Mahler completed his Fourth Symphony in April 1901 and conducted the premiere himself that November in Munich. Its inspiration lies in a single song, “Das himmlische Leben” (“Heavenly Life”), found in a collection of traditional German poems published as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). He almost used “Heavenly Life” in his Third Symphony, but kept it instead as the finale of the Fourth.
Beethoven and Haydn are models here: Mahler’s symphony, like Beethoven’s Ninth, seems to move from darkness to light, and from purely instrumental music to vocal; Haydn’s humor is evident in the scherzo, which features a purposefully mistuned solo violin, intended to sound rustic and earthy. These obvious references only measure the distance between past and present.
Nineteenth-century Romantic composers believed in transcendence, in the idea that humankind can find salvation, especially through art. But Mahler, a composer writing at the end of an era and of a century, questioned it. The Fourth reveals this skepticism, especially in the finale, as a portrait of innocence and experience. A shocking climax in the midst of the otherwise placid Adagio is transformed into a soothing song. The sonic markers of childhood in the music—a soprano voice that resembles a boy’s; the arpeggiated harp chords suggesting naïveté and godliness; the rocking, lullaby phrasing—convey a sense of melancholy. As a depiction of heavenly life, it is a little disquieting. Old saints lead lambs to slaughter for extravagant, materialistic feasts; the bar is open at all hours; virgins dance grotesquely. Humanity does not reach a higher level, but regresses into primitive behavior.
The music pushes time and history away with phrases that repeat over and over again with hardly any development. It all seems to despair at the lack of metaphysical meaning. The Romantic notion of art as a transcendent force has collapsed. Despite being a composer who sought to express a whole world of sounds in his works, this symphony avoids all monumentality. The music dies away with the promise that everyone will wake to joy in heaven, but the music seems to fall asleep forever. This evocation of heaven is sadly pessimistic. Joy remains unattainable, and there is no transcendence—only the yearning for it.
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The oldest of six surviving children born to a tavern-owner in what is now the Czech Republic, Gustav Mahler was largely self-taught as a musician until the age of 15 when he entered the Vienna Conservatory. There he studied piano and composition and also took courses at Vienna University. But his true ambition was to be a conductor, and he actually composed only part-time, during the summer. His first stint as a conductor came in 1880 at a small, underfunded summer theater, but he parlayed the experience with operetta into a better position the following year in Ljubljana, the present-day capital of Slovenia. Slowly he won ever more prestigious postings in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, and Hamburg before landing the job he coveted, in 1897, at the Vienna Opera, conducting operas as well as symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic.