Symphony no 4 in G
Completed in 1900, Mahler's fourth represented a significant scaling down from his monumental second and third symphonies. Its orchestration
was smaller, using reduced brass
and only a solo soprano
rather than the choirs that had previously been employed, and it was significantly shorter than either of its predecessors lasting around 45 minutes.
Stylistically, too, Mahler had cut back, going from the epic post romanticicism of his early work to a more refined neoclassical sound, reminiscent of his Viennese forebears, Mozart and Brahms. The fourth is, however, a distinctly Mahlerian piece: it retains his language and expressiveness, but imbues them with a new elegance and clarity.
The reason for this jump lies in the symphony's subject matter. The piece grew from its fourth movement, a setting of a folk poem,(Das Himmlich Leben) describing a child's view of heaven. This setting was originally written half a decade earlier to be part of the third symphony, but was left out to reduce the size of that (still huge) piece. Instead, Mahler used it as the concluding movement and musical seed for the fourth
As with much of Mahler's work, then, the fourth is a contemplation of death. Here, however, the child's perspective allows Mahler to portray death not as a dark and bitter end, but as something akin to Peter Pan's 'awfully big adventure.' Throughout the piece, the sadness of death contrasts with the peaceful content of the child's paradise.
The first movement is for the most part gentle and optimistic, with occasional touches of pathos. It is introduced by a short chirruping passage for sleigh bells and flutes, evoking both the magic and the deathly cold of winter, before the piece opens up into a broad sonata form.
The scherzo is darker, a danse macabre led by a solo violin. This violin is tuned up a tone, making it at once sound folky and eerie. This is contrasted in the trio section with a landler, a type of folk dance which throughout Mahler's work is used as a symbol of life.
In the third movement, Mahler mixes the tragedy of bereavement with the image of death as a restful sleep. With the coda, the music transposes to E major, the key used by Baroque composers to represent heaven, and the child’s soul enters Paradise. Here, ‘the angelic voices / delight the senses / so that for joy all things awake.’ Eventually, cor anglais and harp bring the music to a quiet conclusion.
Disclaimer: this is work in prgress: pipelinks will be added and cliches removed soonish.