Symphony No. 4 in G Major

Gustav Mahler

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is the last of the tetralogy known as the “Wunderhorn symphonies” because they used quotes of themes and elements of songs and poems from “Das Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn). This was an anthology of German folk music and folklore published in 1805 and 1808, which, over many years, captivated Mahler. In the Wunderhorn collection, the title of the poem used in the symphony’s final movement is “There is not a cloud in the sky” but Mahler changed the title in 1892, in his setting, to: Das Himmlische Leben Elements from the song appear in the first three movements before it is heard in its entirety in the last movement, sung by soprano. Since

this was the composer’s main musical source it is not surprising that he wrote the movements in reverse order, starting with the last, which features the song in its entirety. He began the symphony in 1899 and finished it in 1901.

The music is clearly declaimed throughout and comparatively (for Mahler) lightly scored: no heavy brass (i.e. no trombones or tuba), just horns, trumpets, winds, and reduced strings. The percussion section is interesting: cymbals, sleigh bells, triangle, tam-tam, and glockenspiel along with timpani. The smallness of the orchestra has spawned adaptations for chamber orchestra: for example, by Erwin Stein (Austrian arranger and writer and admirer of Schoenberg) in 1920 and Yoon Jae Lee (2006) in which he further reduced the original score’s string section to single players.

The Fourth Symphony has innocence and congeniality throughout. Each movement is prefaced by instructions that indicate serenity and moderate pace. Many have said it was “accessible, the most accessible of his symphonies to date.” Audiences were a bit perplexed at first, but critics were scathing. A 1904 New York concert described the Fourth as “a drooling and emasculated musical monstrosity.”

This was the first symphony for which the composer did not provide precise programmatic descriptions, preferring that the audience understand music for music, without a specific story at hand. “I know the most wonderful names for the movements, but I will not betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners so that they can subject them to banal misunderstandings and distortions.” At one point he called it a humoresque in six movements.
Eventually, it would be trimmed to four movements, his last symphony without the brooding nature, intensity, size, and vastness of those yet to come.

It is the shortest of Mahler’s symphonies, weighing in at just under one hour, and the most frequently performed. He completed the work August 5, 1900. Mahler seemed happy with it, but nonetheless sent this observation to his wife, Alma. “My Fourth … is all humor, naïve, etc. It is that part of me which is still the hardest for you to accept and which in any case only the fewest of the few will comprehend for the rest of time.”

In The Mahler Companion, Donald Mitchell writes, “The Fourth, to my mind, represents a manifestation of neoclassicism peculiar to Mahler himself, an awareness of and reflection on the role he himself and his work(s) in progress might play in the still evolving history of the idea of the symphony. The Fourth spells out the impossibility of rolling history back or complacently attempting to continue in the line of – wake of, rather – the Great Tradition.”

The first movement appears in sonata-allegro format, opening with four flutes and sleigh bells, marked “moderately, not rushed.” This combination will also appear in the fourth movement. The first theme is a friendly melody from the first violins, and the second is a folk-style tune from the celli, marked “sung broadly.” The development reveals more complexity, especially in its contrapuntal textures.

The second movement opens as a delicate scherzo, which includes two trios. Similar to the speed of the first movement: the instruction is “play without haste, leisurely moving.” Mahler’s wife, Alma, noted that his inspiration was a painting (1872) by Arnold Bocklin titled “Self Portrait with death playing the Fiddle.” Mahler described this movement as “Friend Death is Striking up the Dance.” The original title was “Friend Hein Strikes Up.” Hein was a medieval violinist who led his victims to death. Note the solo violin part in which the instrument is tuned higher than usual (scordatura), to give a ghostly atmosphere in his danse macabre. Herein, the violinist is instructed to play wie ein Fidel (like a medieval fiddle). To accomplish this, the concertmaster uses two violins. The irony of death and jollity as a combination is cleverly exploited throughout with grim undercurrents from lower instruments. A sudden chirp from the solo violin ends the movement, emerging after a grim section from the lower instruments.

His third movement consists of two contrasting ideas announced at the beginning and set of variations, marked “peacefully, somewhat slowly”.

For this, Mahler noted that he had been inspired by church sculptures, which had their arms “closed in eternal peace.”

The last movement — once titled The Celestial Life, is marked “Very comfortably, featuring a child (represented by the soprano) singing a naïve vision of Heaven and preparation of a feast. “The instruction from Mahler is to sing “with child-like, bright expression, and without the slightest suggestion of parody.”
“No worldly tumult is to be heard in heaven

All live in greatest peace We lead angelic lives

Yet have a merry time of it besides”
A bit of darkness enters only in the time of the animal slaughter:

John lets out the little lamb
Herod the butler lies in wait for it We lead a patient innocent, patient Darling little lamb to its death… Saint Luke slaughters the ox Without any thought or concern…”

The happy vision is quickly restored:

“Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable path… and gardeners who allow everything… There is just no music on earth
That can compare to ours….

The song controls the musical form (strophic) and verses are separated by interludes. The ending is soft, sealed by solo harp repeating alternating fourths, with a final triple pianissimo sustained note from the double basses.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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Program Notes