Symphony No. 4 (Mahler)
The Symphony No. 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler was written in 1899 and 1900, though it incorporates a song originally written in 1892. The song, "Das himmlische Leben", presents a child's vision of Heaven. It is sung by a soprano in the work's fourth and last movement. Although typically described as being in the key of G major, the symphony employs a progressive tonal scheme ('(b)/G--E').
Mahler's first four symphonies are often referred to as the "Wunderhorn" symphonies because many of their themes originate in earlier songs by Mahler on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn). The fourth symphony is built around a single song, "Das himmlische Leben". It is prefigured in various ways in the first three movements and sung in its entirety by a solo soprano in the fourth movement.
Mahler composed "Das himmlische Leben" as a free-standing piece in 1892. The title is Mahler's own: in the Wunderhorn collection the poem is called "Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen" (an idiomatic expression akin to "there's not a cloud in the sky"). Several years later Mahler considered using the song in the fifth and seventh movement, the finale, of his Third symphony. While motifs from "Das himmlische Leben" are found in the Third symphony, Mahler eventually decided not to include it in that work and, instead, made the song the goal and source of his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth Symphony thus presents a thematic fulfilment of the musical world of the Third, which is part of the larger tetralogy of the first four symphonies, as Mahler described them to Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Early plans in which the Symphony was projected as a six-movement work included another Wunderhorn song, "Das irdische Leben" ("Earthly Life") as a somber pendant to "Das himmlische Leben," offering a tableau of childhood starvation in juxtaposition to heavenly abundance, but Mahler later decided on a simpler structure for the score.
A typical performance of the Fourth lasts about an hour, making it one of Mahler's "shorter" symphonies. The performing forces are also small by Mahler's usual standard. These features have made it the most frequently performed Mahler symphony, though in recent years the First has gained ground.
The movements of the symphony:
- Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed) (Sonata Form)
- In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste) (Scherzo & Trio)
- Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly) (Theme & Variations)
- Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably) (Strophic)
Flutes and sleigh bells open the unusually restrained first movement (and used later with a melodic theme known commonly as the 'bell theme', which helps define sections throughout the movement) often described as possessing classical poise. As would be expected for the first movement of a symphony, the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is in sonata form.
The second movement is a scherzo that features a part for a solo violin whose strings are tuned a tone higher than usual. The violin depicts Freund Hein, (lit. "Friend Henry") a figure from medieval German art; Hain (or Hein) is a traditional German personification of death, invented by poet Matthias Claudius. Freund Hein is a skeleton who plays the fiddle and leads a Totentanz or "danse macabre". According to Mahler's widow, Alma, Mahler took inspiration for this movement from an 1872 painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin entitled Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle. 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.
The third movement is a solemn processional march cast as a set of variations. Mahler uses the theme and variation structure in a more unconventional way. This movement can be divided into five main sections: A1 – B1 – A2 – B2 – A3 – CODA. The theme is presented in the first 16 bars of A1, but the true variations don't appear until section A3, although the theme is developed slightly within the preceding sections; sections A1, A2, B1 and B2 are in bar form. This movement remains mostly in G major, but does modulate to D minor, E minor and E major; the B2 section has a rather unstable tonality, being more chromatic and moving through many keys.
The fourth movement opens with a relaxed, bucolic scene in G major. A child, voiced by a soprano, 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. The child's narrative is punctuated by faster passages recapitulating the first movement. Unlike the final movement of traditional symphonies, the fourth movement of Mahler's No. 4 is essentially a song, containing verses, with interludes, a prelude and a postlude (a strophic structure). By the time the postlude is heard, there is a modulation to E major (the tonic major of the relative minor) and unusually stays in this key, ending the symphony away from the tonic of G major. Several ties to the Third Symphony can be heard in these passages as well.
- woodwinds: 4 flutes (flutes 3 and 4 double piccolos 1 and 2), 3 oboes (oboe 3 doubles cor anglais), 3 clarinets in A, B♭, C (clarinet 2 doubles clarinet in E♭ and clarinet 3 doubles bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (bassoon 3 doubles contrabassoon)
- brass: 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in F and B♭
- percussion: timpani, bass drum, cymbals, sleigh bells, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel
- voices: soprano soloist (in fourth movement only)
- strings: harp, violins I, II, violas, cellos, double basses
Fourth movement text
Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
We enjoy heavenly pleasures
- World premiere: 25 November 1901, Munich, Margarete Michalek (soprano) with the Kaim Orchestra conducted by the composer.
- Dutch première: 23 October 1904, Amsterdam, with the composer conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra in a concert that actually contained two performances of the work (In her memoirs, Alma Mahler incorrectly claims that the second performance was conducted by Willem Mengelberg).
- American premiere: 6 November 1904, New York City, Etta de Montjau (soprano) with the New York Symphony Society conducted by Walter Damrosch.
- British premiere: 25 October 1905, London, in a Proms concert conducted by Henry Wood. Wood's wife sang the soprano part.
- Recording premiere: May 1930, Sakaye Kitasaya (soprano) with the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo conducted by Hidemaro Konoye, Japanese Parlophone. This was also the first electrical recording of any Mahler symphony.
- Boy soprano premiere: 1983, Jamie Westman performed and recorded the 4th symphony with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. Westman performed the symphony extensively throughout Europe in 1984. Gustav Mahler's granddaughter Marina Fistoulari-Mahler attended one of his performances at the Musikverein in Vienna.
- Mahler here omitted the following four lines of the original poem:
Willst Karpfen, willst Hecht, willst Forellen,
Gut Stockfisch und frische Sardellen?
Sanct Lorenz hat müssen
Sein Leben einbüßen
- 'Gustav Mahler' (Works), in New Grove, Macmillan, 1980
- Henry Louis de La Grange
- Smoley, Lewis M. (1996). Gustav Mahler's Symphonies: critical commentary on recordings since 1986 (first ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-29771-1.
James L. Zychowicz. Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Extensive history and analysis by renowned Mahler scholar Henry Louis de La Grange
- Full text of the song (with English translation)