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‘I actually just wanted to write a symphonic humoresque, and then it became the normal measure of a symphony – while earlier when I thought it would become a symphony, it turned out to be three times as long, in my Second and Third.’ Thus commented Mahler, according to the report of Natalie Bauer- Lechner, in an August 1900 draft of the score of the Symphony he had just finished. In contrast to the preceding symphonies, it limits itself to classical proportions in the number of movements, in duration and in orchestration. But what does Mahler mean with the term ‘symphonic humoresque’? The relation to Schumann’s Humoreske Opus 20 for piano is surely not primarily a formal one, as one will discover when examining the first plans Mahler had for his work. Rather, it is a concept, an attitude of mind, just as Schumann himself had already closely linked the idea of humour, at that time a new notion in the German language, with Jean Paul and Romantic language theorists such as Friedrich Schlegel.
The origin of this symphonic humoresque goes back to Mahler‘s time in Hamburg, where, in the spring of 1892, he wrote five songs to texts of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Immediately thereafter he recomposed all of them as his first orchestra songs and titled all of them ‘Humoreske’. ‘Das Himmlische Leben’ [The Heavenly Life], as Mahler named his setting of the poem from the Wunderhorn collection with the original title ‘Der Himmel hängt voller Geigen’ [Heaven Is Full of Fiddles, a German saying that can be translated in this case as meaning ‘Life in Heaven is Beautiful’], was completed on 12 March 1892 in the orchestra version. He conducted its first performance in the same year in Hamburg. Mahler saw in this text a very special mixture of ‘roguery’ and ‘deepest mysticism’ which time and again stimulated in him a contemplation of his concept of humour. ‘Everything is placed on its head, causality has no validity at all! It is as if you suddenly looked at the side of the Moon that is turned away from us!’ The motive of the ‘Schellenkappe’ [a fool’s cap with bells], in the Lied a returning interlude with staccatos in the stopped trumpets and col legno strings, is made even clearer in the Symphony through the use of a bell and is already used thematically in the first movement.
An undated handwritten plan of movements that was written probably in 1895 contains six(!) individual titles for what he called at the time ‘4. Symphonie / Eine Humoreske’ [Fourth Symphony / A Humoresque]. Two of those are other settings of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, namely ‘Das irdische Leben’ [The Earthly Life] and ‘Morgenglocken’ [Morning Bells] (very probably the choral movement ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ [Three Angels Were Singing] which contains motivic references to the song ‘Das Himmlische Leben’). The final movement is already ‘Das Himmlische Leben’; with the title ‘Was mir das Kind erzählt’ [What the Child Tells Me], the song had at various previous times appeared as the Finale of Symphony No. 3, which then was still planned with seven movements. A shortening of form can therefore not have been part of Mahler’s original idea. When the artist – who had been very busy if not overburdened in Vienna since 1897, first as conductor and then as director of the Hofoper – was finally able to return to this composition project in the summer of 1899, his conception had in the meantime concentrated itself to the ‘(Viennese) classical’ measure of four movements. He himself was surprised after completing the draft score of the Symphony on 1 August 1900, at the (in his own estimate) duration of only 45 minutes (which is as much as the opening movement of Symphony No. 3 alone). He attached great value to the – for him new – formal and motivic connections between all four movements: ‘Each of the three movements is connected in the most intimate and meaningful way with the last one’, he wrote in 1911 to the author of an introduction to the work, who had obviously not recognized exactly this. While the work was being composed, these connections did not always point linearly to the ‘tapering spire of the structure’, the ‘heavenly’ final movement, for the uncanny Scherzo movement, which will be discussed below, was titled ‘Second Movement’ in the extant sketches; in the fair copy it was named ‘Third movement (Scherzo)’ and only thereafter returned to its initial position.
The first performance of Symphony No. 4 took place on 25 November 1901 in Munich. Including the last concerts on 17 and 20 January 1911 in Carnegie Hall in New York, Mahler performed his Fourth a total of eleven times.
Neuberg, September 2009