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Symphony No. 4 (Mahler)

Symphony No. 4
by Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler in 1888
KeyG major – E major
Composed1892 (1892) – 1900 (1900): Steinbach
  • Ludwig Doblinger
Date25 November 1901 (1901-11-25)
ConductorGustav Mahler
PerformersKaim Orchestra

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 final movement. Although typically described as being in the key of G major, the symphony employs a progressive tonal scheme ('(b)/G—E').[1]


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 Boy's Magic Horn). The fourth symphony is built around a single song, "Das himmlische Leben" ("The Heavenly Life"). 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 freestanding 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 as the seventh and final movement of his Symphony No. 3. While motifs from "Das himmlische Leben" are found in the Symphony No. 3, Mahler eventually decided not to include it in that work and, instead, made the song the goal and source of his Symphony No. 4. This symphony thus presents a thematic fulfilment of the musical world of No. 3, 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" ("The 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.[2]


A typical performance of the symphony lasts about an hour, making it one of Mahler's shorter symphonies. The performing forces are also small by Mahler's usual standard.

The movements of the symphony:

  1. Bedächtig, nicht eilen (Moderately, not rushed) – sonata form
  2. In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast (Leisurely moving, without haste) – scherzo and trio
  3. Ruhevoll, poco adagio (Peacefully, somewhat slowly) – theme and variations
  4. Sehr behaglich (Very comfortably) – strophic

Flutes and sleigh bells open the unusually[clarification needed] restrained first movement (and used later with a melodic theme known commonly as the 'bell theme', which helps define sections throughout the movement) often described[by whom?] as possessing classical poise.

  \relative c'' { \clef treble \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \key g \major \slashedGrace { g'8( } <fis b,>8-.)\p \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) \slashedGrace { g( } <fis b,>-.) }

As would be expected for the first movement of a symphony, the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is in sonata form.

The primary theme:

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key g \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \partial 8*3 d8(\p\upbow^"grazioso"\< e fis\!\glissando | g\pp b,16) r b4.(\downbow c32 b a b c8 d ) | dis4( e4.)\< fis16\!->( e\> d c b a)\! | g8.([ a16 b8. c16)] cis( d e d) \grace { c!8([ d] } c16-> b c a) | g8-. }

The secondary theme:

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key d \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \partial 8*1 a8\p(\downbow fis'4--) fis-- fis4.-- fis8( | g\< fis g e)\!\glissando b'4(\> a)\!\breathe }

The second movement is a scherzo that features a part for a solo violin whose strings are tuned a whole tone higher than usual.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 3/8 \key c \minor \partial 16*3 b16\mf(\< ees g\! | fis8.\p\< d16 b\!\f f') | ees(\p f ees d c ees) | des( c des) f-. ees-. d-. | ees(\>[ d c\!)] }

The violin depicts Freund Hein, (lit. "Friend Henry") a figure from medieval German art; Hain (or Hein) is a traditional German personification of death, invented by poet Matthias Claudius. Freund Hein is a skeleton who plays the fiddle and leads a Totentanz or "danse macabre". According to Mahler's widow, Alma, Mahler took inspiration for this movement from an 1872 painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin entitled Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle. The scherzo represents his dance and the unusual tuning of the violin adds tension to its sound and contributes to the music's ghostly character.

The third movement is a solemn processional march cast as a set of variations. Mahler uses the theme and variation structure in a more unconventional way. This movement can be divided into five main sections: A1 – B1 – A2 – B2 – A3 – coda. The theme is presented in the first 16 bars of A1,

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key g \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 b1\pp( | c) | d2..( e8) | e1 | fis2.( g4) | a2( fis4 g) | a( c b g) | fis( e d a8 b) | c1( | b2.) c8( d) | e2( d4 cis) | d2. e8( fis) | g2( fis4 e) | fis( e d2)\glissando | e4( d) c( b) | b2( a) }

but the true variations do not appear until section A3, although the theme is developed slightly within the preceding sections; sections A1, A2, B1 and B2 are in bar form. This movement remains mostly in G major, but does modulate to D minor, E minor and E major; the B2 section has a rather unstable tonality, being more chromatic and moving through many keys.

The fourth movement opens with a relaxed, bucolic scene in G major.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key g \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \partial 4*1 \times 2/3 { d8(\pp b' g } | d'2 \slashedGrace { e8 } d2-> | \slashedGrace { e8 } d2-> \slashedGrace { c8 } b8.->[ a16 g8.-> a16] | d,2->) }

A child, voiced by a soprano, presents a sunny, naive vision of Heaven and describes the feast being prepared for all the saints.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key g \major \autoBeamOff \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 r d8 d d4 b'8 g | d'8.[( e16 d8. e16] d8.[ e16 d8. e16] | \times 2/3 { d8[ c b]) } \times 2/3 { a[ b] g } d8.([ e16)] d8 } \addlyrics { Wir ge- nie- ßen die himm- li- schen Freu- den, }

The scene has its darker elements: the child makes it clear that the heavenly feast takes place at the expense of animals, including a sacrificed lamb. The child's narrative is punctuated by faster passages recapitulating the first movement. Unlike the final movement of traditional symphonies, the fourth movement of Mahler's No. 4 is essentially a song, containing verses, with interludes, a prelude and a postlude (a strophic structure). By the time the postlude is heard, there is a modulation to E major (the tonic major of the relative minor) and unusually stays in this key, ending the symphony away from the tonic of G major. Several ties to Symphony No. 3 can be heard in these passages as well.


The symphony is scored for fairly small orchestra by Mahler's standards, noticeably absent of trombones and tuba. It consists of the following:

4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolos)
3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais)
3 B, A, C clarinets (2nd doubling E clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet)
3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)
4 horns
3 trumpets
4 timpani
bass drum
sleigh bells
soprano solo (used only in movement 4)
1st violins
2nd violins
double basses

Fourth movement text

Das himmlische Leben
(aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
D'rum tun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich' Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh'.
Wir führen ein englisches Leben,
Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben;
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen,
Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes d'rauf passet.
Wir führen ein geduldig's,
Unschuldig's, geduldig's,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn' einig's Bedenken und Achten.
Der Wein kost' kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller;
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

Gut' Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten,
Gut' Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen.
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut' Äpfel, gut' Birn' und gut' Trauben;
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben.
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Straßen
Sie laufen herbei!
Sollt' ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.[note 1]
Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.

Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen.
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht.
Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.

The Heavenly Life
(from Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

We enjoy heavenly pleasures
and therefore avoid the earthly stuff.
No worldly tumult
is to be heard in heaven.
All live in greatest peace.
We lead angelic lives,
yet have a merry time of it besides.
We dance and we spring,
We skip and we sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the lambkin out,
and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it.
We lead a patient,
an innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death.
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without any thought or concern.
Wine doesn't cost a penny
in the heavenly cellars;
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of every sort
grow in the heavenly vegetable patch,
good asparagus, string beans,
and whatever we want.
Whole dishfuls are set for us!
Good apples, good pears and good grapes,
and gardeners who allow everything!
If you want roebuck or hare,
on the public streets
they come running right up.
Should a fast day come along,
all the fishes at once come swimming with joy.
There goes Saint Peter running
with his net and his bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha must be the cook.

There is just no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Even the eleven thousand virgins
venture to dance,
and Saint Ursula herself has to laugh.
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.

  1. ^ Mahler here omitted the following four lines of the original poem:
    Willst Karpfen, willst Hecht, willst Forellen,
    Gut Stockfisch und frische Sardellen?
    Sanct Lorenz hat müssen
    Sein Leben einbüßen



  1. ^ 'Gustav Mahler' (Works), in New Grove, Macmillan, 1980
  2. ^ Henry Louis de La Grange
  3. ^ Aldrich, Richard (6 November 1904). "Gustav Mahler - His Personality And His New Symphony". The New York Times. New York City. p. 40. Retrieved 21 May 2020 – via
  4. ^ Smith, Max (4 December 1904). "Mahler's Symphony No. 4". The Salt Lake Tribune. Salt Lake City, Utah. p. 31. Retrieved 21 May 2020 – via
  5. ^ Smoley, Lewis M. (1996). Gustav Mahler's Symphonies: critical commentary on recordings since 1986 (first ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-29771-1.


  • James L. Zychowicz. Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Studies in Musical Genesis and Structure. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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