Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 4 was completed in Maiernigg, Austria, on August 6, 1900. It was first performed on November 25, 1901, by the Kaim Orchestra of Munich under Mahler's direction, with Rita Michalek as the soprano soloist. Applauded and hissed by the audience, this strangest symphony heard to date was received with great favor by at least one newspaper critic, and with bewilderment and hostility by most of the others. One pundit wrote, characteristically, that
(At that time, Symphony No. 3 had not yet been performed at all.)
The Fourth is the only Mahler symphony scored without trombones or tuba, and is the lightest and most humorous of them. It requires 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (in B flat, A, and C), 2 clarinets in E flat, bass clarinet, 3 bas-soons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, triangle, sleigh bells, glockenspiel, cymbals, tamtam, harp, and strings.
As originally designed in six movements, it was, indeed, to have been subtitled "Humoresque." Actually, such a work would have been less humorous than what we have, insofar as one of the six movements was to have been the song Das irdische Leben ("Life on Earth" ), a tragically ironic ballad which we now know as one of the collected songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. As it is, the four movements of the symphony all contain elements of joy and high spirits; and, for the only time in Mahler's symphonic canon, the very opening is in a humorous vein.
We hear first the rhythmic jingling of sleigh bells, accentuated by open chords in the first and second flutes with a series of fast appoggiaturas (or grace notes) attached to them, then joined by a melody from two more flutes and for clarinets. Thus the music, in the words of Max Graf,
All this returns in the song-finale, but still faster and more clamorously, while the very end of the symphony brings the same appoggiatura pattern enormously slowed down in the English horn as an important part of the finale's opening melody. The essentially rococo and baroque device of the appoggiatura, then, is the framing idea of the symphony. In fact, the first movement itself is something of a parody on the classical sonata-allegro form and style. From the b minor opening, as the British writer Tovey puts it,
The main theme has all the formal elegance and symmetry of a Boccherini or Haydn minuet, but all of its characteristic qualities are highly exaggerated or accen-tuated, including the "holding back" of its initial three-note upbeat. And similarly throughout the movement, the identifying mannerisms of a galant or rococo style of composing are stretched to the limit. Mahler then develops these ideas into a veritable fantasia on a galant sonata. It is like a dream; and it appears at one point, in the way of dreams, about to turn into a nightmare, before pullng back for the classical reprise in G Major. Yet the casualness of this latter transition is just one more of the rococo effects.
If the springboard of Mahler's fancy in the first movement is the appoggiatura, in the c minor Scherzo it is the scordatura — that is to say the retuning of the violin for special coloristic effect — which, although not a device with the universality of the appoggiatura, was widely practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here the idea is to tune each string of the principal violin a tone higher than usual — i.e., to A, E, B, and F-sharp, in ascending order, instead of G, D, A, and E — and the effect is to capture the rasping sound of a country fiddler ("wie eine Fidel," in the words of the composer's own footnote). This originally had a specific programmatic basis as well, which Mahler later deleted from the score. "Freund Hein strikes up," he said of it, indicating the folkish figure of Death, playing a danse macabre. The concertmaster keeps both a regular and a retuned instrument before him.
The third movement has been accounted among the most beautiful of Mahler's slow movements. The ineffably peaceful G Major theme, which is later treated in variation fashion, alternates also with a poignant second subject, introduced mournfully in e minor by the oboe. In this movement, the humor comes in the later variations on the main theme, which become quite carefree and skittish, ultimately speeding up until they can go no faster, and then "exploding" back into the original tempo and tone. The sudden outburst in the coda is like an apocalyptic vision, the trumpets and drums proclaiming broadly while the horns anticipate the song theme of the finale.
The song itself, Das himmlische Leben ("Life in Heaven"), was written and published as early as 1892, nine years before the symphony's premiere. The text is adapted from an old Bavarian folk song entitled "The Sky Hangs Full of Fiddles," and it presents, with keen imagination and fantasy, a child's vision of life in Heaven.
At the top of the soloist's part, Mahler directs her to sing "with a cheerful and childlike expression, absolutely without parody!" Evidently it was his sincere belief that music has the power to transform the wildest fantasy into simple reality. Thus the ingenuous trust expressed by the contralto in Symphony No. 2 — the trust that "God will send me a little light to lighten my way to a blessed eternal life"— reaches its final affirmation in the last movement of No. 4, in a song of pure and undiluted joy.
Because he designed all the parts of his orchestral textures to be heard as active entities, never as merely harmonic filling, Mahler was forever rebalancing and clarifying these textures through the experience of actual performance. The Fourth Symphony is no exception, and in fact offers an especially dramatic example. The last performances of his own works that he ever conducted were of this symphony, in New York, January 17 and 20, 1911, just four months before his death. The extensive and subtle adjustments he made in the scoring and tempo directions after those concerts therefore represent the absolute maturity of Mahler's craft.
— Jack Diether
|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!
|We enjoy heaven's pleasures,|
which is why we shun the earthly.
No worldly tumult
do we hear in Heaven!
Everything lives in gentlest peace.
We lead an angelic life,
and yet we're altogether merry.
We dance and leap,
we hop and sing!
St. Peter in heaven looks on.
|Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes drauf passet!
Wir führen ein geduldig's,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod!
Sanct Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten,
Ohn' einig's Bedenken und Achten,
Der Wein kost kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller,
Die Englein, die bakken das Brot.
|John has parted from his little lamb,
Herod the butcher is watching it!
We lead a lamb,
patient, innocent, lovable,
to its death!
St. Luke is slaying the oxen
without giving it thought or mind,
wine costs not even a penny
in Heaven's cellar,
the angels are baking the bread.
|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' Apfel, gut' Birn' und gut' Trauben!
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben!
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen
Auf offener Strassen
Sie laufen herbei!
|Good herbs of every kind
grow in heaven's garden.
Good asparagus, artichokes,
and anything we want,
are prepared for us
Good apples, good pears, and good grapes.
The gardeners make free of everything!
Should you want roebuck, or hare,
in the open streets
they' re running near us!
|Sollt ein Festtag etwa kommen
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sankt Martha die Köchin muss sein!
| When a feast-day arrives
all the fish gaily swim up!
There already St. Peter runs
with the net and bait
to heaven's pond.
St. Martha must be the cook!
|Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden.
Die uns'rer verglichen kann werden.
Zu tanzen sich trauen,
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht!
Cacelia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Dass alles für Freuden,
für Freuden erwacht.
|There is no music on earth
that can compare to ours.
Eleven thousand young maidens
are joined in dance.
Even St. Ursula is laughing!
Cecilia and her kin
are the lovely house musicians!
The voices of angels
delight our senses,
so that everything awakens
Recorded 1968 in the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Producer: Seymour Solomon
Engineer: Ed Friedner
Originally release: Vanguard Cardinal Series VCS 10042 (LP)