Mahler once described this movement as being like the inferno vs. the paradise, which was almost the most awesome sort of fantasy story you could come up with in the 19th century. Thus, the movement reminds me a lot of this stunning illustration by Gustave Dore which he created to illustrate Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – A happy walk through the fields; Movement II – A joyous dance; Movement III – a peculiar funeral march accompanied by Gypsies and a Klezmer band.

Which brings us to the final movement. You can call this a showdown between hell and heaven, evil and triumph, the inferno and paradise (as Mahler wrote somewhere in the early days before he decided to stop telling people what his music was about). Or just a battle between minor and major. Whatever your like.

The point is that when it came out, it must have been – by a country mile – the most violent, dramatic and heroic piece of orchestral music ever heard. It is so cinematic in its sound, that when I played it the other day, my four-year-old piped up and said, “Daddy, that’s Star Wars!” He was wrong, of course, but at the same time, there are ideas in here that film composers have drawn on so much over the next century (consciously or otherwise) that my amateur musicologist is also onto something.

It’s overall structure is a type of sonata form, which is how I’ve broken it up. But for this movement, following the different moods that the music travels through is the better way to enjoy it, I find.


(0:00) Epically nasty opening that leads into full-blown fury. (One commentator called this the Inferno theme, to be contrasted with the Paradise theme later.) Set the tone for the movie music in sword fight scenes for the next half century. Spectacular stuff.

(3:34) Beautiful romantic string moment to make the blue rinse set in the audience have a bit of a swoon.

(6:30) A return to the descending theme from the opening of the first movement of the symphony. Thunder appears on the horizon. Then back to the full-blown nasty music. (The Inferno theme.)

(9:13) A triumphant brass fanfare with a spectacular leap upwards. Now Mahler wrote this music to change key at this point. (The “key” of music has a lot of complicated meaning, but the simplest explanation is that the key defines the set of notes and note groupings that the composer is using in a particular section of the music. When you change key, you suddenly shift to a different set of notes. For pop songs, a key change usually means they take the same tune and shift it higher up the scale, suddenly making that section stand out – for instance, the most famous key change of all time (if nothing else, for its cheese value) is still probably the last verse of “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, where Celine Dion changes key in the last verse and starts singing the song much higher.)

But to get back to classical music, normally when a composer changes keys, they move to the next key in a few steps (called a transition) so the listeners can tell that’s what they’re going to do. Not Mahler. Right at the (9:25) moment, the orchestra leaps up into the new key – which turns it into another one of those breakthrough moments that we discussed in the first movement. You may not have realised it was a key change, but you will have hopefully caught the excitement of the moment.

Finally, this new triumphant music is our Paradise theme, the opposite of the Inferno theme.


(10:41) The Development of symphonies in Mahler’s day often involved playing around with the themes you had just set out in the Exposition, but Mahler boldly takes us right back to the opening music of the first movement. It’s almost as if, in the midst of a serious trial, our thoughts turn to the nostalgia of the past.

(12:15) The rising ominous theme from the opening movement, and even a hint of the song about walking across the fields.

(12:59) Another beautiful romantic string moment – even more fragile than the last one. It has a really nice crescendo (another bit of Italian jargon that means “a gradual increase in volume”).


(14:46) Back to the Inferno music, but this time played very quietly as if it’s a long way away. The sting is gone.

(16:49) The brass breakthrough transition we heard in the first movement followed by the Paradise theme, bigger and better than ever. By the way, if you have super-sharp ears, you may notice that this is simply a joyous major key version of the descending motif from the first movement. Even if you didn’t notice it consciously, it’s kind of cool to know that Mahler is bringing not just the movement but the whole symphony full circle. From here on in it’s epic all the way to the end.

If you see this live, one thing to look out for is that Mahler instructs the French horn players to stand up at this point. Not every conductor does this (perhaps figuring it’s a bit of a novelty act), but I can’t describe to you the electric thrill that runs through the crowd when this happens. Anyway, enough of my words. Enjoy the finale!

How awesome was that?

One thought on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 1: Movement IV

  1. Maybe it’s just because this was spread over a number of weeks, but I had a hit of nostalgia when that theme from the opening movement came in at 12:15!

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