The Heavenly Life: A Guide to Mahler’s Symphony No. 4

The Heavenly Life: A Guide to Mahler’s Symphony No. 4

For three years, Mahler had composed almost nothing. His first three gargantuan symphonies had only met with sporadic success, if they were performed at all, and he was consumed with the Herculean task of his new job: running Vienna’s Imperial Opera. Mahler was determined to transform the declining institution into a musical and theatrical experience unlike any the world had ever seen. He would drag everyone else—kicking and screaming if necessary—to new heights of musical precision and expression, changing opera and the art of conducting forever.

Gustav Mahler in 1898.
Gustav Mahler in 1898.

His daily life, however, was a never ending battle with musicians, set designers, administrators…and especially singers. When recalcitrant artists felt bullied by his demands, they often aired their griefs to the anti-Semitic press, which was only too happy to publish exaggerated, ugly stories about the opera’s new director (sometimes even fabricating them outright). Born into a Moravian Jewish family, Mahler had publically converted to Catholicism in order to be considered for the post. While this satisfied Kaiser Franz Joseph, it failed to placate Vienna’s increasingly virulent anti-Semites.

Bit by bit, however, his reforms took hold. At least for his first two years as director, Vienna’s critics were unanimous in their praise of his work. Even the anti-Semitic papers struggled to find something to critique with regard to his performances.

The price for artistic perfection, however, was not only incessant struggle, but also lost time. Mahler had to force himself to ignore musical ideas that came to him during the opera season because he had no time for composition. His summer vacations, normally prime composing time, became strangely unproductive, and he only managed to write a few short, albeit masterful, songs. Mahler began to fear that his inspiration was drying up and his days of writing major works were at an end.

Caricatures of Mahler conducting published in Vienna in 1901.
Caricatures of Mahler conducting published in Vienna in 1901.

The summer of 1899 had been as fallow as the two previous summers—worse, in fact, because he was staying in a town where a band would play “serenades, funeral marches and wedding marches every day from eleven o’clock and on Sunday from eight in the morning,” driving Mahler to distraction. Then, with only a few weeks of vacation left, the dam burst. Mahler had been suffering from constipation, and had taken a laxative. After spending several hours in the smallest room of the house, he emerged with a newly composed song: “Revelge,” now regarded as one of his greatest masterpieces. Mahler himself never tired of recounting the unusual circumstances of its creation.

The composing hut where Mahler completed his Symphony No. 4. Photo Credit: Johann Jaritz.
The composing hut where Mahler completed his Symphony No. 4. Photo Credit: Johann Jaritz.

With one work finished, another soon began to take shape in his mind: a symphony. Mahler raced to write down as much as he could, fearing that he would have to return to the dreaded grind of the opera before he could finish it. In just ten days, he managed to sketch what would become his Fourth Symphony, but it was far from finished. Mahler left the rest of it for the following summer, anguished by the thought that he might not be able to remember how it went after the intervening months.

Determined that he would have no distractions the next summer, Mahler purchased some land in a quieter alpine village and had a house constructed there. In addition to the main building, there was also a small composing hut some distance away, surrounded by trees. It took him a few weeks to settle in, but to his great relief he soon found the music coming back to him. Working all day, Mahler composed a new and unusual work that would explore themes of childhood, innocence and spirituality, completing it just a few weeks after his fortieth birthday.

A New Direction

It was Mahler’s most sophisticated score yet, but for all its refinements, the music also possessed a childlike simplicity. In a conversation with his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he compared his new symphony to the “uniform blue of the sky.”

It was unlike any of the symphonies he had written before. With their heaven-storming passages, gigantic orchestras and vast dimensions, Mahler’s first three symphonies had won him a reputation as a great noisemaker and musical modernist. Aware of this, Mahler cheekily noted that his new symphony didn’t include any trombones (some of the loudest instruments in the orchestra), and it also clocked in at under an hour (compact by Mahlerian standards). While he still employed a large orchestra, he used the instruments for color rather than volume, and almost never all at once. Although he confessed that he had thought of some beautiful ones, he refused to publish programmatic movement titles as he had done with his first three symphonies, “so as to avoid giving rise to further absurd misunderstandings.” Between his sketches, remarks made to friends and the music itself, however, it is possible to form a conjecture as to what Mahler had in mind.

A Song of Innocence and Experience

The symphony’s opening is one of the most enchanting in the literature: Mahler begins with the chilly sound of sleigh bells before taking us inside to a crackling fire:

A note about this recording: it features a performance conducted by Willem Mengelberg, who consulted Mahler himself with regard to the symphony’s interpretation. It is thus the closest we will ever come to knowing how Mahler might have conducted it. Listeners accustomed to modern interpretations will notice a much greater degree of flexibility of tempo than usual.

Schubert plays the piano for a gathering of friends, as drawn from memory by Schuberts friend Moritz von Schwind in 1868, many years after Schuberts death.
Schubert plays the piano for a gathering of friends, as drawn from memory by his friend Moritz von Schwind in 1868, many years after Schubert’s death.

Mahler said that the first three notes of the melody in the violins should be savored “in the same way as we begin a ‘Viennese waltz’ in Vienna.” This music is the epitome of gemutlichkeit, an untranslatable German word that encompasses both “coziness” and “belonging.” It has a delightfully domestic, nostalgic character, in part created by a melodic style that strongly recalls Schubert’s music. Mahler had been familiar with Schubert’s piano sonatas since his student days, and during the second summer Mahler spent working on this symphony he read through all of Schubert’s chamber music and songs (over 600 works in total) when taking breaks from working on his own symphony (proof that you can take the workaholic out of the office, but you can’t take the office out of the workaholic). Some scholars have even suggested that specific passages by Schubert may have served as models for melodies in this symphony.

Mahler was likely attracted not only by Schubert’s pretty tunes, but also by his musical structure. Schubert’s works are famous for their “heavenly lengths”; he was able to expand traditional musical forms by constructing them with a seemingly endless stream of melody. For a composer like Mahler who wanted to expand the symphony both in time and emotional scope, Schubert likely served as a helpful model.

A typical Biedermeier interior.
A typical Biedermeier interior.

Mahler had more than purely musical reasons for referencing Schubert, however; by 1900, Schubert’s music was associated with the Biedermeier era, a period following the Napoleonic Wars that was remembered as a time of peace, stability, prosperity, and political reaction. Eager to prevent any trace of revolutionary activity, Austria’s political elites instituted a strict censorship regime following Napoleon’s defeat. Artists thus tended to shy away from political topics, focusing instead on sentimental depictions of family life—gemutlichkeit. It was an era of waltzes, frilly interior design, and art that aimed to please rather than ask probing questions. Schubert’s music can be read as internal critique of the era, given its combination of Biedermeier style and intense emotional depth. Additionally, Schubert’s own unconventional lifestyle didn’t exactly match up to the idealized depictions of family life popular in Biedermeier fiction—he had died penniless at the age of 31, most likely as a result of syphilis.

Mahler compared the melodies of the first movement to "a dewdrop on a flower that suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colors.”
Mahler compared the melodies of the first movement to “a dewdrop on a flower that suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colors.”

It would seem that Mahler chose this era as a kind of “setting” for his Fourth Symphony, one that particularly resonated with the themes of childhood and innocence that he found himself exploring. In the first movement, one lovely Schubertian melody follows another in what Mahler likened to “a dewdrop on a flower that suddenly illuminated by the sun, bursts into a thousand lights and colors.” After introducing this wealth of ideas, the sleigh bells return. We then hear a solo from a violin, an instrument that will have a prominent role throughout this symphony. This time, the solo violin takes a turn to darker, stranger tonalities. A number of commentators have noted the bird call-like figures in the woodwinds that follow. Perhaps we have snuck away into the woods, straying farther and farther from the innocence of the family hearth.

“But sometimes the atmosphere darkens and grows strangely terrifying,” Mahler said. “Not that the sky itself clouds over: it goes on shining with its everlasting blue. But we suddenly become afraid of it, just as on a beautiful day in the sun-dappled forest one is often overcome by a panic terror.” The music builds to a thunderous climax, followed by a soft but menacing figure in the trumpet.

Mahler referred to this trumpet figure as “the little summons,” comparing it to a commander marshalling his troops. Perhaps even more revealing is that Mahler used it as the basis of the funeral march that begins his Fifth Symphony. Soon after, the melodies from the first part of the movement return, beginning in mid-phrase, as if they had been going on all along while we were away on our adventure. They are not quite the same, however. Mahler refused to ever write a literal repetition of any musical idea. He wanted his musical narrative to reflect the irreversibility of the passage of time—just as one cannot go back and relive a portion of one’s life, musical ideas cannot return exactly as they were before. As the movement draws to a close, the music slows and fades into a lullaby-like atmosphere, the set up for a final burst of childish glee.

“Playing us up to heaven”

In his 1872 self portrait, the German artist Arnold Böcklin depicted Freund Hein playing a fiddle over his shoulder.
In his 1872 self portrait, the German artist Arnold Böcklin depicted Freund Hein playing a fiddle over his shoulder.

In the second movement, the solo violin returns in a new guise. Mahler originally gave it the following subtitle: “Freund Hein strikes up the dance for us; he strokes the fiddle most strangely and plays us up to heaven.” Freund Hein was an allegorical figure from German folklore who represented death. Mahler gives the violin Freund Hein’s skeletal grin by asking the soloist to tune his instrument a whole tone higher than usual, creating a shrill, rough sound like that of a country fiddle. In between the appearances of Freund Hein, Mahler wrote contrasting episodes of strange and enchanting music, which he likened to musical “spider’s webs.” Some of the melodies are even sweetly sentimental, but in the end Freund Hein always returns with his eerie fiddle.

The slow third movement is the real heart of the symphony; Mahler said that it reminded him of his mother’s smile. Although it has a few idiosyncrasies, it is a double theme and variations: two main melodies alternate and are varied with each reappearance. The first, which begins the movement, is a tender melody that first appears in the cello; the second, a more plaintive, melancholy line in the oboe. The two alternate, building to a heart-wrenching climax before dying away. During the denouement, a fast, carnivalesque passage threatens to overwhelm the meditative mood, only to be reined in by the horns. Then, everything comes to a halt, and the orchestra explodes into a coruscating wall of sound representing the gates of heaven. At this moment, Mahler was sorely tempted to include trombones for a few measures, but in the end he managed to open the gates of heaven without them. Now, he said, “everything will be unraveled, and you will understand that no harm was meant after all.”

The title page of the 1806 edition of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.
The title page of the 1806 edition of Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Having passed through the gates, the final movement brings us into heaven itself. Unconventionally, Mahler chose to end his symphony with a song for solo voice and orchestra, something no composer had ever done before. The text of the song was taken from one of Mahler’s perennial sources of inspiration, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, “The Youth’s Magic Horn,” a collection of anonymous German folk poetry. Mahler was attracted to the simplicity and naïveté of folk poetry, which he felt was closer to nature than more literary verses.

This poem presents a child’s vision of heaven. It is usually sung by an adult female soprano, preferably with a light, bright, childlike voice, although Mahler indicated that it could also be sung by a boy soprano. Mahler actually wrote this movement eight years earlier as an independent song called “Das himmlische Leben,” or “The Heavenly Life.” He had originally intended to use this song as the final movement of his Third Symphony, but decided to save it for another time when he realized how long his Third was going to be even without it. He made a few minor changes, but left it mostly the way it had been.

From the beginning, this movement had been the destination and source of the entire work. Most of the preceding melodic ideas were derived from small motifs in the song, creating a sense of arrival and fulfillment. For a depiction of heaven, the music is remarkably earthy, reflecting the folk origins of the poem. The child pictures what life in heaven must be like, amusingly noting that “We lead angelic lives, yet have a merry time of it besides.”

Angels playing music. Perhaps Mahler? Detail of El Greco's The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.
Angels playing music. Perhaps a chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth? Detail of El Greco’s The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.

The child then imagines a great heavenly feast. The sleigh bells return, now with a fierce winter wind behind them, as St. John leads a little lamb to the slaughter for the banquet. The child’s imagination proves all too bound to earthly life: it seems there is death even in heaven itself. This troubling scene soon passes, however, and the symphony concludes with the child listening to the music of the angels:

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Cecilia and all her relations
make excellent court musicians.
The angelic voices
gladden our senses,
so that all awaken for joy.

Perhaps there is no music on earth that can compare, but in the serenity of this symphony’s final moments, Mahler surely comes close.

There’s Always a Critic

At the 1901 premiere in Munich, the symphony met with near universal incomprehension. One young musician by the name of William Ritter recalled, “Something was up…We all felt it at once…This symphony obviously spelt danger.”

Listeners who had appreciated Mahler’s monumental Second Symphony were puzzled by the quiet intimacy of this new work; his rich allusions to Schubert and folk music were interpreted as a lack of originality; many were disturbed by the juxtaposition of “high” and “low” musical styles, which sounded vulgar to them; the sensual beauty of some passages was deemed overly sexual and illicit, while more dissonant passages were derided as “ear torturing effects.” While some praised the complexity of his orchestration and technique, many felt that this sophistication made the music’s childlike naïveté sound insincere; others complained that Mahler had clearly written program music, but had provided no program, without which the score was incomprehensible; and others could not see past their own anti-Semitic prejudice, believing that anything written by a Jewish composer must be a threat.

One representative review argued that the symphony was nothing but “technique, calculation, vanity, a morbid and insipid supermusic, a shapeless stylistic monstrosity that collapses under a surfeit of witty details.” Another believed that Mahler, having “finally discovered that he lacked the essential faculties for composing” had intended his symphony as a monstrous joke to “see how much the public can be made to swallow without perceiving that it’s being ridiculed.” Tragically, Mahler, the most sincere of composers, had been completely misunderstood.

But there were a few who realized what Mahler had meant. One especially insightful critic, Arthur Seidl, wrote that “Mahler is a real ‘God Seeker.’ His most secret inner being contemplates the immensity of nature with a really religious fervor; he is inexorably drawn toward the enigma of existence…it is the critics who consider him with an ironic eye and find only affectation in his music; it is they who are stubborn and who cannot find the key to his naïve and childlike world!”

It would be many, many years before Mahler’s Symphony would finally be more widely appreciated. Even today, this complex work raises more questions than it answers. Its last notes leave listeners wondering, “What next?” That, however, is a story for another symphony: Mahler’s Fifth.

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