In February 1892 Mahler's sister sent him a copy of ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’, Achim von Arnim's and Clemens Brentano's three-volume anthology of folk poetry. Within barely a month Mahler had used four poems for four 'Humoresques' for voice and orchestra that were later to form part of his much larger collection of orchestral Wunderhorn songs.
What Mahler did not foresee was the fate of the fifth 'Humoresque', Das himmlische Leben. This song was initially intended to form part of the monumental edifice of the Third Symphony, where it was to appear under the title 'Was mir das Kind erzählt' (What the Child Tells Me). A few years later Mahler decided to use it as the final movement of another symphony, which likewise was initially described as a 'humoresque'. In this way, Das himmlische Leben became the culmination - the 'spire' [verjüngende Spitze] or crowning glory - of the new work, the Fourth Symphony.
In July 1899 Mahler began work on the actual symphony during the summer holidays at Aussee, a small spa in the Salzkammergut. The vacation was a disaster. Not only was the weather cold and wet, but the villa that he had rented was within earshot of the local bandstand, a proximity that proved a trial for a man as hypersensitive as Mahler. Completely discouraged, he tried to read, and it was only then that musical ideas suddenly began to well up within him. Within the space of only a few days the whole work had taken on very real shape in his imagination. The final weeks of his vacation were spent in a state of feverish activity. On his many long walks he carried a sketchbook with him so that none of his ideas should be lost. The final days before his return to Vienna were a veritable torment: in the course of one of his walks he was suddenly seized by an attack of dizziness at the thought that all the music that was stirring within him would never see the light of day. Before leaving Aussee, he bundled up all his sketches and on his return to Vienna he placed them in a drawer of his desk and put them out of his mind until the following summer.
The following year, 1900, Mahler and his family decided that, calm and seclusion being indispensable to his creative activities, they would have a house built to which they could return each summer. They chose Maiernigg, a tiny village on the northern edge of the Wörthersee in Carinthia. While waiting for the villa to be completed, Mahler had already had built a studio or Häuschen surrounded on all sides by forest. It was here that he planned to compose.
At first, several days were to pass in a state of deep anxiety and total inactivity. He began to complain that he had completely wasted his life by becoming a conductor, citing the example of so many other great composers of the past who, by his age, had already completed the greater part of their oeuvre. It was in a state of deep depression, therefore, that he set to work once again, complaining ceaselessly at the smallest noise - at the birds building their nests in the eaves of his Häuschen, at the sounds reaching him from the opposite side of the lake - everything, in short, that he described as the 'barbarity of the outside world'.
But as soon as he finally reimmersed himself in the previous year's sketches, he realised to his amazement that throughout his long period of creative inactivity a 'second self' had been working unconsciously and unknown to him. As a result, the work was far more advanced than it had been at the moment he had broken off the previous year, so that the Fourth Symphony could now be completed in record time - only a little over three weeks. Mahler put the finishing touches to the manuscript on 6 August 1900. Beside himself with happiness, he could not stop talking about his work and commenting on it to his closest friends, underlining the unprecedented complexity of the polyphonic writing and the elaborate handling of the development sections.
Mahler hoped to offer his contemporaries a work that would be both shorter and more accessible than his previous symphonies. He willingly dispensed with vast orchestral forces and, in particular, with trombones, forcing himself, instead, to invest the writing with the clarity, economy and transparency plainly demanded by the subject matter of the symphony.
In the case of his earlier symphonies, Mahler had provided his listeners with explanatory introductions or at least given titles to their individual movements. On this occasion he decided that the music of the Fourth Symphony must be self-sufficient. He had realised that the 'programmes' of the symphonic poems by Liszt and his school robbed both music and musician of all freedom and that the programmes he had drawn up for his earlier symphonies had merely bred ambiguities and misunderstandings. Consequently, listeners were not provided with a text of any kind for the Fourth Symphony, with the single exception of the poem set to music in the final movement.
But what was Mahler trying to express in his new work? Nothing but the 'uniform blue' of the sky, in all its manifold nuances, the blue that attracts and fascinates human beings, while at the same time unsettling them with its very purity. In 1901 he described the Adagio, with its 'divinely gay and deeply sad' melody, in the following terms: 'St Ursula herself, the most serious of all the saints, presides with a smile, so gay in this higher sphere. Her smile resembles that on the prone statues of old knights or prelates one sees lying in churches, their hands joined on their bosoms and with the peaceful gentle expressions of men who have gained access to a higher bliss; solemn, blessed peace; serious, gentle gaiety, such is the character of this movement, which also has deeply sad moments, comparable, if you wish, to reminiscences of earthly life, and other moments when gaiety becomes vivacity.'
While writing this movement, Mahler sometimes glimpsed the face of his own mother 'smiling through her tears' - the face of a woman who had been able to 'solve and forgive all suffering by love'. At a somewhat later date he compared the work as a whole to a primitive painting with a gold background and described the final movement in particular as follows: 'When man, now full of wonder, asks what all this means, the child answers him with the fourth movement: 'This is Heavenly Life'.'
He enjoined the soprano soloist to adopt 'a joyful, childlike expression completely devoid of parody'. The luminous, radiant, sublime coda in E major - 'heavenly' music if ever there was - leaves us wholly convinced that 'no music on earth can compare with that of the heavenly spheres'. It also teaches us that men like Mahler who, in their lives and art, have willingly accepted all the frustrations, heartbreaks and tragedies of the human condition, as well as its doubts, uncertainties and ambiguities, can still hope to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
This article is a much abbreviated version of Henry-Louis de La Grange’s article on Mahler IV, which first appeared on www.andante.com.