Mahler’s Fourth Symphony

IMG_5176I always felt, perhaps strangely, that I discovered Mahler for myself. I’d never even heard of Mahler before I went to study Music at University (thinking back, weirdly I didn’t really know very much about classical music at all…). Back in Leicester during the University holidays, I went to see the Philharmonia perform Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (for just £4) and fell in love with it instantly. I always felt like it was the first piece I discovered for myself – it wasn’t recommended by someone I knew, I didn’t learn about it from a teacher, I’d never (as far as I know) heard a snippet of it on tv. Since then, it’s been important to me, and I was absolutely delighted when I discovered I’d be playing in it with my orchestra. So here’s the programme I note I wrote for our concert.

Symphony No.4 – Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

  • Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed)
  • In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste)
  • Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly)
  • Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably)

At sixty minutes, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is by far his shortest. The symphony was written between 1899-1900, at a time when Mahler was living and working in Vienna – he was the Music Director of the Vienna Court Opera (now known as the Vienna State Opera). In fact, during Mahler’s lifetime he was better known as a conductor than a composer, and would only write during his holidays when he had escaped to the countryside. At this point in his life he was still a single man, and he met his future wife Alma in the November of 1901, the same month as this symphony’s premiere. They were to go on to have two children together.

Mahler’s connection to children throughout his life is drenched in sadness – eight of his siblings died in childhood, and his daughter Maria died of scarlet fever at the age of four. However, this piece paints a happy picture of a childhood view of heaven, with the fourth movement being based around Mahler’s song Das himmlische Leben (‘the Heavenly Life’). It is taken from Mahler’s settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), a collection of German folk poems that he set to music several times throughout his life. The fourth movement had actually originally been written as a song with piano accompaniment in 1892, and much of the musical material in the symphony is drawn from it.

The symphony opens with sounds of winds and sleigh bells, reminiscent of winter in Vienna. In the playful and childlike movement we are introduced to the themes and their variations that we will hear throughout the symphony, from the lilting dance-like motifs, to the small moments of lullaby, and the folkish tunes played throughout the orchestra. On the surface there is a childlike naivety to much of the music. But under the surface of simplicity, there is complexity to the way the themes work together to weave the texture. The whirling and swirling continues, winding the movement forward to a happy finale.

The second movement is a scherzo, described as “a sort of uncanny fairytale” by Bruno Walter, Mahler’s assistant. Instruments pass around melodies and motifs, creating a creeping and twisted folk story feel with a lilting dance rhythm. The solo violin has a central role to this movement, and has been re-tuned up a tone to create a harsher sound. According to Alma Mahler, the inspiration came from a painting by Arnold Bocklin called “Self Portrait with death playing the Fiddle.”

Mahler thought this adagio was the best of his slow movements, and is in essence a theme and variations. He noted that the movement was inspired by church sculptures. There is a gorgeous stillness and simplicity, tugging at the heart strings then briefly bursting into joy before the end of the movement.

We go straight into the fourth movement, where all the previous themes are brought together as the soprano sings a childish picture of heaven. It is simple, tuneful and joyful. The harps confirm our heavenly setting, as the orchestra accompanies a, earnest song filled with cheer and peace.



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