Mahler, Symphony No. 4 in G major (1900)

Course Description
Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is full of irony and what Mahler called "humor." Even though the music is often cheerful and serene, it also evokes the feeling that something bad is about to happen. In Mahler’s own words, “It is only that it seems suddenly sinister to us — just as on the most beautiful day, in a forest flooded with sunshine, one is often overcome with a shudder of panic.” This class provides an analysis of each movement of Mahler's most traditional, and possibly most accessible, symphony.

Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace

  • First Movement – begins at 3:40
  • Second Movement – begins at 20:30
  • Third Movement – begins at 30:05
  • Fourth Movement – begins at 50:00
General Information
  • Mahler grew up in a small town in Bohemia as the second of fourteen children. Eight of his siblings did not survive infancy. Three others died at the ages of 14, 21, and 26. This information may be important to understanding Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a work that describes life on earth and in heaven through the eyes of a child.
  • At the time Mahler composed his Fourth Symphony (1899-1900) he was the Director of the Vienna Opera and had not yet met Alma Schindler. Three weeks after they met on November 28, 1901, Mahler conducted the premiere performance of his Fourth Symphony in Munich. Mahler married Alma in 1902.
  • Mahler based his Fourth Symphony on a song he composed titled “The Heavenly Life,” a song that took its text from an old Bavarian folk tune titled “Heaven is Full of Violins." Mahler composed the symphony “backwards,” beginning with the finale and then creating the first three movements as a journey toward “The Heavenly Life.”
  • Mahler had originally intended “The Heavenly Life” as the finale for his Third Symphony under the title “What the Child Tells Me." Mahler’s Third Symphony is connected thematically and philosophically to his Fourth. (See the link below for a video of the fifth movement from Mahler's Third.)
  • Although Mahler provided programs for his first three symphonies, he became increasingly disenchanted with audiences who needed a description of what they were hearing during his compositions. After supplying King Albert of Saxony a program for his Second Symphony in 1901, he told Alma Schindler that programs were “a crutch for cripples.” Eventually, Mahler’s music would include this statement in the program notes: “In deference to Mr. Mahler’s wishes, there shall be no attempt at an analysis or description here of his symphony."
  • Mahler thought his Fourth Symphony would be accessible and popular with audiences. Instead, it enraged most of its first listeners. Much of the hostility against the Fourth was tinged with anti-Semitism.
  • After several years of revisions to the Fourth Symphony, Mahler conducted its final version for the New York Philharmonic on January 19, 1911. He died four months after that performance on May 18, 1911. He was only 50 years old when he died.
  • Click here for a video of Leonard Bernstein talking about Mahler's Fourth in 1960 during one of his televised "Young People's Concerts."
Online Articles
Mahler's Third Symphony, Fifth Movement
Mahler's Fourth Symphony is connected thematically and philosophically to his Third Symphony. The finale of the Fourth contains the same general mood of the “Morning Bells” heard in the fifth movement of the Third — a mood of child-like peace and heavenly bliss. Listen to fifth movement of the Third Symphony, and see if you can hear its connection to the finale of the Fourth. Keep in mind that Mahler originally intended the finale of his Fourth Symphony as the finale for his Third Symphony.

Click here to see the Fifth Movement of the Third Symphony performed by
Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic

Recommended Books
(Click a book’s icon to see it on Amazon)

Recommended Box Set of Mahler's Symphonies, Including Bernard Haitnik Conducting Mahler's Fourth with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Click the icon to see the collection on Amazon)

For Something Completely Different: A Recording of Mahler's Fourth Performed by a Chamber Orchestra with Piano (Click the icon to see the album on Amazon)