Mahler gradually came to the belief that program notes were a distraction from the music, restricting the imagination. Of his fourth symphony he wrote: “I know the most wonderful names for the movements but I will not betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners so that they can subject them to banal misunderstandings and distortions.”
This symphony is the first for which Mahler did not write extensive notes. Yet markings on early versions of the score and descriptions of the music in Mahler’s correspondence with friends show that he still conceived the music as a story-telling medium. At the work’s premiere, however, Mahler chose to provide the audience with no written guidance other than the text of the poem used in the Symphony’s final movement.
Das himmlische Leben is from a collection of folk poetry titled Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic horn) that provided material for a number of Mahler’s works, and he had earlier considered adding this particular poem to his third symphony. But he decided instead that the poem warranted an entire work of its own, and it thus become became the focal point of his fourth symphony.
A description of heaven from a child’s perspective, the poem is sung by a solo soprano in the symphony’s final movement, where musical threads from the first three movements are drawn together to reveal the symphony’s core theme, whole and uncorrupted. By constructing the work in this way, Mahler underscores the message that it is only a child who can “tell us what it all means…”.
The Symphony’s sunny opening movement is written in sonata form. Following the introduction of a number of melodic ideas, sleighbells mark the beginning of a lengthy development during which the introductory melodic material is thoroughly explored.
The second movement was originally named for Freund Hein, a Pied Piper-like character out of German folklore. The solo violinist is instructed to tune his instrument a tone higher than usual, giving the music a scratchier, more raucoustone colour. In Mahler’s own words, the scherzo is “so uncanny, almost sinister, that your hair may stand on end. Yet in the following Adagio, where all complications are dissolved, you will feel that it was not really all that sinister….”.
In the Adagio, a set of variations built on two contrasting yet related themes provides a framework in which Mahler explores the tension between sorrow and joy. The music, the composer wrote, “laughs and cries at the self-same time”. And so we arrive at the final movement, which Mahler instructed to be sung “with childlike and serene expression, absolutely without parody.” In its construction the work to this point has paralleled Beethoven’s famed ninth symphony. But here, the contrast with Beethoven’s exultant Ode to Joy serves to emphasise the simple awe with which a child watches as the saints prepare a heavenly feast.