Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 4

Program from 1904 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 4

The Carnegie Hall and US premiere of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony took place on November 6, 1904, with Etta de Montjau, soprano; and the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch.

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The Symphony at a Glance

Of Mahler’s ten symphonies, the Fourth stands out for its general air of childlike charm and gentle radiance, the absence of spiritual turmoil, its transparent textures, relative brevity (under an hour), and the use of a song as the concluding movement. The song is relatively short, but it perfectly and exquisitely fulfills its mission of depicting a child’s view of heaven as a place of serene delight, simple joys, and quiet mystery.

The Symphony In Depth

Mahler wrote the first three movements of his Fourth Symphony in the summers of 1899 and 1900. His original intention was not to create a full-fledged, four-movement symphony, but rather a “symphonic humoresque.” But by 1900 the conception had changed and grown considerably. A song Mahler had written in 1892 for soprano and piano was orchestrated and became the symphony’s finale, the subject of which (a child’s view of heaven) is the goal to which the previous movements all aspire.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 4 (I. Bedächtig. Nicht eilen)

Only a split second is needed to identify the composition that opens with flutes playing even, repeated notes a fifth apart accompanied by jangling sleigh bells; nothing else sounds remotely like it. The good-natured, gemütlich first theme (Audio 1) slides in with sunny radiance in the fourth bar, bringing to mind the composer’s comparison of the symphony’s basic mood to “a sky of unbroken blue ... only occasionally does it grow dark with ghostly menace.” The basic tonality of the Symphony is G major, a key often associated with genial moods and folk song.

This movement proves to be one of Mahler’s most fertile in terms of thematic content. The first theme alone contains three separate elements (the smiling violin tune, a rising bass line, a few chuckles from the horn). A brief, jaunty, martial tune in the clarinets leads immediately into the yearning melody sung by the cellos. A new mood is established by the woodwinds playing a perky, amusing, almost dance-like tune. Mahler then proceeds to incorporate this multitude of melodic strands into what Michael Steinberg calls a “game of interruptions, resumptions, extensions, reconsiderations, and unexpected combinations.”

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 4 (II. In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast)

The second movement (scherzo) (Audio 2) portrays a dance of death of Freund Hein, a popular character in German fairy tales. His instrument is a country fiddle tuned a tone higher than normal in order to produce an unearthly, harsh sound. Mahler maintained a lifelong preoccupation with death, but this death dance is not really as harrowing an affair as other composers—or as Mahler himself—have elsewhere portrayed it. It is sinister to be sure, but at the same time it also retains a sense of humor. Mahler described the effect as “a grisly, sudden feeling that comes over us, just as one is often panic-stricken in broad daylight in a sunlit forest. The scherzo is so mysterious, confused, and supernatural that your hair will stand on end when you hear it. But in the Adagio [Ruhevoll] to follow, where all this passes off, you will immediately see that it was not meant so seriously.” Two bucolic trios interrupt the dance, tempering its evil connotations and looking forward to the joys of a life in heaven.

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 4 (III. Vorwärts. Poco più mosso)

The otherworldly serenity and ineffable beauty of the third movement (Audio 3) bring us to the threshold of the heavenly life that awaits us in the finale. Mahler told his disciple, the conductor Bruno Walter, that his vision in this movement was that of a church sepulchre “showing a recumbent stone image of the deceased with his arms crossed in eternal sleep.” Mahler used the double variation form (developing two different melodic ideas in alternation), much as Beethoven had done in the adagio of his Ninth Symphony. In a sudden outburst near the end of the movement, the full orchestra proclaims in brilliant colors a grandiose vision of heaven.

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 4 (IV. Tempo I. Sehr zart und geheimnisvoll bis zum Schluss)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

The fourth movement (Audio 4) is relatively short, but it perfectly and exquisitely fulfills its mission of depicting a child’s view of heaven as a place of serene delight, simple joys, and quiet mystery. The child’s voice speaks to us in the words of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), a famous 19th-century collection of German folk poetry. Interspersed between the verses are brief reminders of earthly life (the symphony’s opening flutes-and-bells motif is now transformed into a harshly aggressive figure), but each time the text returns us to comforting celestial visions. The final moments bring us to the realization that this music does not really end, but rather fades into the quietude of heavenly peace.

—Robert Markow
© The Carnegie Hall Corporation