The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 4 in G major

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Thomas May

Song also forms the kernel of the Symphony No. 4, considered by many one of the most genial entrées into the symphonic world of Mahler (1860–1911). He composed what became the work's final movement as an independent song in 1892: "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"), one of his settings from the anthology of German folk poetry known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"). Mahler was especially fond of the song and even recorded the piece on a piano roll. Moreover, he had considered using it as the finale of the Third Symphony at one point. That plan was vetoed in favor of the lofty Adagio that concludes the Third. (Brief snatches of the song nevertheless appear in the fifth movement—"Es sungen drei Engel"—of the Third.) Instead, Mahler decided to build his entire Fourth Symphony around the song, which would serve as the destination for all that comes before. He wrote the first three movements between 1899 and 1901.

The Fourth has a reputation for being Mahler's sunniest, most optimistic and userfriendly symphony, ending as it apparently does with a simple song of innocence. But that viewpoint represents a superficial understanding that hardly accounts for the work's fascinating tensions and peculiar imagination. Despite their lack of sympathy with his aesthetic, the critics who lashed out after hearing the Fourth—Mahler led the world premiere in Munich in 1901—at least sensed there was more at stake. Their vicious reviews castigated this presumably "simple" work as "incomprehensible" and full of "unfermented ideas, strange cacophonous images."

One of the things that especially irked them was how the Fourth seemed to suggest a willful, capricious spin on Beethoven's Ninth. Already in his first three symphonies,Mahler had repeated the core pattern established by Beethoven, according to which the symphony became a metaphysical journey tracing a struggle from darkness to light. Mahler had even directly emulated the Ninth in his own Second Symphony, adding soloists and chorus to its finale as part of an apocalyptic drama of resurrection. But suddenly, with the Fourth, he appears to be changing tack, ending with a sweet lullaby that evokes childhood. This is the first symphony in which Mahler renounces the sort of blazing affirmation that sends audiences home with triumph ringing in their ears (as is the case, again, in the first three symphonies). The Fourth has a "happy ending," but it concludes with a barely audible note deep in the bass. On the way there, we encounter all kinds of strange juxtapositions that are never really resolved.

Chirping high flutes against sleigh bells open the symphony with an archaic sonority that immediately conjures the lost innocence of childhood. It's one of the most startling beginnings of any symphony in the literature and has been compared to frame-setting quotation marks, as if Mahler were suggesting the musical equivalent of "once upon a time." That gesture applies not only to childhood, but also to a lost golden age of classical tradition.

Mahler consciously invokes the spirit and humor of Haydn in particular, ratcheting the musical development to an almost manic level of inventiveness as he manipulates his motivic ideas. The music continually pokes, prods, and tweaks its thematic material, disclosing an almost absurd level of fertility in what are, after all, quite economical ideas. Notice, for example, how the little three-note pattern—so utterly simple—that we hear early in the horns, separated by a decorative turn, gains prominence and comes to dominate wide swaths of the movement's progression. The overall effect is a puzzling mélange of reverence for classical tradition along with implied parody of it. In similar fashion, the song of the final movement operates both as a sincerely childlike utterance and as a send-up of romanticism's rhetorically grandiose conclusions.

But even as parody, Mahler's Fourth reveals a newfound neoclassical sensibility and marks a crucial change of direction from the all-encompassing rhetoric of his earlier symphonies. This neoclassicism is also manifest in the amazing transparency of the orchestration (Mahler dispenses with the heavier brass of trombones and tuba). Musicologist Joseph Horowitz aptly compares Mahler's approach to surface detail with the decorative elements of art nouveau, particularly of the composer's contemporary Gustav Klimt, whose paintings negate the traditional hierarchy of foreground and background.

The Scherzo, with its signature use of a solo violin deliberately "mistuned" so as to sound like a drunken rustic fiddler, is another example of the richly paradoxical nature of the Fourth. Many a commentator has been tempted to reduce this movement to its macabre aspects, thanks to the composer's reference to a self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin in which Death appears as a skeleton fiddling into the painter's ear. (Böcklin is the painter whose Isle of the Dead inspired Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem of that name.) Yet along with its surrealism—which points ahead to the unsettling imagery of the poem sung in the last movement—the Scherzo is interrupted by gentle passages and, toward the end, veers into a visionary episode of harp and string glissandos that all but erases the macabre. Is this, we are made to wonder, a mere sonic hallucination?

It helps prepare the ground, in fact, for the lengthy Adagio, which Mahler especially prized. He once described the Fourth Symphony in terms of color: "Imagine the undifferentiated blue of the sky, a blue that is more difficult to capture than all the changing and contrasting shades. This is the fundamental tone of the whole. Only occasionally does it become dark and ghostly horrible: but it's not the sky itself that darkens. For us alone does it become suddenly ghastly, just as one is often overtaken with an attack of panic on the most beautiful day in a light-filled forest."

That blue which never changes seems to suffuse the Adagio. Patterned as a set of variations, it emulates the lofty eloquence of Beethoven's late-period adagios (in the Ninth and the string quartets above all, though strains of the radiant quartet from the first act of Fidelio—"Mir ist so wunderbar"—are also apparent). But along with this serenity comes intense sadness in the form of a contrasting minor theme—perhaps the "human" perspective, "for us alone." Eventually there is a breakthrough: this most serene movement in the symphony also contains the work's most dramatic climax. In a heart-stoppingly beautiful modulation—in which Mahler seems to evoke an out-of-body experience— the music subsides to set the stage for the child's song of the afterlife toward which everything had been heading.

But if we have been transported to the gates of paradise, what strange music Mahler writes to depict "the heavenly life"! The chief melody—which was proclaimed minutes before, in the climax of the Adagio—is beguiling in its songful form, with its lilting, lullabylike repeated figures. Yet the havoc that periodically breaks out in the orchestra foregrounds the rather earthy images of feasting and celebration of the text. Referring to the poem, Mahler was intrigued by its "roguishness, combined with the deepest mysticism" where "everything is turned on its head." And his music introduces its own topsy-turvy aspects into this heaven where, we are told, "no worldly turmoil is to be heard." Several times the singer's calmly descending refrain is rudely interrupted by boisterous and violent versions of the innocent sleigh bell tinklings from the beginning.

Instead of presenting a triumphant "Ode to Joy," the symphony ends by simply ignoring these contradictions. Mahler concludes the song and symphony with a barely perceptible postlude that gently rocks in the bass before evaporating into silence—and points ahead to the truly revolutionary dissolutions that will mark his final masterpieces.

Das Himmlische Leben
("The Heavenly Life")
Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden,
D'rum tun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich' Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh'!
Wir führen ein englisches Leben!
Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben!
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen!
Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu!
Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes drauf passet!
Wie führen ein geduldig's,
Unschuldig's, geduldig's,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod!
Sankt Lukas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn' einig's Bedenken und Achten;
Der Wein kost't kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller;
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.
Gut' Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten!
Gut' Spargel, Fisolen,
Und was wir nur wollen,
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut' äpfel, gut' Birn' und gut Trauben!
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben!
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen?
Auf offener Strassen
Sie laufen herbei!
Sollt' ein Festtag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder,
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sankt Martha die Köchin muss sein!
Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,

Die uns'rer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen!
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht!
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen!
Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht.


We revel in heavenly pleasures,
Leaving all that is earthly behind us.
No worldly turmoil
Is heard in heaven;
We all live in sweetest peace.
We lead an angelic existence,
And so we are perfectly happy.
We dance and leap,
And skip and sing;
Saint Peter in Heaven looks on.
Saint John has lost his lambkin,
And butcher Herod is lurking:
We lead a patient,
Guiltless, patient,
Darling lambkin to death.
Saint Luke is slaying the oxen,
Without the least hesitation;
Wine costs not a farthing
In the Heavenly tavern;
The angels bake the bread.
Fine sprouts of every description,
Are growing in Heaven's garden.
Fine asparagus, fine herbs,
And all we desire,
Huge platefuls for us are prepared.
Fine apples, fine pears and fine grapes,
The gardeners let us pick freely.
You want venison, hare?
In the open streets
They go running around.
And when there's a holiday near,
All the fishes come joyfully swimming;
And off runs Saint Peter
With net and with bait,
Towards the celestial pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook!
There's no music at all on earth
Which can ever compare with ours.
Eleven thousand virgins
Are set dancing.
Saint Ursula herself laughs to see it!
Saint Cecilia with her companions
Are splendid court musicians.
The angelic voices
Delight the senses,
For all things awake to joy.

—translation by Deryck Cooke from
Gustav Mahler:
An Introduction to His Music
(Cambridge University Press, 1980)