Mahler’s Fourth Symphony on Symphony @ 7

Allegorical painting by Rubens of Roman goddess Abundantia with a cornucopia.(Photo: Wikipedia)
Allegorical painting by Rubens of Roman goddess Abundantia with a cornucopia.(Photo: Wikipedia)

At the end of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, we are presented with a child’s vision of heaven in a song for soprano and orchestra.  This is surely one of the most unusual endings for any symphony.

“Das himmlische leben” (The Heavenly Life) is from a folk-poetry collection called Des Knaben Wounderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), that inspired Mahler to set its words to music a number of times.  The title refers to a magical device like a cornucopia.  The song that ends this symphony offers an innocent picture of a realm where “all live in gentlest peace,” the children “dance and spring” with St. Peter in heaven looking on.  And there’s lots of food, too, including a sacrificial lamb (!), and Saint Martha the cook is preparing and serving a feast with plenty of vegetables and fruits for all the children and saints.

This symphony from 1901 is one of Mahler’s shortest, coming in just under an hour in playing time and is scored for relatively modest forces, making it one of his more often performed symphonies.  The Fourth also concludes the first period of Mahler’s output that was inspired by Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and symphonies one through four are sometimes called the “Wunderhorn” symphonies.  If you heard the Third Symphony a while back in this series, you may recognize some of the themes from this song that Mahler had used earlier.  In fact, he wrote the song setting in 1892 and with his Fourth, finally organized a whole symphony around it.

The large 1st movement opens with the sounds of flutes and sleigh bells and seems less angst-ridden that other Mahler symphonies.  But, being Mahler, there have to be some anxious moments, and we get that in the 2nd movement scherzo, with its eerie-sounding solo violin tuned higher than normal suggesting the Grim Reaper!  The big 3rd movement adagio builds to a large climax, and then we hear the beautiful song for soprano and orchestra that brings the work to its gentle and peaceful conclusion.

In our series “Mondays with Mahler,” we’ve been presenting the nine completed symphonies in the order of number of recorded releases, from the fewest to the most, and after this week, there are only two more to go. I hope you can join me for Symphony @ 7 for Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G.

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