St Petersburg, Concert Hall


Fourth concert of the twelfth subscription

Gustav Mahler
Symphony No 4
Symphony No 5

Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre

For me, writing a symphony means using every method available
in contemporary musical technique to create a world.

I am certain that if God had been asked to provide a programme
for the “world” he had created he, too, would have been unable to do so.
Gustav Mahler (from memoirs and letters)

Gustav Mahler least of all resembles the Biblical Creator, unfailingly pleased with each of the days of creation. The symphonic worlds he created are disharmonious, just like the life that inspired them. And so Mahler could not, like the Mozart whom he idolised, remain within the framework of predetermined harmony. Each and every time he had to seek it out and win it over – afresh for each symphony.

Mahler was one of those prophets who believed in his work, in its future. Mahler foresaw “the truth of the undying soul” (Arnold Schoenberg), or eternal life, in the finale of his Second Symphony, where the final chorus “You will rise again!” developed in the composer’s imagination under the impression of the requiem for Hans von Bülow. In the fourth movement of the Third Symphony, the solo alto to words by Friedrich Nietzsche expresses a doubt about heavenly joy: “But all joy strives towards eternity.” And in the subsequent fifth movement the female chorus and boy’s chorus declare “Through Christ all approach bliss.” The text of the children’s song Three Angels Sang was borrowed by Mahler from von Arnim and Brentano’s anthology Des Knabens Wunderhorn.

Form there we have the direct link to the finale of the Fourth Symphony – the song Das Himmliche Leben from the same anthology Des Knabens Wunderhorn. If the songs were “building” material for Mahler in writing his first symphonies, then of the Fourth one may say that it was literally born of song. Mahler composed the vocal miniature Das Himmliche Leben back in 1892 in Hamburg while working on the Second Symphony. In the anthology Des Knabens Wunderhorn the song is entitled Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen. It was only in 1899 that Mahler began composing the Fourth Symphony, starting with … its finale! “Strictly speaking, I only wanted to write a symphonic humoresque, but I ended by composing a normal-size symphony,” the composer admitted. The unique nature of the Fourth lies in the fact that the melodic shoots and sprouts grow from the finale into the preceding movements of the symphony. They grow through recognisable “quotations”, familiar melodic techniques, at times barely perceptible intonation threads that sew together the entire fabric of the symphony. Iosif Raiskin


The Fifth Symphony marks a kind of transition phase in Mahler’s work. His first four symphonies are, in principle, sung, meaning they are based on sung intonations and include song as a movement or a section of a movement, making use of the spoken word either directly or indirectly – through a quotation from the refrain of a song. This is the first circle of Mahler’s “creation of the worlds” – from the life of one man through the contemplation of this life (Mahler on his Second: “What did you life for? What did you suffer for?”) to the creation of the universe in the Third, where the movements “should imprint upon the succession of everything living” (Mahler), to the Fourth – proofs of disappointment, weariness and the refutation of struggle.

The Fifth Symphony lies at the border between two periods. The composer rejected any written explanations of his ideas here for the first time. This does not at all indicate an actual refutation of his previously developed principles for creating symphonic cycles, of that meaning of “creating a world” which Mahler gave them. Moreover, there is a direct indication as to the existence of the composer’s programme in the Fifth: in one of his letters to Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, speaking of his impressions of the music in the Fifth Symphony, wrote in particular: “I saw your naked spirit, completely naked, it lay exposed before me, like a wild and mysterious landscape with its frightening depths and ravines, with its wonderful, joyous meadows and peaceful, idyllic corners. I saw it as a natural storm with its horrors and troubles and with its enlightening, alluring rainbow. And what is it to me that your “programme”, which you told me of later, seems to have little in common with my emotions? Should I understand correctly if I have suffered and felt? I have sensed the struggle for an illusion, I have seen how forces of Good and Evil oppose one another, I have seen how man ticks in a torturous struggle to attain inner harmony, I have feltthe man, the drama, the truth…”

Iosif Raiskin
Age category 6+

Any use or copying of site materials, design elements or layout is forbidden without the permission of the rightholder.