song Mahler originally composed in 1892, “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), which presents a child’s vision of heaven. The symphony was originally planned to be in six movements, alternating three instrumental with three vocal movements, intended to represent The World as Eternal Now, The Earthly Life, Caritas (Charity/Love), Morning Bells, The World Without Gravity, The Heavenly Life. The final version, however, has four movements and only the last movement uses the song, sung by a soprano. The symphony uses cyclic form, involving a melody that is used in all movements. The first movement begins lightly and pleasantly, characterized as a “walk through the countryside,” and the contrasting materials that follow are equally appealing. These materials are accumulated and developed, and the music gets quite complicated. Eventually, the opening themes reclaim the focus of attention, and the movement ends with a surprising flourish after the music comes to a complete stop.  The second movement was originally subtitled “Death takes the fiddle,” inspired by a painting Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin. It consists of scherzos with a solo violin playing motives that sound “diabolical,” with tritones and surprising dissonance created by a retuned “scordatura” instrument. These are contrasted with Ländler—dance-like sections that are popular in many of Mahler’s works. 

The third movement is slow and somber, and much more complicated than its reserved beginning suggests. A lovely melody is presented first, led by the cellos, followed by a contrasting theme presented in a similar vein, first in the oboe. The music ebbs and flows a bit, with some interesting combinations of instruments playing variations on the two themes. The final section is introduced with very loud music which then retreats to a gentle, quiet end to the movement.  

The Finale revisits the mood of the first movement, light and pleasant, setting the stage beautifully for a song about a child’s vision of heaven. The text is sung in verses separated by lively refrains from the first movement’s opening theme. The final song text sings of “gentle restfulness” which is reflected in the gradual fading of the music to silence. Scholars have found themes and motifs in the Fourth Symphony that also are found in others of his symphonies.  

The composer conducted the premiere on November 25, 1901, in Munich. Margarete Michalek, an opera singer and vocal teacher in Vienna, was the soprano soloist. It was met with generally negative reviews. A subsequent tour through Germany led to some warmer responses, but there were frequent performances where his capabilities as a composer were questioned. Despite the initial negative criticism, the Fourth Symphony is generally viewed by scholars as his most accessible symphony, with its modest length, average-sized orchestra, and inclusion of a simple, beautiful song.