Mahler – Symphony No. 4

by Max Derrickson

Gustav Mahler     (b Kalischt, near Iglau, Bohemia (now Jihlava, Czech Republic), July 7, 1860; dVienna, May 18, 1911)

Symphony No. 4
1. Bedächtig. Nicht eilen – Recht gemächlich (Deliberately. Unhurried – Very leisurely)
2. In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast (In a leisurely manner, without haste)
3. Ruhevoll (Calm) (Poco adagio)
4. Sehr behaglich (Very contentedly)


The themes behind Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are often difficult to unravel, so deeply personal and seemingly self-indulgent are they in nature, and yet, so sweepingly universal.  When the Fourth Symphony was premiered inMunichwith Mahler conducting in 1901, for example, its fourth movement’s Soprano song about a Child’s view of heaven baffled many, not to mention its sleigh bell motif and the curiously tuned violin solo in its second movement.  Perhaps Mahler’s difficult early childhood, which tragically saw the death of four of his 13 siblings (four of them deceased before Mahler’s birth), his struggles with poor health and his obsession with his own death helps to explain the Fourth’s theme about death and a child’s transition into in heaven.  But when one begins to unravel what Mahler was about in a particular symphony, it’s important to know that all of Mahler’s ten symphonies (nine symphonies outright, one a symphonic song cycle) are in essence a huge cycle in themselves.  In this cycle, one finds the bigger themes about spiritual profundity, and specifically in the Fourth, of profound innocence.


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The particular theme of the Fourth begins with the poem Das himmlisch Leben (The Heavenly Life).  In 1892, like so many other composers who were increasingly gathering inspiration from folksongs and poetry in the late 19th century, Mahler set Das himmlisch Leben to music from an anthology of old folk poems called Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn).  Many of the Wunderhorn’s poems made their way into Mahler’s musical oeuvre,   [. . .]


The sleigh bells and the four flutes that open the pastoral first movement are indeed a unique way to begin a symphony.  The startling yet comfortable sound that they create is a shrewd metaphor for the coexistence of human and inhuman, and serves as a tonal link between the first and last movements.  The movement’s gentle atmosphere, even with its anxious moments, was described by Mahler as a metaphor of the deep blue sky, the floor of heaven, so appealing and yet so daunting.  Storms will come, but the blue purity continues high above and eventually returns.  Mahler gives us some of his richest melodic material in the first theme   [. . .]


The second movement plays the role of a scherzo, but in no great hurry, and opens up with the horns darkly tolling like distant bells, a clever transition from the opening of the first movement.  Even in its leisure, the music creates a rather disturbed atmosphere, a bit freakish, that Mahler referred to as a danse macabre.  Originally he called the movement “Freund Hein spielt auf” (Friend Death Performs) alluding to Death playing his fiddle to lure the Child to the afterlife.  To accent Death’s otherworldliness, the first violinist must play with each string tuned a whole tone higher, a technique called “scodatura,” meant to sound jarring and like a street fiddler.  The contrasting Trio is in the form of a landler, an old Viennese dance form, and somewhat perversely, presumably a metaphor for the dear Child happily being wooed to death.  But even in this contrast, the horns occasionally toll to carry the Child closer to the abyss.  The ending, after the timpani taps out a rhythm firmly escorting the child to the beyond, in fact closes rather delightfully, showing us that death isn’t as mean-spirited as we might have thought.


The third movement is perhaps the most exquisitely beautiful slow movement that Mahler ever wrote.  [. . .]


The fourth movement opens with a sweetness that tells us we have arrived in heaven.  The movement is set out in song form, with each new verse announced by the sleigh bells and flute theme that began the first movement.  Mahler ends each verse with incredibly beautiful finishes, solemn and full of unutterable peace.  [. . .]



IV. The Heavenly Life

We enjoy the heavenly pleasures,
So we avoid all earthly things.
No worldly clamor
Is heard in Heaven!
All live in gentle peace!
We lead an angelic life,
yet we are quite merry withal!
We lead an angelic life,
we dance and we leap,
we skip and we sing!
Saint Peter in Heaven looks on!

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