Music Imitates Art

So much of music is inspired by other forms of art. Glinka’s opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, is based on a poem by Russia’s greatest poet Alexander Pushkin. The story is an epic fairy tale about the abduction of Ludmila, the daughter of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, by the evil dwarf wizard Chernomor, and the attempt by the brave knight Ruslan to find and rescue her.  

Today, the best known part of the opera is the overture. Of particular note is the use of the whole tone scale for the first time in Russian music. It is thematically associated with Chernomor and, as a result, became so popular among Russian composers for suggesting evil or ominous personages or situations, that even today  Russian musicians refer to the whole tone scale as gamma Chernomora, or "Chernomor's scale".  

Mahler’s fourth symphony is built around a single song, "Das himmlische Leben", or "The Heavenly Life". It is prefigured in various ways in the first three movements and sung in its entirety in the fourth movement.

In the second movement, the solo violin is tuned a whole tone higher.  The violin depicts Freund Hein, a skeleton who plays the fiddle and leads a Totentanz or "danse macabre". Mahler took inspiration for this movement from an 1872 painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin entitled Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle (above). The scherzo represents his dance and the unusual tuning of the violin adds tension to its sound and contributes to the music's ghostly character.

In the fourth movement, a child, voiced by Metropolitan Opera soprano Meigui Zhang, presents a sunny, naive vision of Heaven and describes the feast being prepared for all the saints. The scene has its darker elements: the child makes it clear that the heavenly feast takes place at the expense of animals, including a sacrificed lamb.