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Symphony No. 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler was written in 1899 and 1900, though it incorporates a song originally written in 1892. The song, “Das himmlische Leben”, presents a child’s vision of Heaven. It is sung by a soprano in the work’s fourth and final movement. Although typically described as being in the key of G major, the symphony employs a progressive tonal scheme (‘(b)/G—E’).
Mahler’s first four symphonies are often referred to as the Wunderhorn symphonies because many of their themes originate in earlier songs by Mahler on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). The fourth symphony is built around a single song, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”). It is prefigured in various ways in the first three movements and sung in its entirety by a solo soprano in the fourth movement.
Mahler composed “Das himmlische Leben” as a freestanding piece in 1892. The title is Mahler’s own: in the Wunderhorn collection the poem is called “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (an idiomatic expression akin to “there’s not a cloud in the sky”). Several years later Mahler considered using the song as the seventh and final movement of his Symphony No. 3. While motifs from “Das himmlische Leben” are found in the Symphony No. 3, Mahler eventually decided not to include it in that work and, instead, made the song the goal and source of his Symphony No. 4. This symphony thus presents a thematic fulfilment of the musical world of No. 3, which is part of the larger tetralogy of the first four symphonies, as Mahler described them to Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Early plans in which the Symphony was projected as a six-movement work included another Wunderhorn song, “Das irdische Leben” (“The Earthly Life”) as a somber pendant to “Das himmlische Leben”, offering a tableau of childhood starvation in juxtaposition to heavenly abundance, but Mahler later decided on a simpler structure for the score.
Symphony No. 4 in G major