The Mahler 4 opening movement: I hear a lot of children ice skating. (Painting: “Constantin Nikolaevich’s children skating” via Wikimedia Commons)

Mahler sets the tone in this opening movement of the Mahler 4, which probably constitutes one of the cutesiest things he ever wrote. But, as we’ve already said, that’s an illusion ,because everything is designed to sound childlike while not actually being childish.

Like most other symphony first movements, this movement is in sonata form, which means it has an exposition, where the main themes get laid out, a development section, where the themes get developed and played around with a bit in interesting ways, and a recapitulation where we return to the main themes.

I’ll also use the term motifs from time to time in this walk-through. As a reminder, a motif is like the basic Lego block of music. It might be a small snatch of melody, it might be a rhythm. But it’s a small musical unit that can be used repeatedly throughout the movement (and some composers, like Mahler, create motifs that they use all the way through their symphonies).

All right. Here we go.

Exposition – Jingle Bells and Disney on Ice

(0:00) The movement opens with what can only be described as a “Jingle Bells” motif, followed closely by a motif which can arguably be called “Disney on Ice”. It’s all quite treacly, but the trick is you have to remind yourself that Mahler is writing treacly music on purpose. Which might make it sound less treacly? Who knows? Have a listen for yourself.

(1:42) The next moment is slow and pretending to be serious (but never quite convinces you that it is). It’s quite beautiful.

(2:49) Little Oboe’s Big Adventure (or the Toddler Oboe). On a bed of strings, the oboe toddles along exploring the world. (One of the highlights of the Szell recording is the amazing woodwind playing all the way through.)

(3:35) Jingle Bells again. There is even more woodwind activity above the Disney on Ice theme, just to show how Mahler likes to change things up even when he’s returning to old themes. Slows down beautifully at the end.

Development – Clouds on the Horizon

(5:20) Jingle Bells again, but this time everything stays in the minor key, and the solo violin soars up into the sky as intro to:

(5:41) A slightly (but only slightly) boisterous version of the ice skating – lots of little tricks and turns from the woodwinds and the brass.

(6:22) Now it’s Little Flute’s Big Adventure. (Different tune from the exposition bit, but a similar idea – the winds in the spotlight, sounding like children. This is one of the very cool moments in this movement.)

(7:12) Builds up – a little bit of drama. (Don’t know why, but this reminds me a lot of Peter Pan.) Everything’s a little bit tense, but not really.

(8:14) The flutes and the horns sound like they’ve got some sort of conspiracy going on in the playground and the other instruments are trying to see what they’re up to …

(9:06) Back to Disney on Ice, but at (9:25) everything turns a bit dark, as if a big rain cloud has come over the playground.

(9:58) In the space of about a minute, we get a really happy climax, which turns into (10:27) the closest thing to chaos that you’ll find in this movement. If you listen closely at (10:37), you’ll hear the trumpet is playing the opening call of the Mahler 5.

(10:49) Great moment here where everything just fades out into nothing …

Recapitulation – Skating away over the hills

(11:12) … and then, as if nothing has ever happened, Disney on Ice waltzes back in for the recapitulation. Now with extra trumpet!

(12:16) Our Serious But Not Really theme returns again.

(13:25) Little Oboe’s Big Adventure

(14:15) Jingle Bells is back to kick off a strange variant of Disney on Ice, with extra woodwind interference. Again, the beautiful slow ending, but even more gorgeous this time round.

(16:52) The coda, where our orchestra ice skates over the hills and away …

So there you go – quite a different side of Mahler then we’ve perhaps seen before. Did you like it?

4 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 4: Movement I

  1. That spotify track is one of the premium-user only ones, so I had to use my free trial of Apple Music instead, and listen to a slightly different performance.

    I’m not familiar with Disney on Ice, so I was hearing more of a Warner Bros cartoon accompaniment instead. It’s a much lighter piece than I was expecting from Mahler!

  2. This was really a charming piece. Listening to it made me cheerful and it just made me want the wind in my hair.

    I didn’t read your notes while I was driving, so I completely missed the (as Disney fans call the inside joke) “Easter Egg” of the opening notes to Mahler 5. I went back to that a couple times today to hear it again just because it was clever.

    I just finished a quick road trip with my kids and we traveled about 18 hours over a few days. This entire symphony kept me company for a good part of the trip. I’m really looking forward to your notes on the next movements.


    P.S. Just gave another look at the album cover and saw that the translation is “Songs of a Wayfarer.” I had the dumb luck of actually being a Wayfarer while listening. I suppose that’s the gift of a fine author or composer…the reader or listener can believe that this piece was written just for them. In my case it felt perfect because I had two kids in the car (who were actually watching some old Disney movies while we drove) and we were on our way to Nashville to meet a newborn niece. If there was ever a Mahler piece suited for a kid-centric trip, this was it! Perfect timing.

    1. Hi Laura,

      Glad you enjoyed it. I should just add a quick clarification. Songs of a Wayfarer is actually a separate piece by Mahler – it’s a set of songs for voice and orchestra. (A bit similar to Song of the Earth, except it’s a lot shorter.) Because the Mahler 4 takes up less than the full length of a CD (unlike a lot of Mahler symphonies, which cut across two), if you were to get the full CD (or have a look on Spotify), you’ll find that the full album has the Songs of a Wayfarer on it.

      I’m not planning to cover them on this blog, but they are only four songs, so it’s all over in 20 minutes, and one of the songs gets an orchestral “cover” in Mahler’s 1st Symphony, so it’s worth having a listen to.

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