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Composed: 1899–1901
Length: c. 54 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, jingles, tamtam, triangle), harp, strings, and soprano solo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: Nov. 17, 1949, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with soloist Jean Fenn

Venison, asparagus, eleven thousand virgins. . . Who would have thought that these apparently un-symphonic items would have their special place in the best loved and most frequently played of Mahler’s symphonies? The Fourth is “about” childhood, in the sense that most of his music seems to be “about” profound issues of life and death. Perhaps we are more willing to identify with the child’s world than to face the numberless existential issues that haunted Mahler throughout his life. At all events, there is a directness and charm in the Fourth Symphony missing from the others, with their often sprawling exploration of good and evil, heaven and hell. The Fourth Symphony adopts the standard classical four-movement design and uses a modest orchestra heavy in woodwinds but without the low brass; there is a stormy passage in the first movement and a moment of striking force in the third movement, but elsewhere there are no formidable thunderbolts and no tense musical arguments that challenge the listener’s comprehension. We emerge from the Symphony in a glow of serenity and peace.

Its origin – and a clue to its understanding – lies in Mahler’s preoccupation with the folk world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of poetry published nearly a hundred years earlier purporting to be German folk poetry, but often half genuine, half invented. Romantic composers of Schumann's generation drew endlessly on this source, full of the innocent joys of spring, of flowers and birds and a world free of all cares save the eternal she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. It was Mahler's spiritual kinship with the naïve romanticism of an earlier age that drew him to this kind of poetry in preference to the more tortured material that fed the inspiration of poets of his own time. Between 1888 and 1899 Mahler set over a dozen poems from this collection for voice and piano or orchestra, some of which found their way into the symphonies he was composing at the same time. Both the Second and Third Symphonies included settings of these verses, and in the very long Third Symphony Mahler originally planned to include, as a seventh movement, a setting of a song he had written in 1892 called “Der Himmel hängt voller Geigen” (Heaven is full of violins). Before the Third Symphony was published (in 1898), this song was taken out and set aside as the basis of a symphony of its own. He re-titled the song “Das himmlische Leben” (Life in Heaven) and composed three new movements to precede the song, all creating an image of childhood sealed by the child’s vision of heaven in the song.

When he began this Fourth Symphony, Mahler had been music director at the Vienna Opera for a little over a year, an intense commitment that allowed him freedom to compose only in the summer months. In 1899 he bought a plot of land at Maiernigg on the Wörther Lake near the southernmost point of Austria for the express purpose of building a second home for his annual break far from the cutthroat musical politics of the capital. While his chalet was being built, he began work on the Fourth Symphony at Altaussee, a similar lakeside resort in the Austrian province of Styria where he spent the summer. By the time he resumed composition, the chalet at Maiernigg was ready, and it was there that he finished the symphony on August 5, 1900. It was first performed in January 1902, by which time he had met, but not yet married, Alma Schindler, and not yet had children of his own. The child's dreams were therefore largely drawn on memories of his own childhood.

The opening movement, in traditional symphonic form, has a disarming tunefulness, occasionally colored by jingling sleigh-bells. The clarity of Mahler’s orchestration, even when several counterpoints are heard at once, is amazing. One good tune follows another, all seeming to smile, never to grimace, and the close is exquisite.

The second movement, a kind of scherzo, features a solo violin tuned higher than normal tuning to suggest the country fiddler. There are ghostly shadows in this music, mildly threatening perhaps, but set aside by the gemütlich quality of the pulse. As so often in Mahler, he is never done until he has exhausted the implications of his material: if there are new permutations and combinations to discover, he will discover them.

The third movement is a calm Adagio, particularly generous to the cellos, who present the first theme. After a while, the tempo suddenly quickens, recalling the pulse of the scherzo, with the main theme dragged into new disguises. Just when the pace seems to be running out of control, the horns put on the brakes and calm returns. But a new surprise arrives in the form of a gigantic chord of E major, a key that sounds remote and new even though it has been hinged at earlier. This remarkable intrusion is important for the harp and then for the timpani, directed to hammer with both sticks on single notes, and the movement resumes the pace and key of its beginning, leaving only an ambiguous shadow.

The implication of that moment is not made clear until the last pages of the symphony, which will eventually end in that same key of E major, as if the child's dream has led, like a yellow brick road, to that particular vision of heaven. The last movement entrusts the vision to the soprano soloist, whose first melody has been foreshadowed in earlier movements, but now we hear it whole, with the words “We enjoy heavenly delights.” The child imagines a carefree life in heaven, full of dancing and playing, good music and good food (asparagus, beans, hare, fish, wine), and full of saints and martyrs too. The child has no qualms about imagining King Herod butchering a lamb or St. Luke slaughtering an ox. St. Peter catches fish, of course, and St. Martha, the patron saint of cooks, serves the dish. Why Mahler retained the three lines that mention St. Ursula, martyred along with eleven thousand virgins, is a mystery, since he did omit one verse of the poem that mentions St. Lawrence, another martyr also regarded as a patron saint of cooks because he was himself... cooked.

Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.