While Mahler wrote most of his 4th Symphony in 1900, he had really started it 8 years earlier – and with the last movement, no less!
Mahler was enchanted by “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the Youth’s Magic Horn), a well-known collection of German folk poems, many of which Mahler set to music. Mahler arranged one of these poems, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) in 1892 and wanted to use as a last movement for one of his symphonies. But his 3rd symphony was already lengthy, and it took him until 1900 to finally use it as the foundation for this lyrical 4th Symphony. The song tells of the wonders of heaven from a child’s point of view, with its angels, beauty, dancing, endless food of all types (listen for the bleating lamb and bellowing ox!) and “heavenly music that is not of this earth.”
The first three movements, which Mahler composed in 1899-1900, take much of their thematic material from the last movement. Most notable is the way in which the symphony starts, with sleighbells – the first time time they were ever used in an orchestra. Even though Mahler did not have an explicit “program” for his 4th Symphony, one can almost conceive of the first movement as a depiction of the earthly life – full of pleasant beauty, but interrupted with wails and shrieks, and discordant harmonies in the middle section.
For the second movement, though, we have a clue – Mahler described it as “Death strikes up” – almost like a a danse macabre – and uses a violin purposely tuned a whole tone up to disturbing effect. In typical Mahler fashion, these unsettling moments are interspersed with pastoral interludes, punctuated by raucous clarinets.
The lovely third movement is made up of eight variations – opening and closing with great beauty and calm, but interspersed with moments of utter, tragic despair. Towards the end of the movement there is a sudden orchestral thunderclap, through which we may perceive the very gates of heaven itself.
And then on into the last movement, the vocal solo to be sung with “childlike simplicity” – a vision of a child’s view of the sublimity of heaven. The symphony ends in utter calm and contentment.
Symphony No. 4 in G Major
By Gustav Mahler
Composed in 1900