The Mahler symphonies fall into natural groupings in some respects (though all of them are different), and so you’ll often find that after you’ve listened to a few, that they sound similar to others.
So I find that 1, 2 and 3 are similar in their epic scope and sense of grandness, dealing with big themes and ideas. (And all with amazing endings that audiences love.)
Meanwhile, 5, 6 and 7 are purely orchestral – they don’t feature any choirs or voices, and Mahler is experimenting with how to mix different musical sound worlds together. They’re all quite different, but they share in common the complexity of their musical ideas.
Likewise, Das Lied von der Erde, and Symphonies 9 and 10 are more quiet, introverted works that deal with death and loss, clearly something weighing on Mahler’s mind towards the end of his life.
Which leaves 4 and 8. Symphony No 8 is the “Symphony of a Thousand”, a symphony that features a choir singing all the way through, and so, in a sense, is like a throwback to the glory days of the first three symphonies, while being even more over-the-top.
But the 4th symphony is a curious little enigma of a piece and I can’t think of any other Mahler symphony quite like it. Here are the things you’ll notice straight away:
- The length – as in, the shortness of it (relative to Mahler, not relative to Mozart). Most Mahler symphonies clock in around the 75-minute mark on average, with some going even longer. (The Mahler 3 is about 1 hour 40 minutes.) But Symphony 4 is just under an hour.
- It’s lightness of tone – if you’ve been inclined to think of classical music as primarily being beautiful, relaxing music, you’ve probably noticed that Mahler doesn’t fit that mold very well. Most of his music is loud, complex and frequently emotionally heavy-going (not necessarily a bad thing, but not good if you wanted something to chill out and do the ironing to). By contrast, the 4th symphony is much more delicate. We might almost go so far as to say “pretty”, at least relative to the other Mahler symphonies around it. This is somewhat of an illusion. As we dig in, you’ll find that the symphony is as solidly constructed as any of the others, it’s just designed to sound light.
- It’s non-eventful ending. All Mahler’s early symphonies up till the 4th and continuing on in the 5, 6 and 7 all head towards massive climactic endings. By contrast, the 4th symphony, rather to everyone’s surprise, ends with a quiet song sung by a soprano. In actual fact, the big powerful stuff is in the 3rd movement, the slow movement of the work.
But the 4th movement, the song, is the key to the whole work. In this song, Mahler used the words of a poem (from a rather quirky collection of poems called The Boy’s Wonderhorn, of which I’ll have more to say another day) called “The Heavenly Life”. The poem describes heaven from the point of view of a child – and it’s mostly about the food!
Clearly, this poem intrigued Mahler, especially the concept of viewing something that is normally taken ultra-seriously (like heaven) through the eyes of a child (who is going to see things rather simply). So thus Symphony No. 4 itself (especially the first two movements) actually feels the most child-like of all his symphonies.
Not because it’s simpler music – it’s just as complex as any of the others. Not because it’s aimed for children – I don’t know how many kids of a very young age would sit through a 60-minute symphony. But there is something light and airy about it (maybe it’s the sleigh bells in the first movement) that suggest childhood.
It’s in four movements as follows:
Movement I – A light airy opening movement.
Movement II – A slightly creepy scherzo
Movement III – The first “serious” movement: an amazing slow movement, one of the most beautiful he ever wrote.
Movement IV – The “Heavenly Life” song sung by a soprano.
The recording I have selected is the very famous Cleveland Orchestra recording, conducted by George Szell. It’s a bit slower than some others, but he brings out the details beautifully (especially in the slow movement). I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!