Time and Place: Mahler's Life as a Wanderer

The Wanderer

Explore Mahler's expanding horizons as his conducting career blossoms and his compositional skills reach a new level of maturity in music composed during summer vacations in the Austrian countryside.



Career Launch


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Career Launch

Bad Hall Theater
Mahler took his first conducting position in Bad Hall in 1880 and began to build his reputation. Over the next few years he conducted in a number of theaters around the Empire, most prominently at the Landestheater in Laibach (now Ljubljana, Slovenia) and the municipal theater in Olmütz (now Olomouc, Czech Republic).
The Spell of Wagner


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The Spell of Wagner

Richard Wagner
From his student days in Vienna, Mahler was already under the spell of Wagner. He attended his first Bayreuth festival in 1883, and continued his immersion in Wagner's music as conductor. Later he wrote to his lover, soprano Anna von Mildenburg: “Hail to you there in Bayreuth! Soon you will be in what was the abode of one of the most glorious spirits in the history of mankind.”
A Step Up


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A Step Up

Royal Theater, Kassel
Mahler's career moved forward with his appointment as “Musical and Choral Director” at the Royal Theater in Kassel. Political troubles led to his resignation “My dismissal here comes into force on 1 July. After that I shall go to Leipzig for a month. What is to happen after that is just as obscure to me as what we shall be doing in fifty years from now.”
New Opportunities


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New Opportunities

Leipzig Opera House
Mahler signed a six-year contract with the Leipzig Opera beginning in 1885. An important milestone for Mahler during his Leipzig tenure was his reconstruction of the Carl Maria von Weber opera Die Drei Pintos. In addition to extending his compositional skills and reputation, in the process he discovered Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk poetry that he returned to repeatedly over his career. He wrote to a friend: "Apart from the fact that I am in financial straits, things have generally improved. All the jobs and prospects before me have helped me, sanguine type that I am, to get over many a bitter experience."
A Leading Post


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A Leading Post

Budapest Opera House
In May 1888, Mahler resigned from Stadttheater in Leipzig to assume a post at Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest in October. “Today I have the honour of assuming the leading position in an establishment that is in every respect fitted to be a home for an ornament to this country's art. ...if I promise one thing today, it is that I shall set an example in being keen on the work and always sincere in intention” he wrote to members of the Budapest Opera House. He attracted attention from a leading composer: “Brahms heard me conduct Don Giovanni here [Budapest] and forthwith became my fiercest partisan and benefactor.”


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The Mahler Family
Gustav became head of the household after his father, mother and sister Leopoldine died within a few months of one another in 1889. A constant source of anxiety for Mahler was his talented but troubled brother Otto, who eventually commited suicide in 1895.
Moving North


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Moving North

Hamburg Stadttheater
Mahler resigned from the Royal Hungarian Opera in Budapest and accepted a post as Chief Conductor at Hamburg Stadttheater in May 1891. “Actually, I am a little bit disgusted with the amateurish hustle and bustle at the theater,” he wrote to his sister Justine, April 1891. His new assistant was Bruno Schlesinger (later Bruno Walter).


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Mahler in 1892
Mahler's professional appointments widened in the 1890s, including appearances in Weimar, Moscow, and at London's Covent Garden, where he conducted a series of Wagner's operas. He sent a postcard to his friend Arnold Berliner “My position here [London]: ‘Star’!”
Conductor and Composer


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Conductor and Composer

Mahler in 1884
Mahler was engaged by the Prague German Theatre Company for the 1885-86 season as a replacement for Anton Seidl, who was on leave to conduct in Bayreuth. This year also saw the first public performance of Mahler's music in a charity concert conducted by Mahler. Three of his songs were heard along with music by Mozart, Boccherini, Bruckner, and Wagner.


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Mahler was fond of outdoor exercise, and took up riding the newly invented bicycle in the spring of 1895: “There is universal admiration of me on my cycle... I seem to be absolutely born for the Rad [cycle]” he wrote to a critic.
A Country Retreat


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A Country Retreat

Mahler's composing hut in Steinbach
Mahler built the first of his "composing huts," where he often retreated to find the peace to compose. “Until I went to Steinbach I didn't know how to provide myself, during the little time at my disposal, with the peace and solitude I need.”


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Mahler was baptised a Roman Catholic on Feb 23, 1897, as part of his efforts to secure a post at a major opera house. “The fact that I am Jewish prevents my getting taken on in any Court theatre. Neither Vienna, nor Berlin, nor Dresden, nor Munich is open to me.” ln his application for the Vienna position he wrote: “Perhaps I should tell you that quite a while ago in pursuance of a long-standing resolution, I entered the Catholic faith.”
Songs of a Wayfarer

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen)


  • “On My Love’s Wedding Day” (Wenn mein Schatz Hockzeit macht)
  • “This Morning I Walked across the Field” (Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld)
  • “I Have a Burning Knife” (Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer)
  • “My Love’s Blue Eyes” (Die zwei blauen Augen)

Details of the genesis of the Songs of a Wayfarer are not clear. Most probably, Mahler composed them for voice and piano with the title Geschichte eines fahrenden Gesellen (Story of a Wayfarer) in 1883-84, using themes from two of them in his Symphony No. 1, which was begun at about the same time and completed in 1888. The orchestration was completed in 1896, and the first performance of the cycle with orchestra took place on March 16 of that year in Berlin; the singer was Dutch baritone Anton Sistermans, and the composer conducted the Berlin Philharmonic.

The work is scored for vocal soloist and an orchestra consisting of three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes (both doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones (third doubling bass trombone), timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, harp, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Mahler left his Songs of a Wayfarer as a marker to what may have been no more than an infatuation with Johanna Richter. She was a soprano at the opera house in the Hessian city of Kassel, where, at twenty-three years old, Mahler served as second conductor. He was already the composer of an amazing cantata, Das klagende Lied, as well as of a number of songs. With experience as a conductor in small theaters, he had made his start on the path to celebrity.

Most of the little we know about Mahler and Johanna Richter’s love affair we gather from letters from Mahler to Fritz Lohr, a friend from student days in Vienna. Gustav and Johanna seem to have been the sort of lovers who spend much of their time down in the dumps, New Year’s Eve 1884 being a particularly fraught occasion. The next day Mahler wrote to Lohr that he had spent the night in tears but also that he had written a cycle of songs dedicated to Johanna. “She does not know them. What could they tell her beyond what she knows already? … The songs are planned as though a traveling journeyman who has suffered some sort of fate sets out into the world and wanders musingly and alone.”

So the Songs of a Wayfarer are autobiography in poetry and music; one does well, however, to recall what Mahler wrote about his First Symphony—“I should like to stress that [it] goes far beyond the love story on which it is based, or rather, which preceded it in the life of its creator. That experience is the work’s point of departure but not its content.”

Mahler was a skillful writer of verse, and the songs his Wayfarer verses inspired are a miracle. We think of them as coming from the world of the First Symphony (itself the most amazing First Symphony this side of the Fantastique), and that is true of their thematic substance; we should, however, remember that by the beginning of 1896, when the Wayfarer songs were put into their final form, Mahler had finished six of his orchestral Wunderhorn settings, had composed his Second Symphony, and was close to completing his Third.

Mahler begins with a scurrying figure, quietly unsettling. Transformed into something slow, heavy, and mournful, it becomes the melody to which the young wandering journeyman expresses his dread of his former love’s wedding day. With a touching change of musical gait and mood, he turns to nature in hope of consolation, just as Mahler himself would all his life, only to realize that for him spring is over and that there is no escaping his suffering. As Schumann sometimes liked to do, Mahler has the singer finish in mid-phrase so that the musical thought is completed in the accompaniment.

The second song opens with a theme happily familiar from the Symphony No. 1. How extraordinary is the effect of the pianissimo timpani roll when the forlorn boy realizes that none of nature's springtime rejoicing is for him.

The opening of the third song, the one in which the journeyman gives the most open expression to his pain and despair, introduces music of a force and fury not heard before in this cycle.

In the last of the Wayfarer songs, we encounter one of Mahler’s first funeral marches, a kind of music he would write all his life. This is also, as those who love their lieder will recognize, a “walking song” in the manner of the similar melancholy songs in Schubert's Winterreise. Like Schubert, Mahler knew how to use the pathos of major/minor alterations. The injunction “Ohne Sentimentalitat”—Without sentimentality—at the beginning of the song, and repeated twice more as “Nicht sentimental,” is of extreme importance. The orchestral writing is unforgettably beautiful, especially in the subtle ways in which the instruments double or almost double the voice. The words at the end speak of consolation in nature. The music concludes on a question mark.

— Michael Steinberg


Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht

Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht,
Fröhliche Hochzeit macht,
Hab' ich meinen traurigen Tag!
Geh' ich in mein Kämmerlein,
Dunkles Kämmerlein,
Weine, wein' um meinen Schatz,
Um meinen lieben Schatz!
Blümlein blau! Verdorre nicht!
Vöglein süß! Du singst auf grüner Heide.
Ach, wie ist die Welt so schön!
Ziküth! Ziküth!
Singet nicht! Blühet nicht!
Lenz ist ja vorbei!
Alles Singen ist nun aus.
Des Abends, wenn ich schlafen geh',
Denk' ich an mein Leide.
An mein Leide!

Ging heut morgen übers Feld

Ging heut morgen übers Feld,
Tau noch auf den Gräsern hing;
Sprach zu mir der lust'ge Fink:
"Ei du! Gelt? Guten Morgen! Ei gelt?
Du! Wird's nicht eine schöne Welt?
Zink! Zink! Schön und flink!
Wie mir doch die Welt gefällt!"
Auch die Glockenblum' am Feld
Hat mir lustig, guter Ding',
Mit den Glöckchen, klinge, kling,
Ihren Morgengruß geschellt:
"Wird's nicht eine schöne Welt?
Kling, kling! Schönes Ding!
Wie mir doch die Welt gefällt! Heia!"
Und da fing im Sonnenschein
Gleich die Welt zu funkeln an;
Alles Ton und Farbe gewann
Im Sonnenschein!
Blum' und Vogel, groß und klein!
"Guten Tag, ist's nicht eine schöne Welt?
Ei du, gelt? Schöne Welt?"
Nun fängt auch mein Glück wohl an?
Nein, nein, das ich mein',
Mir nimmer blühen kann!

Ich hab' ein glühend Messer

Ich hab' ein glühend Messer,
Ein Messer in meiner Brust,
O weh! Das schneid't so tief
In jede Freud' und jede Lust.
Ach, was ist das für ein böser Gast!
Nimmer hält er Ruh', nimmer hält er Rast,
Nicht bei Tag, noch bei Nacht, wenn ich schlief.
O Weh!
Wenn ich in dem Himmel seh',
Seh' ich zwei blaue Augen stehn.
O Weh! Wenn ich im gelben Felde geh',
Seh' ich von fern das blonde Haar
Im Winde wehn.
O Weh!
Wenn ich aus dem Traum auffahr'
Und höre klingen ihr silbern' Lachen, O Weh!
Ich wollt', ich läg auf der schwarzen Bahr',
Könnt' nimmer die Augen aufmachen!

Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz

Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz,
Die haben mich in die weite Welt geschickt.
Da mußt ich Abschied nehmen vom allerliebsten Platz!
O Augen blau, warum habt ihr mich angeblickt?
Nun hab' ich ewig Leid und Grämen.
Ich bin ausgegangen in stiller Nacht
Wohl über die dunkle Heide.
Hat mir niemand Ade gesagt.
Ade! Mein Gesell' war Lieb' und Leide!
Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum,
Da hab' ich zum ersten Mal im Schlaf geruht!
Unter dem Lindenbaum,
Der hat seine Blüten über mich geschneit,
Da wußt' ich nicht, wie das Leben tut,
War alles, alles wieder gut!
Alles! Alles, Lieb und Leid
Und Welt und Traum


On my Love’s Wedding Day

When my love
has her wedding-day,
I will have my day of sorrow!
I will go into my little room,
my dark little room,
and cry, cry for my love,
for my dear love!
Little blue flower! Don’t wilt!
Sweet little bird, you sing in the green meadow!
Oh, the world is so beautiful!

Don’t sing. Don’t bloom.
Spring is past!
All singing stops!
At night when I go to sleep,
I think of my sorrow,
of my sorrow!

This Morning I Walked Across the Field

This morning I walked across the field.
Dew still clung to the grass.
The happy finch spoke to me:
“Hey you! Hey! Good morning!
Isn’t it? You!
Isn't it a beautiful world?
Beautiful world?
Beautiful and bright!
How I love the world!”
And the bluebells in the field
rang out their morning greeting:
and happy, good tidings
with their little tinging bells:
“Isn't it a beautiful world?
Ding, dong! Lovely thing!
How I love the world!”
And in the sunshine,
the world began to sparkle;
all music and color encompassed
in the sunshine!
Flowers and bird, big and small!
“Good day, isn’t it a beautiful world?
Beautiful world?
Isn't it? Beautiful world?”

Will I also be happy now?
No! No! For me, happiness can never bloom!

I Have a Burning Knife

I have a burning knife,
a knife in my breast.
The pain! The pain!
It cuts so deeply into every happiness and joy, so deep!
What a cruel visitor it is!
It doesn’t rest, it doesn’t stop,
Neither by day, nor by night when I sleep.
The pain!
When I look into the sky
I see a pair of blue eyes!
The pain! When I walk through the golden fields,
I see from afar the blond hair
waving in the wind.
The pain!
When I start from the dream
and hear her silver laughter ringing – the pain!
I wish I were lying on the dark bier
And could never again open my eyes!

My Love’s Blue Eyes

My love’s blue eyes
sent me wandering in the wide world.
I had to take leave of the place I loved most.
O blue eyes, why did you look at me?
Now I’m left with endless sorrow!
I went out into the quiet night
Into the quiet night, over the dark meadow.
No one bade me farewell.
My companions were love and sorrow!
On the road stands a linden tree,
There I slept peacefully for the first time,
Under the linden tree
which dropped its blossoms over me like snow.
And I didn’t know what life was doing.
Everything, everything was good again.
Everything, everything.
Love and sorrow
and world and dream!

Translations: Larry Rothe

First Symphony

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Symphony No. 1 in D major


  • I. Langsam, Schleppend (Slowly, dragging) Immer sehr gemächlich (very restrained throughout)
  • II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell(Moving strongly, but not too quickly)
  • III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemnly and measured, without dragging)
  • IV. Stürmisch bewegt - Energisch (Stormily agitated - Energetic)

Mahler began sketching his Symphony No. 1 in 1884, drawing substantially on melodies he had written some years earlier. He did most of the composition in February and March of 1888 and conducted the Budapest Philharmonic in the work’s premiere, in Budapest, on November 20, 1889. He continued to revise the symphony until as late as 1906. Mahler also led this work’s first American performance when he conducted it with the New York Philharmonic on December 16, 1909; this symphony and the Kindertotenlieder were the only ones of his compositions that Mahler conducted during his tenure as music director of that orchestra.

This symphony is scored for a large orchestra of four flutes (two of which double piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), four clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet, at least two doubling E-flat clarinet), three bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), seven horns, five trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani (two players), bass drum, cymbals, Turkish cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, harp, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Once, contemplating the failures of sympathy and understanding with which his First Symphony met at most of its early performances, Mahler lamented that while Beethoven had been able to start as a sort of modified Haydn and Mozart, and Wagner as Weber and Meyerbeer, he had the misfortune to be Gustav Mahler from the outset. He composed this symphony, surely the most original First after the Berlioz Fantastique, in high hopes of being understood, even imagining that it might earn him enough money so that he could abandon his rapidly expanding career as a conductor—a luxury that life would never allow him. But he enjoyed public success with the work only in Prague in 1898 and in Amsterdam five years later. The Viennese audience in 1900, musically reactionary and anti‑Semitic to boot, was singularly vile in its behavior, and even Mahler’s future wife, Alma Schindler, whose devotion to The Cause would later sometimes dominate a concern for truth, fled that concert in anger and disgust. One critic suggested that the work might have been meant as a parody of a symphony. No wonder that Mahler, completing his Fourth Symphony that year, felt driven to mark its finale “Durchaus ohne Parodie!” (With no trace of parody!).

The work even puzzled its own composer. No other piece of Mahler’s has so complicated a history and about no other did he change his mind so often and over so long a period. He changed the total concept by canceling a whole movement, he made striking alterations in compositional and orchestral detail, and for some time he was unsure whether he was offering a symphonic poem, a program symphony, or just a symphony.

When Mahler conducted the first performance with the Budapest Philharmonic in November 1889, he billed it as a “symphonic poem” whose two parts consisted of the first three and the last two movements. (At that time, the first movement was followed by a piece called Blumine, which Mahler later dropped.) A newspaper article the day before the premiere outlined a program whose source can only have been Mahler himself and which identifies the first three movements with spring, happy daydreams, and a wedding procession, the fourth as a funeral march representing the burial of the poet’s illusions, and the fifth as a hard‑won progress to spiritual victory.

When Mahler revised the score in January 1893, he called it a symphony in five movements and two parts, also giving it the name Titan after a novel by Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763‑1825), a key figure in German literary Romanticism and one of Mahler’s favorite writers. But by October he announced the work as TITAN, a Tone Poem in the Form of a Symphony.

Before the Vienna performance in 1900, Mahler again leaked a program to a friendly critic, and it is a curious one. First comes rejection of Titan, as well as “all other titles and inscriptions, which, like all ‘programs,’ are always misinterpreted. [The composer] dislikes and discards them as ‘antiartistic’ and ‘antimusical.’” There follows a scenario that reads much like an elaborated version of the original one for Budapest. During the nineties, when Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, and Ein Heldenleben had come out, program music had become a hot issue. Mahler saw himself as living in a very different world from Strauss, and he wanted to establish a distance between himself and his colleague. At the same time, the extra‑musical ideas would not disappear, and he seemed now to want it both ways. There was no pleasing the critics. In Berlin he was faulted for omitting the program and in Frankfurt for keeping it.

Mahler writes “Wie en Naturlaut” (like the sound of nature) on that first page, and in a letter to the conductor Franz Schalk we read, “The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!” Fragments detach themselves from the mist, become graspable, coalesce. Among these fragments are a pair of notes descending by a fourth, distant fanfares, a little cry of oboes, a cuckoo call (by the only cuckoo in the world who toots a fourth rather than a third), a gentle horn melody.

Gradually the tempo quickens to arrive at the melody of the second of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs (one of the most characteristic, original, and forward‑looking features of this movement is how much time Mahler spends not in tempo but en route from one speed to another). Mahler’s wayfarer crosses the fields in the morning, rejoicing in the beauty of the world and hoping that this marks the beginning of his own happy times, only to see that no, spring can never bloom for him. But for Mahler the song is useful not only as an evocation but as a musical source, and he draws astounding riches from it by a process, as Erwin Stein put it, of constantly shuffling and reshuffling its figures like a deck of cards. The movement rises to one tremendous climax, and the last page is wild.

The scherzo is the symphony’s briefest and simplest movement, and also the only one that the first audiences could be counted on to like. Its opening idea comes from a fragment for piano duet that may go back as far as 1876, and the movement makes several allusions to the song “Hans und Grethe,” whose earliest version was written in 1880. The central section contrasts the simplicity of the rustic, super‑Austrian material with the artfulness of its arrangement.

The funeral music that follows was what most upset audiences. The use of vernacular material presented in slightly perverted form (the round we have all sung to the words “Frère Jacques,” but set by Mahler in a lugubrious minor); the parodic, vulgar music with its lachrymose oboes and trumpets; the boom‑chick of bass drum with cymbal attached; the hiccupping violins; the appearance in the middle of all this of part of the last Wayfarer song, exquisitely scored for muted strings with a harp and a few soft woodwinds—people simply did not know what to make of this mixture, how to respond, whether to laugh or cry or both. They sensed that something irreverent was being done, something new and somehow ominous, that these collisions of the spooky, the gross, and the vulnerable were uncomfortably like life itself, and they were offended.

Mahler likened the opening of the finale to a bolt of lightning that rips from a black cloud. Using and transforming material from the first movement, he takes us, in the terms of his various programs, on the path from annihilation to victory, while in musical terms he engages us in a struggle to regain D major, the main key of the symphony, but unheard since the first movement ended. When at last he re-enters that key, he does so by way of a stunning and violent coup de théâtre, only to withdraw from the sounds of victory and to show us the hollowness of that triumph. He then goes all the way back to the music with which the symphony began and gathers strength for a second assault that does indeed open the doors to a heroic ending and to its celebration in a hymn in which the horns, now on their feet, are instructed to drown out the rest of the orchestra, “even the trumpets.”

— Michael Steinberg

Songs from The Youth’s Magic Horn

A Timeline of Mahler's Music

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Selections from The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)


  • “Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower” (Lied des Verfolgten im Turm)
  • “Where the Lovely Trumpets Blow” (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen)
  • “The Drummer Boy” (Der Tambourg’sell)
  • “Reveille” (Revelge)
  • “Primal Light” (Urlicht)

Gustav Mahler composed “Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower” (Lied des Verfolgten im Turm) in July 1898, “The Drummer Boy” (Der Tambourg’sell) in August 1901, “Where the Lovely Trumpets Blow” (Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen) in July 1898, “Reveille” (Revelge) in July 1899, and “Primal Light” (Urlicht) probably in 1892. “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm,” “Der Tambourg’sell,” and “Revelge” were all premiered on January 29, 1905, at Vienna’s Kleiner Musikvereinssaal, with the composer conducting a chamber orchestra and with soloists Anton Moser (baritone) in “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm,” Friedrich Weidemann (baritone) in “Der Tambourg’sell” and Fritz Schrödter (tenor) in “Revelge.” “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” was first performed January 14, 1900 in Vienna, with Mahler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and soprano Selma Kurz. Before it was ever performed as a stand-alone item, “Urlicht” was subsumed into Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and it was first heard at the premiere of that symphony on December 13, 1895, in Berlin, with the composer conducting the Berlin Philharmonic; the soloist in the “Urlicht” movement was the contralto Hedwig Felden.

The five songs are set for low voice with varying orchestral complements: “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings; “Der Tambourg’sell” for two oboes (both doubling English horn), two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and a string section of only cellos and basses; “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four horns, two trumpets, and strings; “Revelge” for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, timpani, triangle, snare drum, suspended cymbals, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, and stings; and “Urlicht” for two flutes (both doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), four horns, two trumpets, bells, harp, and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Mahler was a young conductor at the Leipzig Theater when he discovered the collection of folk poetry that would inspire him with its tales of magic and fairylands, soldiers and lovers. He made musical settings of twenty-two poems from The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn), compiled between 1805 and 1808 by Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. In their compilation, von Arnim and Brentano gathered original sources but also revised and rewrote some of their material, ensuring a suitably antiquated aura. It was an amazingly influential publication, a kind of Romantic sourcebook for nineteenth-century German artists. Mahler set the last of his Wunderhorn texts in 1902, marking the end of an early part of his career, but continued to orchestrate them, and orchestral forms of the music he invented for the verses often found their way into his early symphonies.

— Michael Steinberg


Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

Der Gefangene
Die Gedanken sind frei,
Wer kann sie erraten?
Sie rauschen vorbei
Wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen,
Kein Jäger sie schiessen;
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei.

Das Mädchen
Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein
Auf hohen wilden Bergen.
Dort findet man grün’ Plätzelein,
Mein herzverliebtes Schätzelein,
Von dir mag ich nicht scheiden.

Der Gefangene
Und sperrt man mich ein
Im finsterne Kerker,
Dies alles sind nur
Vergebliche Werke,
Denn meine Gedanken
Zerreissen die Schranken
Und Mauern entzwei.
Die Gedanken sind frei!

Das Mädchen
Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein
Auf hohen wilden Bergen.
Man ist da ewig ganz allein,
Auf hohen wilden Bergen.
Man hört da gar kein Kindergeschrei!
Die Luft mag einem da werden.

Der Gefangene
So sei es, wie es sei,
Und wenn es sich schicket,
Nur alles sei in der Stille!
Mein Wunsch und Begehren,
Niemand kann's wehren!
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

Das Mädchen
Mein Schatz, du singst so fröhlich hier,
Wie's Vögelein im Grase.
Ich steh’ so traurig bei Kerkertür,
Wär’ ich doch tot, wär’ ich bei dir!
Ach, muss ich denn immer klagen?

Der Gefangene
Und weil du so klagst,
Der Lieb’ ich entsage!
Und ist es gewagt,
So kann mich nichts plagen!
So kann ich im Herzen
Stets lichen und scherzen.
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei!"


Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower

The Prisoner
Thoughts are free.
Who can guess them?
They slip by
like shadows in the night.
No one can know them,
no hunter can shoot them.
It’s a fact:
Thoughts are free.

The Girl
In summer, it’s great to be
in the high, wild mountains.
There you find patches of green.
My heart’s true love,
I will not leave you.

The Prisoner
Even if I’m imprisoned
in a dark dungeon,
all these things
are temporary.
For my thoughts
will tear apart the confines
and the walls.
Thoughts are free.

The Girl
In summer, it’s great to be
in the high, wild mountains.
You’re always alone there
in the high, wild mountains.
You hear no screaming children,
the air belongs to you.

The Prisoner
Be it as it may,
and whatever happens,
let everything happen in silence!
No one can control
my wishes and desires.
It’s a fact:
Thoughts are free.

The Girl
My love, you sing so happily,
like a bird in the fields.
I stand so sadly at the prison door.
If I were only dead, if I were only with you!
Ah, must I grieve forever?

The Prisoner
Because of your grieving,
I renounce love.
Once that is risked,
nothing can torment me!
In my heart
I can always laugh and joke.
It’s a fact:
Thoughts are free.

Second Symphony

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Symphony No. 2 in C minor


  • I. Allegro maestoso
  • II. Andante moderato
  • III. In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement)
  • IV. Urlicht (Primal Light)
  • V. Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo)

Mahler originally wrote the first movement of the Symphony No. 2 in 1888 as a symphonic poem, Todtenfeier (that is, Funeral Rites; Mahler always used the archaic spelling of this word). Some sketches for the second movement also date from that year. Mahler long wavered about whether to use Todtenfeier as the beginning of a symphony, and it was only in the summer of 1893 that he composed the second and third movements. The finale and a revision of the first movement followed in the spring and summer of 1894; later that year, the song “Urlicht” (or “Primal Light”) was inserted as the fourth movement. Mahler conducted the premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic on December 13, 1895.

The Symphony No. 2 is scored for soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, large mixed chorus, and an extremely large orchestra of four flutes (all doubling piccolos); two oboes; two English horns (doubling third and fourth oboes); two high clarinets in E-flat; two clarinets in B-flat; bass clarinet (doubling third B-flat clarinet); three bassoons; contrabassoon (doubling fourth bassoon); ten horns; eight trumpets (four each of the horns and trumpets first play offstage in the finale; most of these then move onstage); four trombones; tuba; organ; two harps; percussion consisting of two sets of timpani, bass drum, cymbals, high and low tam‑tams, triangle (another timpanum, triangle, bass drum, and pair of cymbals are offstage), two snare drums, glockenspiel, three deep bells of unspecified pitch, and twig cluster (Rute in German—the “rod,” or schoolmaster's switch, played against the body of the bass drum); and strings.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

In February 1888, Gustav Mahler, second conductor at the theater in Leipzig and at work on his First Symphony, began a large orchestral piece called Todtenfeier, or Funeral Rites. In May, he resigned his Leipzig post to become music director of the opera in Budapest. He returned to Todtenfeier, completing the score in September. Five years later—Mahler had meanwhile become principal conductor in Hamburg—he realized that Todtenfeier was not an independent piece but the first movement of a second symphony. In 1893‑94, the rest fell into place as quickly as his conducting obligations permitted, and the Symphony No. 2 was completed on December 28, 1894. The San Francisco Symphony’s recording incorporates revisions Mahler made up to 1909.

The Second Symphony is often called the “Resurrection,” but Mahler himself gave it no title. On various occasions, though, he offered programs to explain the work. He was skeptical about these programs—all devised post festum—and he changed his mind repeatedly as to just what the program was. His scenarios share certain features. The first movement celebrates a dead hero, retaining its original Todtenfeier aspect, and since the First and Second Symphonies were, in a sense, of simultaneous genesis, it is worth citing Mahler’s comments that the hero of the First Symphony is borne to his grave in the funeral music of the Second and that “the real, the climactic dénouement [of the First] comes only in the Second.” The second and third movements represent retrospect, the former being innocent and nostalgic, the latter including a certain element of the grotesque. The fourth and fifth movements are the resolution and deal with the Last Judgment, redemption, and resurrection.

All this has bearing on Mahler’s perception of the structure of his Second Symphony, whose premiere the composer conducted with the Berlin Philharmonic in December 1895. He said that the first three movements were in effect “only the exposition” of the symphony. The appearance of the “Urlicht” song, he wrote, sheds light on what comes before. Writing to the critic Arthur Seidl in 1897, he refers to the three middle movements as having the function only of an “interludium.” There is, as well, the question of breaks between movements. The score is explicit, specifying a pause “of at least five minutes” after the first movement and demanding that the last three movements follow one another without interruption. In March 1903, Mahler wrote to Julius Buths, who was getting ready to conduct the work in Düsseldorf, and told him that there ought to be “an ample pause for gathering one’s thoughts after the first movement because the second movement has the effect after the first, not of contrast, but as a mere irrelevance…. The Andante is composed as a kind of intermezzo (like some lingering resonance of long past days from the life of him whom we bore to his grave in the first movement—something from the days when the sun still smiled upon him).”

The first and last movements are the symphony’s biggest. In other ways, they are as different as possible, partly because of the six years that separate them, still more crucially because of their different structural and expressive functions. The Todtenfeier is anchored to the classical sonata tradition. Its character is that of a march, and Mahler’s choice of key—C minor—surely alludes to the classic exemplar of such a piece, the marcia funebre in Beethoven’s Eroica. A feature very much Mahler’s own is the disruption of tempo. Against scrubbing violins and violas, low strings hurl turns, scales, and broken chords. Their instruction is to play not merely fff but “ferociously.” At the same time, though, Mahler prescribes two distinct speeds for the string figures and rests that separate them, the former “in violent onslaught” at about [quarter-note] = 144, the latter in the movement’s main tempo of about [quarter-note] = 84‑92. Later, the climax of the development is fixed not only by maximal dissonance, but by a series of three caesuras, each followed by an “out of tempo” forward rush.

The thematic material of the second movement—the dance with which it begins and the cello tune that soon joins in—goes back to Leipzig and the time of the Todtenfeier. The third movement is a symphonic expansion of the Knaben Wunderhorn song about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes. The sardonic Fischpredigt scherzo skids into silence, and its final shudder is succeeded by a new sound, that of a human voice. “Urlicht,” one of Mahler’s loveliest songs, is full of Mahlerian paradox in that its hymnlike simplicity and naturalness are achieved by a metrical flexibility so vigilant of prosody and so complex that the opening section of thirty‑five bars has twenty‑one changes of meter. The chamber‑musical scoring is characteristically detailed and inventive.

The peace that the song lays across the symphony like balm is shattered by an outburst whose ferocity refers to the corresponding place in Bee­thoven’s Ninth. Like Beethoven, Mahler draws on music from earlier in the symphony; not, however, to reject it, but to build upon it. He spreads before us a great and pictorial pageant. Horns sound in the distance (Mahler referred to this as “the crier in the wilderness”). A march with a suggestion of the Gregorian Dies irae is heard, and music saturated in angst, more trumpet signals, marches, and a chorale. Then Mahler’s “grosse Appell,” the Great Summons, the Last Trump: horns and trumpets loud but at a great distance, while in the foreground a solitary bird flutters across the scene of destruction. Now, from silence, voices emerge in a Hymn of Resurrection.

Mahler knew he wanted a vocal finale, but the problem of text baffled him. Here Hans von Bülow enters the scene—von Bülow, the pianist who gave the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s most famous piano concerto, who conducted the pre mieres of Tristan and Meistersinger (and whose young wife left him for Wagner), who was one of the most influential supporters of Brahms. When Mahler went to the Hamburg Opera in 1891, the other important conductor in town was von Bülow, who was in charge of the symphony concerts. Von Bülow was not often a generous colleague, but Mahler impressed him. As von Bülow’s health declined, Mahler began to substitute for him, and he was much moved by von Bülow’s death early in 1894. At the memorial service, the choir sang a setting of the Resurrection Hymn by the eighteenth‑century Saxon poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock. “It struck me like lightning,” Mahler wrote to Arthur Seidl, “and everything was revealed to my soul clear and plain.” He took the first two stanzas of Klopstock’s hymn and added verses of his own that deal still more explicitly with redemption and resurrection.

The lines about vanquishing pain and death are given to the two soloists in passionate duet. The verses beginning “Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen” (“With wings that I have won”) form the upbeat to the triumphant reappearance of the chorale: “Sterben werd' ich, um zu leben!” (“I will die, that I might live!”), and the symphony closes in fanfares and pealing bells.

— Michael Steinberg



O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in grösster Not!
Der Mensch liegt in grösster Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein!

Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg,
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen!

Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!
—from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
Mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
Wird der dich rief dir geben!

Wieder aufzublü’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
Und sammelt Garben
Uns ein, die starben!
—Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, Dein, ja Dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!

O glaube:
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!

Was entstanden ist, das muss vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!

O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heissem Liebesstreben
Werd’ ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’ gedrungen!

Sterben werd’ ich, um zu leben!

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
Mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen,
Zu Gott wird es dich tragen!

—Gustav Mahler


Primal Light

O red rose!
Humankind lies in greatest danger!
Humankind lies in greatest anguish!
I would rather be in heaven!

I came to a broad path,
and an angel came and tried to turn me away.
Oh no! I would not be turned away!

I come from God, and to God I want to return!
Dear God will give me a little light
that will lead the way to eternal blessed life.
-from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


You will rise again, yes, rise again,
my dust, after a short rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
will be given to you by he who called you!

You are sown so that you may bloom again!
The Lord of the Harvest goes
and gathers sheaves—
us, who died!
--Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock

O believe, my heart, O believe:
You shall lose nothing!
Yours is—yours, yes: yours—what you yearned for!
Yours, that which you loved,
for which you struggled!

O believe:
You were not born in vain!
Have not lived, suffered in vain!

What has come to be must pass!
What passes must rise again!
Stop trembling!
Prepare to live!

O pain, you who cut through all!
I have broken away from you!
O death, you who conquer all!
Now you are conquered!
With wings that I have won
in the heat of love’s struggle,
I will soar
to the light that no eye can comprehend!

I will die, that I might live!

You will rise again, yes, rise again,
my heart, in an instant!
What you have conquered
Will carry you to God!
--Gustav Mahler

Translation: Larry Rothe

Third Symphony

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Symphony No. 3 in D minor


  • I. Kräftig entschieden (Strong and decisive)
  • II. Tempo di Menuetto (In the tempo of a minuet)
  • III. Comodo (Scherzando) (Comfortably, like a scherzo)
  • IV. Sehr langsam—Misterioso (Very slowly, mysteriously)
  • V. Lustig im Tempo und keck im Ausdruck (Cheerful in tempo and bold in expression)
  • VI. Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden (Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt)

Mahler did the main work on his Third Symphony in the summers of 1895 and 1896. Two songs, “Ablösung im Sommer” (“Relief in Summer”) and “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”), provide source material for some of the symphony, and they go back to about 1890 and February 1892, respectively. Mahler made final revisions in May 1899 and (with L. Geller-Wolter singing the alto solos) conducted the first complete performance at the Festival of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein at Krefeld on June 9, 1902.

The score calls for contralto solo, women’s chorus, boys’ chorus, and an orchestra of four flutes (two doubling piccolo), four oboes (one doubling English horn), three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet) and two high clarinets in E-flat, four bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), eight horns, four trumpets, posthorn, four trombones, bass- and contra bass-tuba, two harps, strings, and percussion including timpani, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, bass drum with cymbal attached, suspended cymbals, tam-tam, and birch brush.

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

When Mahler, then near to completing his Eighth Symphony, visited Sibelius in 1907, the two composers talked about “the essence of symphony.” Mahler rejected his colleague’s creed of severity, style, and logic, saying that “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” Twelve years earlier, while at work on the Third, he had remarked that to “call it a symphony is really incorrect as it does not follow the usual form. The term ‘symphony’—to me, this means creating a world with all the technical means available.”

The completion of the Second Symphony the previous summer had given him confidence, and he was sure of being “in perfect control” of his technique. Now, in the summer of 1895, escaped for some months from his duties as principal conductor of the Hamburg Opera, installed in his new one-room cabin at Steinbach on the Attersee some twenty miles east of Salzburg, with his sister Justine and his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner to look after him (this most crucially meant silencing crows, waterbirds, children, and whistling farmhands), Mahler set out to make a world to which he gave the overall title The Happy Life—A Midsummer Night’s Dream (adding “not after Shakespeare, critics and Shakespeare mavens please note”).

Before he wrote any music, he worked out a scenario in five sections, titled What the Forest Tells Me, What the Trees Tell Me, What Twilight Tells Me (“strings only,” he noted), What the Cuckoo Tells Me (scherzo), and What the Child Tells Me. He changed all that five times during the summer as the music began to take shape in his mind and, with a rapidity that astounded him, on paper as well. The Happy Life disappeared, to be replaced for a while by the Nietzschean Happy Science (first My Happy Science). The trees, the twilight, and the cuckoo were all taken out, their places taken by flowers, animals, and morning bells. He added What the Night Tells Me and saw that he wanted to begin with the triumphal entry of summer, which would include an element of something Dionysiac and even frightening. In less than three weeks he composed what are now the second, third, fourth, and fifth movements. He went on to the adagio and, by the time his composing vacation came to an end on August 20, he had made an outline of the first movement and had composed two independent songs, “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” (“Song of the Persecuted Man in the Tower”) and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (“Where the Lovely Trumpets Sound”). It was the richest summer of his life.

In June 1896 he was back at Steinbach. Over the winter he had made some progress scoring the new symphony and had complicated his life by an intense and stormy affair with a young, superlatively gifted dramatic soprano newly come to Hamburg, Anna von Mildenburg. Now, as Mahler worked, he came to realize that the awakening of Pan and the triumphal march of summer wanted to be included in a single movement. He also saw, to his alarm, that the first movement was growing hugely, that it would be more than half an hour long, and that it was also getting louder and louder. He deleted his finale, What the Child Tells Me, which was the “Life in Heaven” song of 1892 and which he put to work a few years later to serve as finale to the Fourth Symphony. That necessitated rewriting the last pages of the adagio, which had now become the finale, but essentially the work was under control by early August. The Happy Science was still part of the title at the beginning of the summer, coupled with what had become A Midsummer Noon’s Dream, but in the eighth and last of Mahler’s scenarios, dated August 6, 1896, the superscription is simply A Midsummer Noon’s Dream, with the following titles given to the individual movements:

First Part: Pan Awakes.
    Summer Comes Marching In (Bacchic procession)

Second Part: What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
    What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
    What Humanity Tells Me
    What the Angels Tell Me
    What Love Tells Me

At the 1902 premiere, the program page showed no titles at all, only tempo and generic indications (Tempo di Menuetto, Rondo, Alto Solo, etc.). “Beginning with Beethoven,” wrote Mahler to the critic Max Kalbeck that year, “there is no modern music without its underlying program.—But no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it, respectively, what he is supposed to experience in it.—And so yet again: pereat every program!—You just have to bring along ears and a heart and—not least—willingly surrender to the rhapsodist. Some residue of mystery always remains, even for the creator.”

Writing at about the same time to the conductor Josef Krug-Waldsee, Mahler elaborated:

Those titles were an attempt on my part to provide non-musicians with something to hold on to and with a signpost for the intellectual, or better, the expressive content of the various movements and for their relationships to each other and to the whole. That it didn’t work (as, in fact, it could never work) and that it led only to misinterpretations of the most horrendous sort became painfully clear all too quickly. It’s the same disaster that had overtaken me on previous and similar occasions, and now I have once and for all given up commenting, analyzing all such expediencies of whatever sort. These titles . . . will surely say something to you after you know the score. You will draw intimations from them about how I imagined the steady intensification of feeling, from the indistinct, unbending, elemental existence (of the forces of nature) to the tender formation of the human heart, which in turn points toward and reaches a region beyond itself (God).

Please express that in your own words without quoting those extremely inadequate titles and that way you will have acted in my spirit. I am very grateful that you asked me [about the titles], for it is by no means inconsequential to me and for the future of my work how it is introduced into “public life.”

The climate has changed in these 100 years, and today’s audience is very much inclined to come to Mahler with that willingness to surrender for which he had hoped. We do well to ignore the “Titan” claptrap he imposed on his First Symphony—years after its composition; when, however, we look at the titles in the Third Symphony, even though they were finally rejected, we are looking at a series of attempts to put into few words the material, the world of ideas, emotions, and associations that lay behind the musical choices Mahler made as he composed. We too can draw intimations from them and then remove them as scaffolding we no longer need. That said, let us turn for a brief look at the musical world Mahler left us.

The first movement accounts for roughly one third of the symphony’s length. Starting with magnificent gaiety, it falls at once into tragedy—see-sawing chords of low horns and bassoons, the drumbeats of a funeral procession, cries and outrage. Mysterious twitterings follow, the suggestion of a distant quick march, and a grandly rhetorical recitative for the trombone. Against all that, Mahler poses a series of brisk marches (the realization of what he had adumbrated earlier for just a few seconds), the sorts of tunes you can’t believe you haven’t known all your life and the sort that used to cause critics to complain of Mahler’s “banality,” elaborated and scored with an astonishing combination of delicacy and exuberance. Their swagger is rewarded by a collision with catastrophe, and the whole movement—for all its outside dimension as classical a sonata form as Mahler ever designed—is the conflict of the dark and the bright elements, culminating in the victory of the latter.

Two other points might be made. One concerns Mahler’s fascination, not ignored in our century, with things happening “out of time.” The piccolo rushing the imitations of the violins’ little fanfares is not berserk: She is merely following Mahler’s direction to play “without regard for the beat.” That is playful, but the same device is turned to dramatic effect when, at the end of a steadily accelerating development, the snare drums cut across the oom-pah of the cellos and basses with a slower march tempo of their own, thus preparing the way for the eight horns to blast the recapitulation into being. The other thing is to point out that several of the themes heard near the beginning will be transformed into the materials of the last three movements—fascinating especially when you recall that the first movement was written after the others.

In the division of the work Mahler finally adopted, the first movement is the entire first section. What follows is, except for the finale, a series of shorter character pieces, beginning with the Blumenstück, the first music he composed for this symphony. This is a delicately sentimental minuet, with access, in its contrasting middle section, to slightly sinister sources of energy. It “anticipates” music not heard in the symphony at all, specifically the scurrying runs from the “Life in Heaven” song that was dropped from this design and incorporated in the Symphony No. 4. Some time after he finished this movement, Mahler noted with surprise that the basses play pizzicato throughout. In the last measure, Wagner’s Parsifal flower maidens make a ghostly appearance in Mahler’s Upper Austrian pastoral.

In the third movement, Mahler draws on his song “Ablösung im Sommer” (“Relief in Summer”), whose text tells of waiting for Lady Nightingale to start singing as soon as the cuckoo is through. The marvel here is the landscape with posthorn, not just the lovely melody itself, but the way it is presented—the magic transformation of the very “present” trumpet into distant posthorn, the gradual change of the posthorn’s melody from fanfare to song, the interlude for flutes, and, as Arnold Schoenberg points out, the accompaniment “at first with the divided high violins, then, even more beautiful if possible, with the horns.” After the brief return of this idyll and before the snappy coda, Mahler makes spine-chilling reference to the “Great Summons” music in the Second Symphony’s finale.

Low strings rock to and fro, the harps accenting a few of their notes. The see-sawing chords from the first pages return; a human voice intones the Midnight Song from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Each of its eleven lines is to be imagined as coming between two of the twelve strokes of midnight. Pianississimo throughout, warns Mahler. The harmony is almost as static as the dynamics.

From here the music moves forward without a break and, as abruptly as it changed from the scherzo to Nietzsche’s midnight, so does it change now from that darkness to a world of bells and angels. The text of the fifth movement comes from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), though the interjections of “Du sollst ja nicht weinen” (“But you mustn’t weep”) are Mahler’s own. A three-part chorus of women’s voices carries most of the text, though the solo contralto returns to take the part of the sinner. The children’s chorus, confined at first to bell noises, joins later in the exhortation “Liebe nur Gott” (“Only love God”) and for the final stanza. This movement, too, foreshadows the “Life in Heaven” that will not in fact occur until the Fourth Symphony.

Mahler perceived that the decision to end his symphony with an adagio was one of the most special he made. “In adagio movements,” he explained to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, “everything is resolved in quiet. The Ixion wheel of outward appearances is at last brought to a standstill. In fast movements—minuets, allegros, even andantes nowadays—everything is motion, change, flux.

“Therefore I have ended my Second and Third symphonies contrary to custom . . . with adagios—the higher form as distinguished from the lower.”

A noble thought, but, not uniquely in Mahler, there is some gap between theory and reality. The adagio makes its way at last to a sure and grand conquest, but during its course—and this is a movement, like the first, on a very large scale—Ixion’s flaming wheel can hardly be conceived of as standing still. In his opening melody, Mahler invites association with the slow movement of Beethoven’s last quartet, Opus 135. Soon, though, the music is caught in “motion, change, flux,” and before the final triumph it encounters again the catastrophe that interrupted the first movement. The adagio’s original title, What Love Tells Me, refers to Christian love, to agape, and Mahler’s drafts carry the superscription: “Behold my wounds! Let not one soul be lost!” The performance directions, too, speak to the issue of spirituality, for Mahler enjoins that the immense final bars with their thundering kettledrum be played “not with brute strength, [but] with rich, noble tone,” and that the last measure “not be cut off sharply”—so that there is some softness to the edge between sound and silence at the end of this most riskily and gloriously comprehensive of Mahler’s worlds.


Es sungen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang,
Mit Freuden es selig im Himmel klang;
Sie jauchzten fröhlich auch dabei,
Dass Petrus sei von Sünden frei.

Denn als der Herr Jesus zu Tische sass,
Mit seinen zwölf Jüngern das Abendmal ass,
So sprach der Herr Jesus: “Was stehst du denn hier?
Wenn ich dich anseh’, so weinest du mir.”

“Und sollt ich nicht weinen, du gütiger Gott!”
Du sollst ja nicht weinen!
“Ich hab übertreten die Zehen Gebot;

Ich gehe and weine ja bitterlich.”
Du sollst ja nicht weinen!
“Ach komm und erbarme dich über mich!”

“Hast du denn übertreten die Zehen Gebot,
So fall auf die Knie und bete zu Gott,
Liebe nur Gott in alle Zeit,
So wirst du erlangen die himmlische Freud.”

Die himmlische Freud ist eine selige Stadt,
Die himmlische Freud, die kein End mehr hat;
Die himmlische Freud war Petro bereit
Durch Jesum und allen zur Seligkeit.

—from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


Three angels were singing a sweet song:
With joy it resounded blissfully in heaven.
At the same time they shouted happily with joy
That Peter was absolved from sin.

For as Lord Jesus sat at table,
Eating supper with his twelve apostles,
So spoke Lord Jesus: “Why are you standing here?
When I look at you, you weep.”

“And should I not weep, you kind God!”
No, you mustn't weep.
“I have trespassed against the Ten Commandments.

I go and weep, and bitterly.”
No, you mustn't weep.
“Ah, come and have mercy on me!”

“If you have trespassed against the Ten Commandments,
Then fall on your knees and pray to God,
Love only God forever,
And you will attain heavenly joy.”

Heavenly joy is a blessed city,
Heavenly joy, that has no end.
Heavenly joy was prepared for Peter
By Jesus and for the salvation of all.

—from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Fourth Symphony

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Symphony No. 4 in G major


  • I. Bedachtig, nicht eilen (deliberately, not rushed)
  • II. In gemachlicher bewegung, ohne hast (with leisurely movement, without haste)
  • III. Ruhevoll (poco adagio) (peacefully, a little slowly)
  • IV. Sehr behaglich (very comfortably)

Except for the finale, which was composed as a song with piano accompaniment in February 1892, Mahler wrote his Fourth Symphony between June 1899 and April 1901. On the basis of his experience conducting the work, he continued to tinker with the orchestration. The score used in the San Francisco Symphony performances is that published in 1963 by the International Gustav Mahler Society, Vienna, which incorporates the composer’s final revisions, made after the last performances he conducted with the New York Philharmonic in January 1911. Mahler led the first performance of the work on November 25, 1901, with the Kaim Orchestra of Munich. The soprano was Margarete Michalek. The first North American performance was conducted by Walter Damrosch at a concert of the New York Symphony Society on November 6, 1904, with the soprano Etta de Montjau.

The orchestra consists of
- four flutes (third doubling piccolo)
- three oboes (third doubling English horn)
- three clarinets (second doubling high clarinet in E-flat)
- third doubling bass clarinet)
- three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon)
- four horns
- three trumpets
- timpani
- bass drum
- triangle
- sleigh bells
- glockenspiel
- cymbal
- tam-tam
- harp
- strings

These notes are used by kind permission of the estate of Michael Steinberg and are taken from the complete notes in his Oxford volume “The Symphony”.

Many a love affair with Mahler has begun with the sunlit Fourth Symphony. Mahler himself thought of it as a work whose transparency, relative brevity, and non-aggressive stance might win him new friends. It enraged most of its first hearers. Munich hated it and so did most of the German cities—Stuttgart being, for some reason, the exception—where Felix Weingartner took it on tour with the Kaim Orchestra immediately after the premiere.

The very qualities Mahler had banked on were the ones that annoyed. The bells, real and imitated (in flutes), with which the music begins! And that rustic tune in the violins! What in heaven’s name was the composer of the Resurrection Symphony up to with this newfound naïveté? Most of the answers proposed at the time were politicized, anti-Semitic, ugly. Today, we perceive more clearly that what he was up to was writing a Mahler symphony, uncharacteristic only in its all but exclusive involvement with the sunny end of the expressive range. But naïve? The violin tune, yes, is so popular in tone that we can hardly conceive that once upon a time it didn’t exist, but it is also pianissimo, which is the first step toward subverting its simplicity. Then Mahler marks accents on it in two places, both unexpected. The first phrase ends, and while clarinets and bassoons mark the beat, low strings suggest a surprising though charmingly appropriate continuation. A horn interrupts them midphrase and itself has the very words taken out of its mouth by the bassoon. At that moment, the cellos and basses assert themselves with a severe “as I was saying,” just as the violins chime in with their own upside-down thoughts on the continuation that the lower strings had suggested four bars earlier. The game of interruptions, resumptions, extensions, reconsiderations, and unexpected combinations continues—for example, when the violins try their first melody again, the cellos have figured out that it is possible to imitate it, lagging two beats behind (a discovery they proffer with utmost discretion, pianissimo and deadpan)—until bassoons and low strings call “time out,” and the cellos sing an ardent something that clearly declares “new key” and “second theme.”

“Turning cliché into event” is how Theodor W. Adorno characterized Mahler’s practice. Ideas lead to many different conclusions and can be ordered in many ways. Mahler’s master here is the Haydn of the London symphonies and string quartets of the 1790s. The scoring, too, rests on Mahler’s ability to apply an original and altogether personal fantasy to resources not in themselves extraordinary. Trombones and the tuba are absent; only the percussion is on the lavish side. Mahler plays with this orchestra as though with a kaleidoscope. He can write a brilliantly sonorous tutti but hardly ever does. What he likes better is to have the thread of discourse passed rapidly, wittily, from instrument to instrument, section to section. He thinks polyphonically, but he enjoys the combining of textures and colors as much as the combining of themes.

He could think of the most wonderful titles for the movements of this symphony, he wrote to a friend, but he refused “to betray them to the rabble of critics and listeners” who would then subject them to “their banal misunderstandings.” We do, however, have his name for the scherzo: Freund Hein spielt auf—Death Strikes Up. (Freund Hein—literally this could be rendered as “Friend Hal”—is a fairy tale bogy whose name is most often a euphemism for Death.) Alma Mahler amplified that hint by writing that here “the composer was under the spell of the self-portrait by Arnold Böcklin, in which Death fiddles into the painter’s ear while the latter sits entranced.” Death’s fiddle is tuned a whole tone high to make it harsher (the player is also instructed to make it sound like a country instrument and to enter “very aggressively”). Twice, Mahler tempers these grotesqueries with a gentle trio; Willem Mengelberg, the Amsterdam conductor, took detailed notes at Mahler’s 1904 rehearsals, and at this point he wrote into his score, “Here, he leads us into a lovely landscape.”

The adagio, which Mahler thought his finest slow movement, is a set of softly and gradually unfolding variations. It is rich in seductive melody, but the constant feature to which Mahler always returns is the tolling of the basses, piano under the pianissimo of the violas and cellos. The variations, twice interrupted by a leanly scored lament in the minor mode, become shorter, more diverse in character, more given to abrupt changes of outlook. They are also pulled more and more in the direction of E major, a key that asserts itself dramatically at the end of the movement in a blaze of sound. Working miracles in harmony, pacing, and orchestral fabric, Mahler, pronouncing a benediction, brings us back to serene quiet on the very threshold of the original G major, but when the finale almost imperceptibly emerges, it is in E. Our entry into this region has been prepared, but it is well that the music sound new, for Mahler means us to understand that we are now in heaven.

On February 6, 1892, Mahler had finished a song he called “Das himmlische Leben” (“Life in Heaven”), one of five humoresques on texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Des Knaben Wunderhorn is a collection of German folk poetry compiled just after 1800 by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. That, at least, is what it purports to be. In fact, the two poets indulged themselves freely in paraphrases, additions, and deletions, fixing things so as to give them a more antique and authentic ring, even contributing poems all their own. Mahler began to write Wunderhorn songs immediately after completing the First Symphony in 1888 (he had already borrowed a Wunderhorn poem as the foundation of the first of his Songs of a Wayfarer of 1884-85). The Wunderhorn then touches the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies. The scherzo of No. 2 was composed together and shares material with a setting of the poem about Saint Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes, and the next movement is the song “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”). The Third Symphony’s fifth movement is another Wunderhorn song, “Es sungen drei Engel” (“Three Angels Sang”), and until about a year before completing that symphony, Mahler meant to end it with “Das himmlische Leben,” the song we now know as the finale of the Fourth. That explains why the Third appears to “quote” the Fourth, twice in the minuet and again in the “Drei Engel” song.

Mahler had to plan parts of the Fourth Symphony from the end back, so that the song would appear to be the outcome and conclusion of what was in fact composed eight years after the song. From a late letter of Mahler’s to the Leipzig conductor Georg Göhler, we know how important it was to him that listeners clearly understand how the first three movements all point toward and are resolved in the finale. The music, though gloriously inventive in detail, is of utmost cleanness and simplicity. The solemn and archaic chords first heard at “Sanct Peter in Himmel sieht zu” (“Saint Peter in heaven looks on”) have a double meaning for Mahler; here, they are associated with details about the domestic arrangements in this mystical, sweetly scurrile picture of heaven, but in the Third Symphony they belong with the bitter self-castigation at having transgressed the Ten Commandments and with the plea to God for forgiveness. Whether you are listening to the Fourth and remembering the Third, or the other way around, the reference is touching. It reminds us, as well, how much all of Mahler’s work is one work. Just as the symphony began with bells, so it ends with them—this time those wonderful, deep single harp-tones of which Mahler was the discoverer.

The poem Mahler used for the text of the Fourth Symphony’s finale is a Bavarian folk song called “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (“Heaven is Hung With Violins”). On the text: Saint Luke’s symbol is a winged ox. Saint Martha, sister of Lazarus, is the patron saint of those engaged in service of the needy. It is said that Saint Ursula and her ten companions, returning home to England from Rome, were slaughtered by Huns who hated them for their Christian faith. Over the centuries these eleven martyrs somehow became eleven thousand.

—Michael Steinberg


Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden,
D’rum thun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich’ Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt Alles in sanftester Ruh’!
Wir führen ein englisches Leben!
Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben!
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen!
Sanct Peter im Himmel sieht zu!

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes drauf passet!
Wir führen ein geduldig’s,
Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod!
Sanct Lucas den Ochsen thät schlachten
Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten,
Der Wein kost kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller,
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten!
Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen!
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ and gut’ Trauben!
Die Gärtner, die Alles erlauben!
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Strassen sie laufen herbei.

Sollt ein Fasttag etwa kommen
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort Läuft schon Sanct Peter
Mit Netz and mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sanct Martha die Köchin muss sein.

Kein Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die uns’rer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen!
Sanct Ursula selbst dazu lacht!
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen!
Dass Alles für Freuden erwacht.

—von Des Knaben Wunderhorn


We delight in the heavenly joys,
and keep clear of the things of the earth.
There’s no worldly racket
to be heard in heaven.
Everything here lives in the gentlest peace!
We live an angelic life!
And a happy one, too!
We dance and leap,
we jump and sing.
Saint Peter in heaven looks on.

John lets the young lamb out,
the butcher Herod lies in wait.
We lead a patient,
innocent, patient,
dear little lamb to its death!
Saint Luke slaughters the ox
without a thought or concern.
The wine costs nothing
in the heavenly cellar.
The angels bake the bread.

Good greens of all kinds
grow in the heavenly garden!
Good asparagus, string beans,
and anything we want!
Whole bowls await us!
Good apples, good pears, and good grapes!
The gardeners allow everything!
If you want deer or rabbit,
they run free in the streets.

Should a day of fasting come along,
all the fish come swimming happily!
There goes Saint Peter running
with net and bait
to the heavenly pond.
Saint Martha will be the cook.

No music on earth
can compare with ours.
Eleven thousand maidens
step out to dance!
Even Saint Ursula laughs at the sight!
Cecilia and her family
are first-rate court musicians!
The heavenly voices
gladden our senses,
and everything wakes to joy.

—from Des Knaben Wunderhorn,
Translation: Larry Rothe