Listening Guide – Movement 4: Lied: Das himmlische Leben (Sehr behaglich)


The idea of concluding a symphony with a song movement is most unusual, and may even be unique. Mahler wrote the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Leben, long before the Fourth Symphony was conceived, and considered using it as the finale of the third. After he changed his mind about using the song in the Third Symphony, and began work on the fourth, it occurred to him that musical material from the song had already crept into the symphony’s other movements, and therefore the song itself would be a logical conclusion. References to the song’s chorale reframe, and other incidental melodic material had already appeared in both the angels and animals movements of the Third Symphony, tying the two symphony’s together. By placing does hemorrhage labor and at the end of the Fourth Symphony, it aptly takes its place as the culmination of the Wunderhorn Symphony cycle. Having raised in the second Symphony, the most dreadful of all existential questions, what is the meaning of life and death, and fought in the first and third symphony’s, the most terrifying battles for the human spirit between life-affirming and life-negating forces. Mahler can now bring the victories one in these earlier symphony’s to risk. He does so not by more heavens storming music, but with a simple and charmingly naive child’s vision of daily life and have traditional elements find their way into this song finale, as they had in the earlier movements.
The song theme itself is based upon an old Bavarian tune, the sky hangs full of fiddles throughout the movement Baroque decorations, such as trills, pits, acabados, triplets, and dotted rhythmic figures, ornament the thematic material adorning the heavenly scene with frills and fancies. The finale combines classical strophic form with roundelay, and cyclical elements, particularly apparent in the return of the slave l motive from the first movement, and the chorale refrain from the angel’s movement of the Third Symphony. The finale opens in the tonic key of G major, and in a relaxed mood, its main tempo is set at an easy comfortable pace without any introduction. The clarinet softly states the principal theme, accompanied by a bouncing rhythm and low strings and harp, even the motive associated with the donkey in the song Ablosung im Sommer, used in the animal’s movement of the Third Symphony finds its way into the cellos and bass clarinet on repeated falling iambic figures.

How refreshingly simple and charming this music sounds in comparison with that which preceded it. Yet, this is not the first time we have heard the opening tune. It was first introduced by the horns during the major orchestral outburst toward the close of the third movement.

In fact, the opening for notes of this theme a triplet upbeat into a half note, leaping upward by a sixth relate to the solo violins melody from the scherzo movement and the first three notes appear for the first time in the symphony and low strings as early as the seventh bar of the first movement.

By inverting these opening notes, we have the Marshall Islands motive from their Rosenkavalier.

The main theme and its accompanying dotted rhythms, triplets, rapid grace notes, and trills have a folk light quality and create a light airy atmosphere with which to introduce the homey celestial scene depicted in the text. The dotted rhythmic figures recall their frequent use in the first movement as part of its first subject. The soprano enters with the song’s first stroke, not on the theme itself, which continues in the clarinet, but on a melodramatic variation of it. Her vocal line is replete with falling and rising seconds, a significant thematic element in all of the previous movements.

Flute and string figuration and embellish the melodic line derived from a passage in the angels movement from the Third Symphony.

If you listen very carefully, you can even hear this figuration in the clarinets during the brief introduction of the first movement.

The orchestral company man scurries about as if without a care in the world. The tempo soon becomes livelier, adding a touch of frolic to the homespun character of the vocal line that recalls the playfulness of the animal’s movement in the Third Symphony.

Suddenly, the temple slows down as the soprano sings the opening bars of the chorale, refrain from that same symphony’s angels movement, as she tells of St. Peter, observing the heavenly doing she describes.

Here’s how this chorale sounded in the third symptom.

Music comes to rest on a suspended open fifth chord played softly by the strings. Then, just as unexpectedly, the opening measures of the entire Symphony reappear in a flash, complete with sleigh bells and grace noted repeating eighths, sounding more agitated than when heard earlier. An extensive musical interlude follows based upon the sleigh bell motive, imitated for emphasis in strings by tapping with the woodwind part of the balls, a method called col legno.
16th note figuration stirs the pulse, and falling octave leaps lend a spectral quality to the passage, faintly recalling the scherzo movement, but a far cry from the gentler treatment of the sleigh bells in the opening movement. Shifting between the sleigh bell motive, and the string figuration with each measure recalls the Wunderhorn songs on animal subjects.

A new theme and E minor appear in woodwinds, beginning much like the Herald summons motive from the Pan march of the Third Symphony, as it appears in the first movement of this simple.

This is how it sounded in the first movement.

With its grace noted half notes and dotted rhythms, it functions like another variant of the main theme. Arising the 16th note phrase taken from the angel’s movement accompanies this woodwind theme played uncharacteristically in the groundling lower regions of the woodwinds and cellos. As this phrase turns into an ascending scale. It refers back to the first moment, where duple rhythm versions of this figure occasionally appeared. In a slightly more relaxed tempo, the soprano begins the second script of still in E minor. She is accompanied by a sequence of the ascending 16th note figuration that appeared in the angel movement in clarinets, and the grace note and falling second that relates back to both the first movement and the scherzo movement with the first note of this figure was true.

The vocal line gives the main theme a more horizontal contour and again emphasizes falling seconds of phrase endings. The narrative text is recited in a serious vein, like a report of heavenly doings, yet its objective manner becomes more tender by expressing compassion for the little lamb slaughtered for a meal. The grace note and falling seconds almost take on the character of oxen mewing when played by bass, clarinet, horn, and double bass. The soprano closes the strokes first part by anticipating the second part of the corral reframe that will be sung at the end of the stroke after a repetition of the first part.

Wins in the credential chorale reframe on a soft sustained chord, and the orchestra jumps in with the sleigh bells motive for a four-bar intimate so the sleigh bells sounding even more agitated than before. Suddenly, the pace reverts back to the more relaxed main temple, as if the lens of the kaleidoscope is given another quick turn and we are back to the gentle, easy-going strains of the movement’s opening. The soprano enters immediately to begin the third stroke with another variation of the main theme, oboes counter with the second theme in its original form, with the assistance of violins on the triplet upbeat that opened the movement.

Gradually the tempo picks up on dotted rhythms from the main theme, and the meter shifts between 4/4 time and to 2/4, creating more tension. While the soprano describes the culinary delights available in heaven, the music becomes more agitated, even distraught, descending chromatic elements invade the vocal line which Mahler directs to be sung arrogantly soon the scurrying sixteenths that accompany the soprano when the second part of the first drove return in strings and flutes taking on the character, if not the actual notation of music from the rapid middle section of the third symphony’s flowers movement. Listen to the oboes and clarinets and then violin in this excerpt from that movement.

This same figuration was hinted at earlier in the clarinets, the third stroke concludes with the complete version of the chorale refrain from the angel’s movement. Here both parts of the refrain, each having concluded a previous strove are combined into single music align. An open fifth chord on D played very softly by muted strings, ends the refrain. Now let’s listen to the entire passage.

After a breath pause, the orchestral interlude returns with a raucous treatment of the sleigh bell music for the full ensemble. In only seven measures, it spends all of its energy and quickly fades to prepare for a new section that will function like a coda and contain the final stroke. Once again, the principle tempo returns abruptly and the key changes to E major, replacing G major that functions as the principal tonality of both this movement and the entire Symphony. The juxtaposition and interposition of keys that are a major third apart, is characteristic of the music of the Romantic Period. Mahler heads the coda with the marking Sehr zart und geheimnis voll bis zum Schluss, very delicate and secretive to the end. Over the harps variant of the triplet, upbeat figure with which the main theme originally began, an English horn softly plays the second themes grace note and a half notes, while the first flute and violins had a new variation of the rest of the theme that is strangely similar to the brass music played during the closing section of the second symphony’s finale. A fragment from the Fourth Movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in D major, Deutscher 850, consisting of a descending scale of two triplets followed by a dotted rhythm is tagged on to the new theme as it develops and violins, the theme’s tender strains have a calming effect, especially in contrast to the boisterous din of the music of the sleigh bells that preceded it.

Schubert phrase and the main themes triplet, upbeat, softly, and delicately lead into the last stroke. Over a hushed statement of the theme and violins. The soprano sings her own automatic variation, a nearly exact replica of the music to which he sang the first stroke. Now in E major instead of G major. Since Mahler rarely repeats the matic material exactly. It is not surprising that the second part of the theme is quite different from the original. He gives the soprano a new version of the tactic rhythm that was a prominent feature of the second part of her melodic material throughout the movement. A simple chromatic twist on a reference in the text to 11,000 young virgins, gives the passage a slightly central character. In one of Mahler’s most beautiful cadences. The first part of this final strove closes on a lovely phrase for the voice that recalls a fragment from the oboe plane in the Adagio movement. After yet another version of the dactylic figure from the main theme in wider intervals, the note that leads to a cadence is briefly held and gives way on a downward leap of attempts. Transfiguration of the plunges that momentarily cast their shadow over the B section of the Adagio.

Instead of darkening the atmosphere with a sense of impending tragedy, this motive brings with it a feeling of repose, as if implying what the text presumes that heaven is the ultimate triumph over death. Yet another example of Mahler’s extraordinary talent for recasting thematic material to create a completely different dramatic effect in keeping with the underlying subject of the work in which it appears, it is at this moment of redemptive peace, that the singer relates how St. Ursula laughed at the heavenly scene, Mahler’s identification of St. Ursula with his mother is most telling in this gentle and heartfelt music.
Beginning on the same words that opened this last stroke. Its second part proceeds with an inverted and reconfigured version of the main themes second part, accompanied by the themes first part and violins. A dotted rhythmic phrase that accompanies the second line of the stroke recalls the trios of the second movement and relates to a similar ascending dotted rhythmic figure in the first movement. Set against the new theme from the coda with its schubertian phrase and violins the soprano continues on the second part of the main theme, she concludes with a tenderly expressive variation of the chorale refrain, above which woodwinds flow by on rhythmic elements from the main theme. Throughout the closing section, the orchestra is gradually reduced, until only a chamber ensemble consisting of English horn, bass clarinet, two horns, harp, and low strings remain after the singer has concluded.
On the Schubert quotation and fragments from the main theme, music sways gently fading away into the perfect stillness of heavenly peace. Curiously, the heart begins to mark time in this relaxed tempo, with a march-like beat on fourths, so frequently used by Mahler. Here, the quiet march beat represents the steady pace of eternal life in endless repose. At the end of the third Symphony Mahler glory in the majesty and splendor of the Almighty. In the finale of the fourth, he now sees that heavenly life can be just as ordinary as earthly life, but without the torments that the human soul must constantly endure below. The last strokes of time sound in the heart, over a sustained low E and bass strings that slowly fades into the sublime piece of eternity.

By Lew Smoley

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