In February 1892, after eighteen months of complete non-productivity, Mahler broke away from his already well-established “Sommerkomponist” habits to resume writing music in the middle of Hamburg’s theatrical season. His sister had just sent him poetic anthologies written by Arnim and Brentano, and he confidently wrote to her in a letter: “I now have the Wunderhorn in front of me and, with my usual creative self-awareness, I assure you that the result will once again be worth it!”
And true to his word, barely a month later, he had already completed four “Humoresken” for voice and orchestra, which would later become part of the orchestral Wunderhorn Lieder collection. But what he did not foresee then, in spite of his personally identified “self-awareness” which seldom let him down, is what would actually become of the fifth “Humoreske”, Das himmische Leben. First of all, this magnificent Lied would play a key part in the monumental framework for the Third Symphony, under the title of “Was mir das Kind erzählt” [what the child tells me], after having also added melodic substance to the fifth movement of this same piece. A few years later, after grasping the enormity of this melodic substance, Mahler decided, for the first time in the history of music, to make it the Finale piece for another symphony,also entitled “Humoreske”. This is how Das himmlische Leben became the culmination, the crowning achievement, the “peak” of this new piece of work, with similar chorus’ to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s own Second Symphony.
When he began composing the Fourth Symphony in 1899, Mahler had held his coveted position for two years: he had now become the admired and feared director of the Vienna Opera and had succeeded in winning back his homeland and the city that had taken him under its wing. Today, we cannot fail to recognise the indelible mark that the Austrian capital has left on the Fourth Symphony, on its pastoral lyricism and its happy abandonment.
Like with the Third Symphony, Mahler had written a kind of “synopsis” of the different movements before he even started work on the piece:
From this moment on, the project significantly evolved: the “Morning Bells” became part of the Third Symphony, “Heavenly life” became a simple “Wunderhorn Lied” in the orchestral collection and the Scherzo in D would later become part of the Fifth Symphony. As for the Adagio, it could have originally been known under the subtitle (Caritas), but it is in G Major and not B major. However, it was rare for Mahler to modify the key of a planned movement. Besides, the same title would later reappear in the first “synopsis” drafted for the Eighth Symphony.
In July 1899, Mahler finally tackled the composition for the Fourth Symphony. However, due to a spate of bad luck in Alt-Aussee, a small spa resort in the Salzkammergut, where he spent a nightmare vacation, this was not to be. Not only was the weather rainy and freezing, he was constantly disturbed by the distant blaring of the municipal brass band from the villa he had rented. He was always hypersensitive to the slightest external noise when composing. Feeling completely discouraged, he ended up immersing himself in reading when suddenly the musical ideas started to flow. In just a few days, the entire work started to take shape.
The last weeks of his vacation were spent diligently working on the piece. With his impending return to Vienna fast approaching, his musical invention ironically became more and more bountiful. Everywhere he went, Mahler was never without his notebook so that none of his ideas would be lost. The last days of his vacation were a real ordeal: during a walk, the composer was suddenly overcome with uncontrollable dizziness at the thought of his music never seeing the light of day. Before leaving Aussee, he made a big roll of all his drafts. He was fully aware that no-one other than him would be able to decipher them. He later filed them away in a drawer in his office in Vienna and stopped thinking about them until the following summer.
The following year, in 1900, Mahler finally decided to settle down permanently with his family in a quiet and secluded location. He chose Maiernigg, a tiny town on the south shore of the Wörthersee, in Carinthia. While awaiting the completion of his villa, Mahler had already built a Häuschen in the middle of the forest, which he used solely for composition work. But following a demanding Opera season and the spate of concerts he had given at the International Exhibition (Paris), with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, he arrived somewhat exhausted. Once again, he spent long days in a state of anxiety and unable to put pen to paper. He had already bitterly complained of having ruined his life by becoming a conductor and cited other great composers of the past who, at his age, had already completed most of their work. In a state of distress, he went back to work, constantly complaining about the slightest noise, the birds nesting in the roof, the rumours circulating the other side of the lake and what he called the “barbarism of the outside world”. However, when he finally turned his attention back to the work he had drafted the previous year, he realized with amazement that, during this long period of creative inactivity, an unconscious “second self” had been working without his knowledge. The task before him was actually much more advanced than it was when he had put it away the previous year. As a result, the Fourth Symphony was completed in just over three weeks, a record. Mahler completed the manuscript on 6th August 1900. Overjoyed by his achievement, he talked incessantly about his work to friends, emphasising the unprecedented complexity of polyphony and the profound way in which the piece had been developed.
The Fourth Symphony has four movements:
The first performances
The Fourth Symphony premièred in Munich on 25th November 1901 and was directed by the composer himself. The audience had been expecting another titanic work—a new Second Symphony—from a composer noted for his love of monumentality. They could not believe their ears. They felt that such innocence and naivety could only be more posturing on his part, – an additional affectation, if not an example of deliberate mystification. They booed profusely. Sometime later, Felix Weingartner conducted the work in Frankfurt, Nuremberg (where he announced that he was ill and conducted only the finalé), Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. Mahler conducted the first performances in Berlin and Vienna. On both occasions, he was accused of ‘posing insoluble problems’, ‘amusing himself by using thematic material alien to his nature’, ‘taking pleasure in shattering the eardrums of the audience with atrocious and unimaginable cacophonies’ and of being incapable of writing anything other than stale and insipid music lacking in style and melody, music that, artificial and hysterical, was a ‘pot-pourri’ of ‘symphonic cabaret acts’.
However, the Fourth Symphony achieved a solid standing in the international concert repertoire and is Mahler’s most recorded symphony after the First.
Whereas with his previous symphonies, Mahler had always provided his listeners with explanatory texts, or at least titles for each of the movements, this time he decided that the music of the Fourth should itself be sufficient. Within the symphonic poems of Liszt and his school, he became aware that the “programmes” ultimately distracted the audience from the music and the musician and that his own texts, instead of facilitating access to his first works, only created ambiguities and misunderstandings. The listeners of the Fourth Symphony therefore had to make do with the poem which he set to music in the final lied. What did Mahler want to express in his new piece? Nothing but the “uniform blue” of the sky and its nuances, this shade of blue that attracts and fascinates human beings, while at the same time unsettling them with its very purity.
In 1901 he described the Adagio, with its ‘divinely gay and deeply sad’ melody, in the following way: “It is St Ursula herself, the most serious of all saints, who presides with a smile, so gay in this higher sphere. Her smile resembles that which one sees on the prone statues of old knights or on the prelates one sees lying in churches, their hands clasped on their chest and with the peaceful gentle expressions of those who have gained access to a higher bliss. Solemn, blessed peace; serious, gentle gaiety, such is the character of this movement, which also has deeply sad moments, comparable, if you wish, to recollections of earthly life, and other moments when gaiety becomes vivacity.” While writing this Adagio, Mahler sometimes saw the face of his own mother ‘smiling through her tears’—the face of a woman who had been able to ‘solve all suffering through love’. At a later date, he compared the work as a whole to a primitive painting with a gold background and described the Finale as follows: ‘When man, now full of wonder, asks what all this means, the child answers him with the fourth movement: “This is Heavenly Life!”.
So, unlike what happened and would happen at other times in Mahler’s life, (for example in 1904, when he composed his most “painful” music, the last Kindertotenlieder and the Finale of the Sixth Symphony, during what was supposedly the most harmonious summer of his
life), the Fourth Symphony exudes well-being, clean air, relaxation and lyricism; all this despite being created during times of great pain and
anguish. Two years after Mahler’s return to Austria, one can see a kind of thanksgiving song for his new found fatherland, a hymn dedicated to the glory of the Viennese “Gemütlichkeit”. Because the language of the Fourth Symphony is taken directly from Viennese classicism, that written by Haydn and Schubert.
-1- Bedächtig. (Nicht eilen) ; Recht gemächlich. [Deliberately. (Unhurried) ; Very leisurely.]
After a few introductory bars dominated by flutes and sleigh bells (the fool’s cap and bells according to Adorno, who compared the
opening to the “once upon a time” in fairy tales), the first movement begins “as if he did not know how to count to four”, by an ascending
theme with a distinctly Viennese flavour and which belongs to a larger family of similar melodies found in Mahler’s work. It is soon followed by a second calm and pastoral movement on the lower stri ngs. But such simplicity is soon contradicted by a developmental section in which the different motifs are combined, linked together, transformed and inextricably intertwined or, in the words of Erwin Stein, “shuffled like a pack of cards”. Time and again they create new motifs, while at the same time remaining recognisable in their own right, constantly juxtaposed or superimposed in ever new combinations.
-2- In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast. [Leisurely moving. Without haste.]
A shadow hangs over the beginning of the Scherzo in the shape of Ländler; the shrill sound of a retuned solo violin (whose strings are tuned to a tone higher than usual) gives it a caricatural tone, but we soon come to realise that “its intentions weren’t meant so seriously after all”. Originally, Mahler had headed this movement: “Freund Hain, the fiddler, plays for the dance; death scrapes its fiddle and leads us up to heaven.”
-3- Ruhevoll. [Peaceful.] (Somewhat slowly)
With the Adagio, we discover the very essence of Mahler’s music. And maybe even his soul. No other composer writing in the Beethoven tradition could have created music so serene, so serious and yet so profound. In Adorno’s own words: ‘Stripped of all pathos, the long melody discovers the quietude of a happy homeland, relieved of the suffering caused by limitation. Its authenticity, which does not need to fear comparisons with Beethoven, is confirmed by the fact that, after a period of rest, a sense of nostalgia incorruptibly wells up again, in the plaintive strains of the second theme, which transcends the expressive melody of the next.’ Mahler was right when he said that this movement ‘laughs and cries at the same time’, since the opening theme, motionless and meditative with its passacaglia bass, is followed by a second theme that has an openly anguished character. What follows are two distinct groups of variations of the main theme
separated by a double return to the “painful” theme. In the key of E major, the coda introduces the main motif of the Finale. With its sudden modulation, which unleashes the symphony’s only genuinely loud tutti, Mahler throws open the gates of perhaps the only paradise accessible to the living—the naive paradise of childhood and popular imagery.
-4- Sehr Behaglich. [Very comfortably.]
In Knaben Wunderhorn’s poem, Das himmlische Leben, the bucolic, musical and above all gastronomic pleasures of Heaven are described and catalogued with a verve, enthusiasm and precision which delighted Mahler. The solo soprano adopted “a joyful and childlike expression, completely devoid of parody”. His contemporaries would find this naivety singularly false and affected. They judged it even more scandalous and suspect than everything that had gone before it, not least in the light of the sophistication and above all, the orchestration of the work. Today, it seems inconceivable that this lovely song, so fresh and pure and so astonishingly rich in melodic invention, should have been so badly received by almost all of its early audiences. The luminous, radiant and sublime coda in E major, ‘heavenly’ music if ever there was such a thing—leaves us wholly convinced that ‘no music on earth could possibly compare to that of the higher spheres’. It also teaches us that tortured and divided souls like Mahler who, in their lives and art, willingly accepted all the frustrations, heartbreaks and tragedies of the human condition, as well as its doubts, uncertainties and ambiguities, could still hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. What does it matter if this paradise, ‘portrayed with the features of a rustic anthropomorphism’ (Adorno), seems almost too concrete, too reassuring for us to believe in it wholly, in the same way that we believe in the mystic resignation of the final movements of the Ninth Symphony and the Lied von der Erde?
In composing this Fourth Symphony, Mahler wanted to offer his contemporaries a shorter and more approachable piece of work than those that had gone before. He purposely didn’t use a vast orchestra, in particular trombones. Instead he endeavoured to showcase the clarity, economy, and transparency required by the “subject” of the piece.
But if, in Mahler’s production, the Fourth Symphony appears to be an intermezzo at first glance, or simply a source of light entertainment as opposed to an essential work, such a judgement does not stand up when closely examining the score. Behind the sound asceticism and the simplicity bias, hides a wealth of inventiveness, a polyphonic density, a concentration of musical thought, as well as a technical sovereignty, a complexity and an almost dizzying refinement of the handwriting, all of which were somewhat out of the ordinary for Mahler. Not only did he put in more effort, more time and more love into this forty-five minutes of music, compared to the ninety minutes of his previous works, but the technical achievement is even more brilliant. However, its obvious neo-classicism has nothing to do with a an escape to the past. On the contrary, it was an avant-garde piece of work for the time, a period of renewed self-discovery for Mahler and an entirely unexpected evolution of his style towards rigour and concentration. In his “return to Haydn”, Mahler obviously borrowed traditional and inherited formulas from the past, but he enriched and transformed them and never allowed himself to be constrained by these borrowings. There is nothing fake or caricature about his “irrational and unreasonable gaiety” either, as is often the case with Strauss, for example in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Rather, it represents a loving nostalgia for better times and times gone by, “times of innocence”. Moreover, this nostalgia, barely tinged with irony, characterises the intellectual climate that existed in Vienna at the beginning of the century, and in particular literary masterpieces such as The Man without Qualities by Musil or The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. And this is why the Fourth Symphony remains the most authentically Viennese of all of Mahler’s works.