1900: Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

MONDAY, December 7, 2020 – 11:37 AM

(This is a difficult symphony for me. It is known as the shortest of all Mahler’s symphonies other than the 1st, and the orchestration is smallest. But “small” for Mahler is a very relative term, since the orchestration is still huge in comparison to that of most composers. The last movement is largely about a soprano, representing an innocent boy who has died, and that is absolutely NOT convincing for me. I just don’t want operatic voices in symphonies, so I just don’t like the last movement. But in the rest of the symphony there is a great deal to take in, and I did enjoy the rest of it.)

With a great deal of reluctance I’m going to recommend the 2nd movement for a start to this symphony. It’s about the personification of death, and it’s really spooky. But it’s only 10 minutes long, and I really like it.

Symphony No. 4 in G major, Age 40


  • soprano solo (used only in movement 4)
  • 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd doubling cor anglais), 3 Bb, A, C clarinets (2nd doubling Eb clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet)
    3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)
  • 4 horns, 3 trumpets
  • 4 timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, sleigh bells, tam-tam, glockenspiel
  • harp
  • Strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

1st movement

Flutes and sleigh bells open the unusually[clarification needed] restrained first movement (and used later with a melodic theme known commonly as the ‘bell theme’, which helps define sections throughout the movement) often described[by whom?] as possessing classical poise. A big surprise to me was to hear the opening of the 1st movement of the 5th symphony right in the middle of this movement, one of many indications that in Mahler’s mind all these symphonies were related. I would suggest starting with this movement first, but it’s almost 18 minutes long and it wanders a lot.

2nd movement

The second movement is a scherzo that features a part for a solo violin whose strings are tuned a whole tone higher than usual. The violin depicts Freund Hein, (lit. “Friend Henry”) Freund Hein is a skeleton who plays the fiddle and leads a Totentanz or “danse macabre”. The scherzo represents his dance, and the unusual tuning of the violin adds to the music’s ghostly character.

3rd movment

The third movement is a solemn march cast with many variations. Mahler uses the theme and variation structure in a more unconventional way. The form is A1 – B1 – A2 – B2 – A3 – coda, which essentially means two themes that are varied plus a coda. The true variations do not appear until section A3. This is mostly in G major, but it modulate to D minor, E minor and E major.  The B2 section is more chromatic and moves through many keys.

4th movement

The fourth movement starts G major. A child, represented by a soprano, presents Heaven and describes the feast being prepared for all the saints.

There are faster passages repeating an important idea from the first movement. The final movement is essentially a song with many verses put into a slightly more complicated structure. It ends in E major, which is a very unusual way to end a symphony in the key of G major. In addition, there are ties to the 3rd symphony.

More of the story:

Here is an excellent long story about this symphony with far too much info to include here.

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