Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Fourth Movement

So here we are, the fourth movement, we’ve finally made it to the last movement of Mahler’s first symphony! If you’ve listened to the symphony before reading my blog you’ll probably be aware that all of the musical exploration in previous movements make the last movement worth the wait! Entitled ‘From the inferno to paradise’ the start of this movement certainly highlights the inferno. Due to the third movement acting as a segue (for dramatic purposes it seems) into the fourth movement, it really heightens the tension that Mahler had spent the past 36 minutes trying to create.

An incredibly powerful fortissimo F minor chord is played by the woodwinds and brass a beat after the cymbal crash at an ear-ringing fff. The strings then provide a run of quintuplets and sextuplets which head towards an exciting ascending semi-quaver run into a fff tremolo. An extremely subtle hint is made towards Liszt’s Dante Symphony by the brass section with a cross symbol theme in a minor mode being played. Mahler was a massive fan of Lizst, with him being one of his biggest influences throughout his composing career. The famous triplet run down within this movement is also based on a theme from the Dante Symphony. At this point the triplets represent the inferno, with the orchestra coming together on the triplets and then the strings doing some incredibly fast and technical runs underneath the main triplet theme.

This movement is written in a very loose sonata-allegro form. So by figure 6 (b.62) we’ve entered the exposition section (still currently in F minor). The upper brass and woodwind play the main fanfare theme at this point which return quite a lot within this movement, especially nearer the end. The texture throughout this section is incredibly dense as there are so many instruments accounted for. This for me really hones in on the idea of an inferno, a fiery, thrilling and exciting part in the music/story. Once again Mahler uses dynamics as an aid to make the music interesting and variable. By figure 12 (b. 143) we hear a ‘swelling’ kind of sound from the brass and lower woodwind sections with the use of quick crescendos. This all leads up to figure 14 and 15 which act as a transitional section into the secondary section at b.175. The mood is brought down a lot and the whole section is marked Molto riten. Chromatic movement is also something that has been used a lot to create interesting modulations within movements, for instance at b.175 Mahler has modulated to Db major to mark the start of the secondary section. Slightly further on he modulates to G minor in order to mark the start of the development section.

Hints from the first movement in particular are shadowed within this movement, and by the time we get to b.254, otherwise known as the development section, we can hear a lot of ideas being varied from all of the movements. The development section takes a lot of Mahler’s ideas, as well as from Liszt’s Dante Symphony and creates an exciting build up to figure 25 (b.290) where Mahler has modulated from G minor to C major to showcase the new ‘victorious theme.’ As well as Liszt being a large influence on Mahler, Richard Wagner was also a favourite of the composer. A rhythmic variation from Wagner’s Parsifal Opera is quoted at figure 26 of this movement. For further development, a chromatic modulation occurs at b.317 where the piece goes to C minor for the second part of the theme. By figure 30 (b.337) the texture is incredibly dense with every instrument playing, and mostly in higher registers to create a shrill, yet exciting variation.

A variation from Liszt is heard once more and is used as a transition into the next section of the development. Back in C major by b.371 the woodwind and strings are in unison with descending semi-quaver patterns. This very quickly modulates to D major, which is where we reach the realm of the paradise. A new chorale theme is played, which is a fantastic unifying theme at this point on in the work. This theme recurs until the main theme from the first movement returns in a different turn of events where the music is brought back down. The descending 4th’s theme returns in the strings, while the awakening fanfare, the cuckoo and the tirilli theme is brought back in slight variation. I’ve always thought of this part to mean that nature is paradise and all of the movements thrown together creates a paradise. Small nods to each movement are made in this movement and I feel its the coming together of the paradise.

The secondary transition into F major at figure 41 (b.458) is interesting as it is a condensed orchestration at a much slower tempo. However, for me this section is not sad at all, its a realisation of the beauty of nature within music. Above the low drones of the lower strings, the violins have a beautiful lyrical melody, which is Mahler’s appreciation of romanticism. After a lot of build up and the use of octave changes the F minor main theme returns again at figure 45 (b.533). Intensification of the main theme is then heard and stretched through a fair amount of time as octave drops and fanfares are culminated together to create a syncopated main theme. Within this build up one of my favourite interjections is from the violas at b.540. The very contrasting ff marked quaver motif is played above the very sparse foundation. It emphasises the violas and really gives a nice deep sound to the mix of instruments.

After a run of dramatic triplets Mahler then modulates back to D major into a section marked “Utmost Strength.” Interlocking fanfare themes are heard across the whole orchestra, which creates an incredibly powerful and rich timbre. The chorale theme returns once more above the technical semi-quaver runs from the strings underneath. A new section begins at figure 56 (b.657) which is marked “Triumphal.”  This leads to the coda at figure 59 (b.696) which is a massive explosion of music and the complete opening up of the paradise. Varied triplet themes and the chorale theme interlock together to create one of the most incredible sounds I have ever heard. The tremolos from the strings on the last few bars of the movement build up to an incredibly dramatic D major chord three bars from the end and then an two-note octave drop in the tonic in the last bar. This is one of the most powerful endings and is probably my favourite as it honestly makes me well up every time! The powerful triple stops in the string section and the force of the whole orchestra really gets into me. Heck I’ve cried too many times to dare count!

One of my favourite interpretations, which you see in a lot of different versions, is at the Triumphal section the whole horn section stands up with the bells in the air. I remember going to see this symphony live at Sheffield City Hall with the Hallé Orchetsra playing and it was one of the most incredibly fulfilling moments when the final sections of the fourth movement were played. I remember just tearing up due to happiness and thinking “yes this is exactly why I study music, because it makes me feel like this!” This symphony is the basis of my dissertation for my last year at university, with the focal point being modernism and reception. It is a piece of music that is very dear to me and I urge anybody to listen to it because it brings me so much happiness (pretty much everyday!).

My recommendations for performances would be:

Lucerne Festival Orchestra – Claude Abbado 2009





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