14 May 2015

Mahler Listening GuideSymphony no. 4 in G Major


by Bettie Jo Basinger

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler


Work History:
During October of 1900, Mahler made a public statement criticizing the practice of adding descriptive titles and other programmatic associations to instrumental music. Although this stance contradicted both the working methods he had previously employed—not to mention the movement titles that he had circulated in connection with several performances of his first three symphonies—the composer now withdrew the programs of his earlier pieces. Furthermore, he chose to release the orchestral work he had completed on 5 August 1900 simply as Symphony no. 4.

At one point in its evolution, however, this new symphony had the following scheme attached to it:

Symphonie Nr. IV
Nro 1 Die Welt als ewige Jetzzeit—G-dur
Nro II Das irdische Leben—Das irdische Leben—Es-moll
Nro III Caritas—H-dur
Nro IV Morgenglocken—F-dur
Nro V Die Welt ohne Schwere—D-dur (Scherzo)
Nro V [sic] Das himmlische Leben!—G-dur

Symphony no. 4
No. 1 The World as Eternal Present, G major
No. 2 The Earthly Life, E-flat major
No. 3 Love for all People, B major
No. 4 Morning Bells, F major (Adagio)
No. 5 The World without Severity, D major (Scherzo)
No. 6 The Heavenly Life!, G major
This outline likely dates from the summer of 1896, when the Third Symphony was still dominating Mahler’s compositional activities. It therefore reflects the composer’s indecision about whether “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”) should serve as the finale to Symphony no. 3. But as the movement layout given above indicates, this text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn would not find its permanent home until several more years had passed.

The poem itself had first attracted the composer’s attention in 1892, with Mahler producing a vocal-piano version on 10 February of that year, as well as a symphonic transcription on 12 March. A manuscript of 26 April 1892 placed the latter version into a collection of five Wunderhorn settings for voice and orchestra entitled Fünf Humoresken / Wunderhorn-Lieder (Five Humoresques / Wunderhorn Songs); Hamburg audiences heard three works from this group—including “Das himmlische Leben”—on 27 September 1893. Yet by 1896, Mahler must have determined that this particular Lied belonged in a symphony; thus he omitted it from his published compilation of twelve orchestral songs issued under the designation Des Knaben Wunderhorn in 1899.

“Das himmlische Leben” instead became the concluding movement of the four-movement Symphony no. 4, which the composer began during the last days of his 1899 summer vacation. Since his rigorous conducting schedule demanded all of his attention during the bulk of the year, Mahler normally found time to compose only during a six-week period separating the end of one year’s operatic season and the start of the next. Abysmal weather—as well as what Mahler described as “the ghastly music” of the resort where he was staying in Bad Aussee, Austria—hindered his efforts until little over a week remained of his break. Once his muse returned, though, he managed to draft what would become the first three movements of the Fourth Symphony in a mere ten days. His progress on the piece resumed, if slowly at first, the following summer, and within just over a month, Mahler had finished composing the symphony.

Mahler’s renunciation of program music postdates the composition of the work, yet the composer’s conversations with friends nonetheless intimate that the Fourth Symphony retains extra-musical meaning. The bulk of its content comes from the poem set in the finale—i.e., “Das himmlische Leben”—which relates a child’s hyperbolized description of the bounty of heaven; but because Mahler crafted the symphony’s first three movements as anticipations of a text he had set to music years earlier, the composer projects—and expands—the poem’s subject matter onto the work as a whole. What emerges involves a child-like sense of innocence and humor (in keeping with the subtitle Humoreske Mahler had at one point given to the piece), as well as a narrative of a soul entering heaven.

The composer himself acknowledged this message on several occasions. For example, in October 1901 Mahler told his close friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner that

[Symphony no. 4] contains the cheerfulness of a higher and, for us,
unfamiliar world that holds something eerie and horrifying. In the final
movement, although already belonging to this higher world, the child
explains how everything is meant to be.

It would also appear that Mahler said much the same to fellow conductor Bruno Walter, who served for a time as assistant director under Mahler at the Viennese Court Opera. When asked by the composer to fulfill music historian Ludwig Schiedermair’s request for an explication of the Fourth Symphony, Walter’s reply of 5 December 1901 included the following lines:

. . . let me tell you that the first movements of the Fourth Symphony
could describe a heavenly life. In the first movement, one could
imagine a man getting to know this life. There is a great cheerfulness,
an unearthly joy that often attracts, but at times seems strange.
Life is bright, delightful, and touchingly human at times. The second movement might be called “Freund Hein Strikes Up the Dance.” Freund
Hein fiddles quite strangely; his playing sends us up into Heaven. Again,
this is but one of several possible descriptions. “Saint Ursula Laughs
As Well” could be the title of the third movement. The most serious of the saints laughs, so cheerful is this life. Actually, she only smiles . . . . Solemn
rest and serious, gentle cheerfulness characterize this movement, but it also
contains deep, painful contrasts, like reminiscences of earthly life. At
times cheerfulness grows into vivacity. If someone wonders what all this
is about, a child answers in the fourth, the last movement: That is “The
Heavenly Life.”

While the effectiveness of this description relies largely on how aptly Walter’s adjectives conform to the emotional states evoked by Mahler’s music, the finale cannot address “what all this is about” unless the other movements relate to its message. The associations of Freund Hein and Saint Ursula with the second and third movements respectively—voiced by Walter above and elsewhere by Mahler himself—serve to reinforce the notion that the Fourth Symphony’s content concerns life after death. For example, the text of “Das himmlische Leben” mentions several saints, including a laughing Saint Ursula; in fact, the potential movement title supplied by Walter extracts a line verbatim from the poem. Freund Hein, on the other hand, personifies Death. Literary mention of this Germanic character exists from ca. 1650, and he often appears as a skeletal figure leading unfortunate humans to the afterlife. Hans Holbein the Younger’s series of 41 woodcuts [INSERT LINK TO THE WOODCUTS AT http://ia601403.us.archive.org/3/items/danceofdeath00holb/danceofdeath00holb.pdf]first published in 1538 and now known as Danse macabre (or Dance of Death) provide a famous example. This set of images may even have influenced the Fourth Symphony’s second movement: Willem Mengelberg—a conductor and personal friend of Mahler’s whose scores have copious annotations, including some in the composer’s own hand—owned a copy of Symphony no. 4 that labels the Scherzo as “Totentanz Holbein: Der Tod führt uns” (“Holbein’s Dance of Death: Death leads us”).

Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Duchess” from Les Simulachres & historiées faces de la mort ”

[“The Imitations & Storiated Faces of Death”](1538)

Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Duchess” from Les Simulachres & historiées faces de la mort ”
[“The Imitations & Storiated Faces of Death”](1538)

Mahler also creates the impression of a single topic unfolding over the course of his Fourth Symphony by audibly linking the discrete movements. The first three anticipate melodies from “Das himmilische Leben,” and the composer considered this central to comprehension of the work—so much so that he criticized Georg Göhler’s 1911 essay about the Fourth Symphony for ignoring this facet of his technique:

I am missing one thing: Did you overlook the thematic connections that
figure so prominently in the work’s design? Or did you just want to spare
the audience some technical explanations? In any case, I ask that this
aspect of my work be particularly observed. Each of the three movements
is joined thematically with the last one in a most intimate and meaningful

For this reason, the audience does not need the movement titles Mahler discarded in order to understand the impetus behind Symphony no. 4. The music alone invites the listener to interpret its content as unified, as well as “heavenly” in nature.


Approximate Time in Performance:
55-60 minutes

4 flutes, with 2 alternating on piccolos
3 oboes, with 1 alternating on English horn
3 clarinets, with players alternating on E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet
3 bassoons, with 1 player alternating on contrabassoon

4 French horns
3 trumpets

4 timpani, played by two percussionists
Sleigh bells
Bass drum



Soprano soloist

Listening Guide for the First Movement:

Audiences received Mahler’s Fourth Symphony as an example of brash modernism during the composer’s lifetime, yet the work actually exhibits many retrospective traits. Together with the substantial reduction in the number of brass instruments, its four-movement structure stands chief among them. Mahler had not adopted a four-movement scheme since Symphony no. 1, and he would only opt to use it two further times (i.e., in his Sixth and Ninth Symphonies). Here he follows the traditional layout employed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: a fast sonata-form movement; a scherzo followed by a slow movement; and a concluding finale.
The opening movement of Symphony no. 4 also exhibits many other old-fashioned characteristics. The composer parcels his melodies into segments of equal length, and he utilizes driving rhythms, as well as a great deal of arpeggiated figuration. Because all of these feature prominently in the music of the late eighteenth century, Mahler’s symphony—while distinctly his own—begins in the spirit of Mozart or Haydn.

Flutes open the piece with a suggestion of sleigh bells and they sound above a brief motive that recalls the central movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Within a few seconds, the first theme of the sonata form—with its distinctive turn figures, scale passages, and dotted (or uneven) rhythms—emerges in the violins. The melody repeats before the tempo accelerates in order to effect a transition into the secondary theme. Mahler marks this new, lyrical material as both “espressivo” (“expressive”) and “Breit gesungen” (“Broadly sung”). He assigns it predominantly to the cellos in long notes values, but it proves short lived: “Suddenly slowly and deliberately” (i.e, “Plötzlich langsam und bedächtig”), the music moves into a playful contrasting idea based on rising scale fragments and repeated notes. Yet the first theme (in the home key) soon returns, and a fresh tune—given the indication of “Wieder sehr ruhig and etwas zurückhaltend” (“Again very calm and somewhat restrained”)—follows to bring the exposition to a close.

A change to the minor mode now initiates the development, where Mahler combines the “sleigh bells” (still played by the flutes) with elements of the first theme. Often these materials become distorted, as, for example, when the French horn plays the descending triplets of the latter at a fortissimo volume. After some rumblings in the low strings, however, the entire flute section enunciates a new major-mode melody.

Mahler’s choice of instrument serves to connect this idea with the sleigh bells that opened the movement, and the linking of these materials underscores the prominence both will receive in the symphony’s finale. But the development’s new melody still derives from ideas of the present movement: its repeated notes and dotted rhythms originate in the first theme, and the accompaniment provided by bass clarinet comes from the “ruhig” tune that rounded off the exposition. Thus, it appears that Mahler penned much of his opening movement—including aspects of the development as well as the exposition—with the finale in mind.

After a varied restatement of the development melody/finale anticipation, the composer misshapes this material by accenting its initial notes, placing it in minor keys, and combining it with fragments of other themes and motives. Nevertheless, a sleight of hand restores the major mode, where the development’s new melody manifests in the bell-like timbre of the trumpet—at least until a harsh dissonance interrupts its progress. The resulting tumult dissipates soon thereafter, first into distant-sounding militaristic fanfares in trumpets and horns, and ultimately into the recapitulation.

The recapitulation starts sedately with a modification of the first theme, but cymbals herald the entrance of the finale anticipation and a jubilant mood. The second, lyrical theme promptly ensues, as do the playful repeated-note idea and repetition of the main theme. Despite a hint of irony from the trumpets, the “ruhig” tune follows as expected, now peppered with inklings of the first theme. These hints grow into a coda, which then concludes the movement in a lively tempo.

Listening Guide for the Second Movement:

Although the second movement carries the designation “Scherzo” on Mahler’s autograph, the composer did not retain this indication for the published version of Symphony no. 4. Nevertheless, the use of scordatura—i.e., tuning a string instrument in a manner other than the norm—in the solo violin suggests the sense of humor expected in this movement type. In the present scherzo, the violin soloist must tune each of his or her strings a full step higher than usual; according to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Mahler wanted this to come across as “screeching and round, as if Death would strike up [the dance].”

Mahler’s verbal description of the sound of scordatura resonates with the title “Freund Hein Strikes Up the Dance” posited by Bruno Walter in 1901. So too does the use of the technique. While it enjoyed regular use between 1600 and 1750, by the end of the nineteenth century composers retained scordatura for only two situations: depictions of the demonic, as in the violin solos of Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, or to heighten the sound of a solo instrument, as in Paganini’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in E-flat Major. Yet Paganini’s astounding technical ability—not to mention his piece entitled Le streghe (The Witches), even if based on a theme from a then-famous ballet (i.e., Süssmayr’s Il noce di Benevento, or The Walnut Tree of Benevento)—served as the basis for gossip that insisted upon a connection between the violinist and the devil. For this reason, the most notable adoption of scordatura as a means of heightening an instrument’s sound also implied a demonic association.


“Paganini der Hexenmeister” (Paginini the Warlock”)
Music Division, The New York Public Library. “[Paganini der Hexenmeister.]” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Of course, before a scordatura violin can musically symbolize Death in Mahler’s symphony, the idea of Freund Hein as a fiddler must first circulate in larger society. Whereas only one of Holbein’s woodcuts involves a fiddle/violin (see “Die Hertzoginn” above)—and another skeleton plays the instrument, not Death himself—numerous literary and pictorial examples of a fiddling Hein survive from the nineteenth century. Mahler evidently had a particular fondness for the work of the painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), whose Selbstporträt mit fiedelndem Tod (Self Portrait with Death Fiddling) of 1872 features a skeletal Death playing directly into the artist’s ear. The composer’s future wife Alma even claimed that this specific image influenced the scherzo of Symphony no. 4, though the couple had not met at the time Mahler composed its music.

Arnold Böcklin, Selbstporträt mit fiedelndem Tod [Self Portrait with Death Fiddling] (1872)

The second movement proceeds in a scherzo-trio-scherzo-trio-scherzo, or ABABA, layout, with the scherzo sections featuring the solo violin and scordatura technique. This imparts a macabre and grotesque character to these portions of the movement, which Mahler intensifies through dissonance, chromaticism, and altered string timbres—resulting from the use of mutes and col legno bowing (i.e., playing with the wood, rather than the hair of the bow). A brief move into the major mode offers some respite, and the opening chords in the oboe recall the first movement while simultaneously anticipating the finale.

In contrast, the slower tempo and rhythmic patterns of the trio sections evoke the ländler. At the same time, however, the major key and prominence of woodwind instruments create the serene calm of a pastorale. Many of the motives introduced at this juncture of the movement, especially those of the oboes, bear resemblance to materials that will surface in the finale.

Ideas from the scherzo eventually intrude upon the trio, and ultimately the latter cedes to the return of the former. Despite its longer presentation (which includes two major-mode digressions), the ländler resurfaces. It too persists for a greater length of time, yet—due to the obligatory form of scherzo movements—the pastoral idyll cannot close the movement. But the closing scherzo begins with its major-mode interlude, and the scordatura solo violin plays at piano dynamic, as well as with an espressivo marking. This produces a much gentler effect, as if the scherzo has lost its sting. The movement therefore closes mischievously, rather than with the gruesome discord with which it opened.

Listening Guide for the Third Movement:

The third movement consists of a set of double variations. This means that Mahler alternates between two separate themes, exploring each—independently of the other—through a series of varied restatements. Overall, the succession of modified presentations of these individual melodies creates an ABABA structure reminiscent of the layout of the preceding scherzo.
Marked “Ruhevoll” (“Peaceful”), the movement opens with an “espress., sehr gesangvoll” (“expressive, very songfull”) melody in the cellos, riding above a plucked accompaniment that stays firmly in the major mode. A violin countermelody enters against this, but it quickly transfers to the oboe so that the violins can take over the cello tune. Soon the texture thins and the volume becomes even more hushed, so that the section may fade out and the next may begin.

The second of this movement’s themes offers a stark contrast. Its descending lines, chromatic inflections, sigh figures, and “klagend” (“lamenting”) indication instantly convey the listener to a much darker place; and even if the “singend” (“singing”) and “Fliessend” (“Flowing”) passages that follow lighten the atmosphere somewhat, the music remains in a minor key. These materials build to a climax that plunges to the depths of despair, after which recollections of this theme lead into Mahler’s first variation.

The composer modifies the first of his two themes by activating it rhythmically; this imparts a character perfectly in keeping with the melody’s new indication of “Anmuthig bewegt” (“Gracefully animated”). On the other hand, the variation of the second idea retains a “klagend” mood, though Mahler alters the material by setting different portions of the theme against one another. This still leads to the tragic climax, however, after which the variation dissolves into the lyrical theme’s final appearance.

This last variation proceeds as a series of changes in tempo and meter. Although Mahler originally set the melody in duple time, he now switches it into a three-beat pattern. Then he implements three graduated increases in tempo, with the second of them restoring a two-beat feel. Yet just as suddenly as the composer had moved into each faster tempo, the slow speed that opened the movement resumes, and with it, a more restrained temperament.

Nevertheless, the coda radically transforms this affect once again. An abrupt change to the key of E major—as well as the entrance of sweeping figuration in the strings and harp—transports the listener to a realm of magnificence and splendor. The horns sound a new melody that recalls the first movement’s development theme; this, in turn, means that the third movement, like the first, anticipates the finale. But this material presently evaporates, and fragments of the opening tune effect a rather open-ended conclusion for the third movement.

Listening Guide for the Fourth Movement:

The finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony—i.e., “Das himmlische Leben”— commences with a “Sehr behaglich” (“Very comfortable”) orchestral prelude. In this introduction, the woodwinds trade off fragments of a melody that feels familiar yet fresh, since it recalls several themes from the first movement while combining them in unique ways. The soprano soon appears, giving voice to Heavenly serenity with the same gentle music previously played by the clarinets, oboes, and flutes. Once the text switches to images of dancing, leaping, and hopping, however, the rhythmic activity increases to impart a “Fliessend” (“flowing”) character compatible with the new affective indication the composer has placed on the score. But one further emotional contrast occurs before the vocalist completes the opening stanza of the poem: because it focuses on a saint (i.e., Peter), Mahler sets the final line as a solemn chorale.

A transformation of the first movement’s “sleigh bells”—now in the minor mode and accompanied by actual sleigh bells—heralds the darker ideas of the subsequent lines of text. The bells cease at the entrance of the soprano’s new melody, though their echoes persist as the oboe and bass clarinet intimate the bleating of sheep and bellowing of oxen respectively. All of this reflects the second stanza’s discussion of the slaughter of animals; nevertheless, this passage ends with angels baking bread. The chorale therefore returns in a manner much like a refrain.
The distorted sleigh bells resume in a short instrumental interlude, but these quickly cede to the soprano as she sings the third stanza of text. The movement’s initial melody recurs here, but at the approach of the lines in which deer and hare gather—presumably for easy butchery—the tempo accelerates and the sleigh bells briefly ring. Rapid, swirling figuration then materializes to suggest the fish, pursued by Saint Peter, before the image of Saint Martha cooking prompts an extended restatement of the refrain.

Another sleigh-bell episode initiates the final section of the movement, but they soon fade into a variation of the main melody that Mahler marks “Sehr zart und geheimnisvoll” (“Very gentle and mysterious”). The key here, though consistent with the end of the third movement, conflicts with the G major that predominates for the majority of the finale, as well as the symphony as a whole. Yet as the soprano sings the movement’s primary theme in praise of the ethereal sounds of Heaven, the harmony stays firmly rooted in E major, where the symphony will, in fact, conclude. In other words, the piece ends somewhere unfamiliar, and the text invites the listener to hear this unknown realm as Paradise.

If the sounds of E major symbolize Heaven in “Das himmlische Leben,” by extension the key represents the same state of bliss elsewhere in the symphony. Thus, the soul that Death leads away from the mortal world in the second movement—by means of his alluring fiddle playing—gains admittance to Heaven with the arrival of E major in the coda of the third movement. The finale then serves to clarify this journey through the eyes of a child and the words of folk poetry.


Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
D’um 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!

We enjoy heavenly pleasures,
Therefore we avoid earthly things,
No worldly tumult
Does one hear in Heaven!
All live in the gentlest peace.
We lead an angelic life!
Still we are very merry!
We dance and leap,
We hop and sing!
Saint Peter in Heaven watches!

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes drauf passet!
Wir führen ein geduldig’s,
Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod!
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten,
Der Wein kost’ kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller,
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

John lets go of his little lamb,
The butcher Herod waits!
We lead a patient,
Innocent, patient,
A lovely little lamb to death!
Saint Luke slaughters the oxen
Without much thought or attention.
The wine costs not a penny
In the heavenly cellar.
The angels, they bake the bread.

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!

Good vegetables of every type
They grow in the heavenly garden!
Good asparagus, beans
And whatever we want!
All dishes are fully prepared for us
Good apples, good pears, and good grapes!
The gardeners, they allow everything!
Do you want roebuck, do you want hare?
On open streets
They come running up

Sollt’ ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.

Should a fasting day by chance come
The fish immediately swim up with joy!
There Saint Peter is already running
With net and bait
To the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.
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.

No music on earth
That can be compared to ours.
Eleven thousand virgins
have the courage to dance!
Saint Ursula herself laughs as well!
Cecilia and her relatives
Are splendid house musicians!
The angelic voices
Rouse the senses
So that all awaken with joy.

About the Author

Bettie Jo Basinger has been teaching at the University of Utah since 2007. She has both a Master’s Degree and PhD in Musicology—as well as a Bachelor’s in French Horn Performance—from UCLA. Although her research interests include the entire symphonic repertoire, Dr. Basinger specializes in the orchestral program music of the nineteenth century, particularly the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt.