The Symphony No. 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler was written in 1899 and 1900, though it incorporates a song originally written in 1892. The song, “Das himmlische Leben”, presents a child’s vision of Heaven. It is sung by a soprano in the work’s fourth and last movement. Although typically described as being in the key of G major, the symphony employs a progressive tonal scheme (‘(b)/G–E’).

Mahler’s first four symphonies are often referred to as the “Wunderhorn” symphonies because many of their themes originate in earlier songs by Mahler on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). The fourth symphony is built around a single song, “Das himmlische Leben”. It is prefigured in various ways in the first three movements and sung in its entirety by a solo soprano in the fourth movement.

Mahler composed “Das himmlische Leben” as a free-standing piece in 1892. The title is Mahler’s own: in the Wunderhorn collection the poem is called “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (an idiomatic expression akin to “there’s not a cloud in the sky”). Several years later Mahler considered using the song in the fifth and seventh movement, the finale, of his Third symphony. While motifs from “Das himmlische Leben” are found in the Third symphony, Mahler eventually decided not to include it in that work and, instead, made the song the goal and source of his Fourth Symphony.

In February 1892, after eighteen totally unproductive months, Mahler abandoned his already well-established habit of composing only during the summer months and, even though the Hamburg opera season was still in full swing, began writing music again. To his sister, who had just sent him Arnim’s and Brentano’s three-volume anthology of poetry, he wrote in a vein of newfound self-confidence: ‘I now have the Wunderhorn in my hands.

With that self-knowledge which is natural to creators, I can add that once again the result will be worthwhile!’ Within barely a month Mahler had completed four ‘Humoresques’ for voice and orchestra that were later to form part of his much larger collection of orchestral Wunderhorn songs. What he did not foresee, in spite of the ‘self-knowledge’ that, as we know, so rarely misled him, was the fate of the fifth ‘Humoresque’, Das himmlische Leben. This song was initially intended to form part of the monumental edifice of the Third Symphony, where it was to appear under the title ‘Was mir das Kind erzählt’ (What the Child Tells Me), having already furnished part of the melodic material of the symphony’s fifth movement.

A few years later Mahler became conscious of the exceptional wealth of material that it contained and, for the first time in the history of music, decided to use it as the final movement of another symphony, which likewise was initially described as a ‘humoresque’. In this way, Das himmlische Leben became the culmination—the ‘spire’ [verjüngende Spitze] or crowning glory—of the new work, much as the final movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mahler’s own Second Symphony became the choral apotheosis of their respective works.


When he began work on the Fourth Symphony in 1899, Mahler had already spent two years occupying a post that he had coveted for a long time: he was now the admired and autocratic director of the Vienna Court Opera, in which capacity he had in a sense returned to his roots and rediscovered his adopted city. From today’s perspective it is not difficult to see the indelible imprint that the Austrian capital left on the Fourth Symphony with its pastoral lyricism and carefree abandon.

Even before setting to work, Mahler had already drawn up a sort of synopsis of the different movements, just as he had done previously for the Third Symphony:

1. Die Welt als ewige Jetztzeit (The World as Eternal Present), in G major

2. Das irdische Leben (Earthly Life), in E-flat minor

3. Caritas (Adagio), in B major

4. Morgenglocken (Morning Bells), in F major

5. Die Welt ohne Schwere (The World without Gravity), in D major (Scherzo)

6. Das himmlische Leben (Heavenly Life)

This plan was to develop considerably: Morgenglocken was incorporated into the Third Symphony, Das irdische Leben became an independent song and, as such, became part of the collection of orchestral Wunderhorn settings, while the Scherzo in D major is undoubtedly identical to the movement that Mahler later inserted into his Fifth Symphony. The Adagio of the present symphony might well have originally been subtitled ‘Caritas’, but it is in G major, not B major. Not only was it rare for Mahler to change the tonality of a movement once it had been planned, but the same title was to reappear several years later in the initial outline of the Eighth Symphony.

It was in July 1899 that Mahler began work on the actual symphony. Following a series of unfortunate mishaps, he finished up this year at Aussee, a small spa in the Salzkammergut, where he spent a disastrous vacation. Not only was the weather cold and wet, but the villa that he had rented was within earshot of the local bandstand, a proximity that proved a trial for a man as hypersensitive as Mahler was to the slightest external noise. Completely discouraged, he tried to read, and it was only then that musical ideas suddenly began to well up within him. Within the space of only a few days the whole work had taken on very real shape in his imagination.

The final weeks of his vacation were spent in a state of feverish activity. By a cruel irony of fate, his powers of musical invention became increasingly fertile as the fateful hour of his return to Vienna approached. On his many long walks he carried a sketchbook with him so that none of his ideas should be lost. The final days were a veritable torment: in the course of one of his walks he was suddenly seized by an attack of dizziness at the thought that all the music that was stirring within him would never see the light of day. Before leaving Aussee, he bundled up all his sketches, fully aware that he alone was able to decipher them. On his return to Vienna he placed them in a drawer of his desk and put them out of his mind until the following summer.

The following year, 1900, Mahler and his family decided that, calm and seclusion being indispensable to his creative activities, they would have a house built to which they could return each summer. Accordingly, they chose Maiernigg, a tiny village on the northern edge of the Wörthersee in Carinthia. While waiting for the villa to be completed, Mahler had already had built a studio or Häuschen surrounded on all sides by forest. It was here that he planned to compose. But he arrived at Maiernigg completely exhausted by the recent season at the Vienna Court Opera and by the concerts that he had just conducted with the Vienna Philharmonic at the World Exhibition in Paris.

Once again, several days were to pass in a state of deep anxiety and total inactivity. He began to complain that he had completely wasted his life by becoming a conductor, citing the example of so many other great composers of the past who, by his age, had already completed the greater part of their oeuvre. It was in a state of deep depression, therefore, that he set to work once again, complaining ceaselessly at the smallest noise—at the birds building their nests in the eaves of his Häuschen, at the sounds reaching him from the opposite side of the lake—everything, in short, that he described as the ‘barbarity of the outside world’. But as soon as he finally reimmersed himself in the previous year’s sketches, he realised to his amazement that throughout his long period of creative inactivity a ‘second self’ had been working unconsciously and unknown to him. As a result, the work was far more advanced than it had been at the moment he had broken off the previous year, so that the Fourth Symphony could now be completed in record time—only a little over three weeks.

Mahler put the finishing touches to the manuscript on 6 August 1900. Beside himself with happiness, he could not stop talking about his work and commenting on it to his closest friends, underlining the unprecedented complexity of the polyphonic writing and the elaborate handling of the development sections.

Whereas, in the case of his earlier symphonies, Mahler had provided his listeners with explanatory introductions or at least given titles to their individual movements, he decided on this occasion that the music of the Fourth Symphony can and must be self-sufficient. He had finally realised that the ‘programmes’ of the symphonic poems by Liszt and his school robbed both music and musician of all freedom and that the programmes he had drawn up for his earlier symphonies had merely bred ambiguities and misunderstandings. Consequently, listeners were not provided with a text of any kind for the Fourth Symphony, with the single exception of the poem set to music in the final movement. But what was Mahler trying to express in his new work? Nothing but the ‘uniform blue’ of the sky, in all its manifold nuances, the 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 terms: ‘St Ursula herself, the most serious of all the saints, presides with a smile, so gay in this higher sphere. Her smile resembles that on the prone statues of old knights or prelates one sees lying in churches, their hands joined on their bosoms and with the peaceful gentle expressions of men 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 reminiscences of earthly life, and other moments when gaiety becomes vivacity.’ While writing this movement, Mahler sometimes glimpsed the face of his own mother ‘smiling through her tears’—the face of a woman who had been able to ‘solve and forgive all suffering by love’. At a somewhat later date he compared the work as a whole to a primitive painting with a gold background and described the final movement in particular 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”.’

Movement 1: Bedachtig-nicht eilen-recht gemachlich

Movement 2: In gemächlicher Bewegung

Movement 3: Ruhevoll (poco adagio)

Movement 4: Lied: Das himmlische Leben (Sehr behaglich)

The Fourth Symphony thus presents a thematic fulfilment of the musical world of the Third, which is part of the larger tetralogy of the first four symphonies, as Mahler described them to Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Early plans in which the Symphony was projected as a six-movement work included another Wunderhorn song, “Das irdische Leben” (“Earthly Life”) as a somber pendant to “Das himmlische Leben,” offering a tableau of childhood starvation in juxtaposition to heavenly abundance, but Mahler later decided on a simpler structure for the score.

A typical performance of the Fourth lasts about an hour, making it one of Mahler’s shorter symphonies. The performing forces are also small by Mahler’s usual standard. These features have made it the most frequently performed Mahler symphony, though in recent years the First has gained ground.

1904. Score Symphony no. 4 with markings from Gustav Mahler and Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951). See 1904 Concert Amsterdam 23-10-1904 – Symphony No. 4 (twice)

In writing the Fourth Symphony, Mahler hoped to offer his contemporaries a work that would be both shorter and more accessible than his previous symphonies. He willingly dispensed with vast orchestral forces and, in particular, with trombones, forcing himself, instead, to invest the writing with the clarity, economy and transparency plainly demanded by the subject matter of the symphony. The Fourth Symphony had its first performance in Munich on 25 November 1901 under the composer’s own direction. The audience expected another titanic work—a new Second Symphony—from a composer noted for his love of monumentality and could not believe their ears. Such innocence and naivety could only be more posturing on his part, they felt—an additional affectation, if not an example of deliberate mystification.

The performance was roundly booed. Shortly afterwards, Felix Weingartner conducted the work in Frankfurt, Nuremberg (where he announced that he was ill and conducted only the final movement), Karlsruhe and Stuttgart. Mahler himself conducted the first performances in Berlin and Vienna. On each occasion he was accused of ‘posing insoluble problems’, ‘amusing himself by using thematic material alien to his nature’, ‘taking pleasure in shattering the eardrums of his audiences 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 ‘medley’ of ‘symphonic cabaret acts’.

History teaches us that many great composers were similarly reviled by their contemporaries. Of course, it must be admitted that a paradox lay at the heart of the Fourth Symphony, the contrast between the reassuring surface and the complexity of the compositional technique, was bound to be disconcerting. Yet it is difficult to understand how so magisterial a work could have found so few perceptive supporters. If the Fourth Symphony was later to find a solid and stable niche for itself in the international concert repertory before the rest of Mahler’s symphonies, it owed that position more to its modest proportions than to the fact that audiences had really understood its true nature or grasped its richness of substanceand its mastery of form.

Compared to Mahler’s other works, the Fourth Symphony might appear at first sight to be a lightweight intermezzo rather than a work of substance, but such a judgement cannot be sustained in the face of a closer examination of the score. Behind the deliberate simplicity and relatively modest orchestration lie hidden a wealth of invention, a polyphonic density, a concentration of musical ideas and, at the same time, a sovereign technique and almost dizzying complexity and sophistication that are all without precedent in Mahler’s oeuvre. Not only did he expend more effort, more time and at least as much love on these forty-five minutes of music than on the ninety minutes of each of the preceding works, but the level of technical success is even more striking, while his evident Neo-Classicism is anything other than a flight into the past. Quite the opposite.

For its time, the Fourth Symphony was an avant-garde work, a form of self-discovery for the composer himself, bringing with it as it did an entirely unexpected evolution in his style that led to greater rigour and concentration. In his ‘return to Haydn’, Mahler certainly borrowed traditional formulas from the past, but he enriched and transformed them constantly, with inexhaustible imagination, never allowing himself to be restricted by such borrowings. Nor has his ‘irrational and unreasonable gaiety’ anything counterfeit about it: there is nothing of the caricature in it, as is the case with Richard Strauss’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, for example. Rather the prevailing mood is that of an affectionate nostalgia for better times, for an ‘age of innocence’. It may be added that this barely ironical nostalgia characterises the whole intellectual climate of Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century, finding particularly notable expression in such literary masterpieces as Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften and Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch—yet another reason why the Fourth Symphony remains the most authentically Viennese of all Mahler’s works.

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