"Some Thoughts on Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony"

Ping-wen Hou, M.D.


To let my mind wander, to go blank, to think of nothing but "childhood". Thoughts enter my mind:...warmth...lullabies...security...my sister...my father...my mother...simple times...innocence...serenity...evenness of time...rhythm...music... Most of my associations seem self-explanatory, but the last one intrigues me. Why music? Why do I relate music to my thoughts of childhood? Let me continue.

Specifically, what music do I think of? A snippet from Theador Reik occurs to me: something about musical memories never being accidental, but being a product of the subconscious. What creations of other minds do I see as representing my thoughts and feelings? Certainly Mozart: if I could hear Classical perfection of structure wedded to romantic perfection of form (pace Pirsig) it would look like the sinfonia Concertante; but that’s not the childhood image that I was thinking of. Beethoven? Perhaps, but much too harsh for innocent associations. Classical? Romantic? Something gentler...Franck...Mendelssohn...Mahler...MAHLER! Malher- the man who pushed the Romantic world to its limit! Where have I seen it? An article a long time ago: "his universal appeal in an era of thermonuclear shadows and Freudian illumination lies in his unmistakable articulation of the most repressed and denied aspects of human experience. The most primitive terror, the most heartrending grief and yearning are portrayed in his scores with a tonal imagination as pictorial as the canvases of Bosch or Brueghel" (Chipman, p. 73) thermonuclear shadows? Freudian illumination? Primitive terror? My childhood? That’s not what I was thinking of. Most repressed and denied aspects? I don’t think it was what I was thinking of. No. It was something else. Something much more gentle, much more pleasant.

   We enjoy heavenly pleasures.
   And leave the earthly behind.
   No worldly tumult
   Is heard in Heaven:
   All live in gentlest peace
   In gentlest peace (Beginning verse from the choral part of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony).

There, that’s more like it. All live in gentlest peace. What more desirable association can one make with one’s childhood? But where is this "gentlest peace"? My thoughts jump to a recording I often listen to when I’m feeling tired or depressed or just disgusted about too much to do and not enough time to do it. Now I know the music...I think of sleighbells, angels, Mahler...Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a child’s view of Heaven. I feel better.

My thoughts continue: how can I possibly associate my feelings about my own childhood with the composer who expressed "thermonuclear shadows"? I realize that my feelings about the Fourth Symphony are certainly different from my feelings regarding his other creations. They should be. The Fourth is unique, perhaps Mahler’s association about his own childhood or maybe the "childbearing" process of creating a symphony. After all, don’t composers disown works just like parents disown children? (The thought startles me.) Surely the Fourth is the most peaceful product of an otherwise tormented soul. To feel this music calls for an approach different from that used for other composers and even from Mahler’s other works. Indeed, much of Mahler’s work will not give up its secret if we regard it wholly as music which we can study for its own sake (Cardus, p. 7). To clarify how this may fit together in my mind, I should fill in some details about the life of the man who created a work which reflects such personal associations.

Gustav Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 in Kalischt in Bohemia, an area which was politically restless, sifting between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Czechoslovakia. Mahler’s father, Bernard, a class-conscious Jewish tradesman, operated a distillery of dubious repute; Bernard’s main source of pride was that, like a gentleman, he owned a small library. In 1857, Bernard Mahler, in what was basically a marriage of convenience, married Marie Frank, a woman ten years his junior, and who was in love with another man at the time. Marie was a quiet, retiring woman, lame and with a weak heart, but possessing an "aristocratic delicacy" (La Grange, p. 8).

Marie Frank Mahler was, by nature, an exact opposite of her husband’s harshness. Bernard, in fact, brutalized his wife and often his children, determined to give them the education he had not received. In addition, Gustav Mahler’s father was not the most faithful of husbands: young Gustav watched his father "entertain" each of the servant girls in turn, a behavior totally contrary to the behavior to Orthodox Jews. This behavior, so deviant from that of Mahler’s religious ancestors, was contrasted with the fierce anti-Semitism found in this region, ant-Semitism which plagued Mahler’s conducting career, creating great tension in him. An example of this was the family’s inability to move from their town without official permission. In later years, social pressure in Vienna became so great that Mahler renounced Judaism and converted, at least in name, to Catholicism, thus alienating himself from the comforts which orthodox religion had provided to his ancestors. It was these difficulties which prompted Mahler to remark

I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among Germans, and as a Jew throughout all the world. Everywhere an intruder, never welcomed.

The marriage of Marie Frank to Bernard Mahler produced fourteen children in twenty-one years. Five died early; a sixth, Ernst, Gustav’s favorite and only nine months younger than himself, died at the age of thirteen of the same heart disease which would take the life of the composer in 1911. Neville Cardus describes the rest of the family as "a living Mahler symphony" (p. 12). One sister died young of a brain tumor; older brother Otto, considered by Gustav to be a "greater musician than myself" committed suicide at Twenty-two. Brother Alois fled to America to escape creditors. Only sisters Emma and Justine lived "normal" enough lives to add stability to Gustav’s formative years. It is apparent from these few facts alone why psycho-historians in discovering Mahler see his childhood as the main cause of the wrath to come. I see it as creating a need for the blissful vision which we call the Fourth Symphony.

Donald Mitchell observed that in such circumstances of double alienation, that is, alienation from family and culture, "even a character of marked poise based on an affectionate family life would be strained. The family as an integrated unit can do much to mollify the assaults of the outside world, sheltering the children when they are young and guaranteeing them a fund of emotional security which will last them a lifetime (p. 4). Mahler enjoyed no such good fortune. Mitchell continues: "With the kind of iron fatality that we meet in Greek tragedy, his youth was flawed by conflicts at every level and nowhere did conflicts rage more fiercely than in his home, the very center of this fractured universe" ( p. 5).

Given other circumstances, these childhood stresses might have fashioned young Gustav into an Anna O.-hysteric or a Little Hans phobic. (In fact, Mahler later in life developed a tic in his right leg which left his gait "peculiar, unrhythmic and stumbling," as well as an obsessive fear of heart disease: these symptoms are striking in the son of a lame woman who died of chronic heart disease.) But, to the greatest extent, they did not. Perhaps such are the mysteries of genius, that these forces, sublimated as Freud noted by Leonardo da Vinci to create great art, were employed by Mahler to create his landscape-like symphonies. These forces which so easily can be corrupted into self-defeating neurosis are retracted to the inner environment of the creative artist’s mind, a habitat nourished from contact with other minds (Cardus, p. 13). This imagination has its own territory and its own laws of growth. We will now examine this growth in the form it takes in the Fourth Symphony.

Certainly, a complete biographical sketch would be helpful, but in a paper of this length, this is impractical; yet before we can attempt to relate the Fourth to theories in psychopathology and to one’s own thoughts, we must have some inkling of where in Mahler’s creative life the work occurs.

Mahler’s Fourth in G major was begun in 1899 at a time when the composer was as happy as he was at any time of his life: he had achieved integration as an artist and a man. He had been appointed director of the State Opera in Vienna in 1897 and was now at the top of the musical world. As a composer, he commanded an orchestral language second to none: he could write for orchestra and voice as effortlessly and instinctively as a man walks, talks, or breathes (Cardus, p. 116).

The work itself is atypical Mahler: there are no comic gestures, no wrestling with beasts, no technical miscalculations and no tonal excess. The work conjures up a realm of child and youthful fantasy: the imagination used might today be seen as escapist (Cardus, p. 116), yet such escapism seems reasonable, and indeed healthy when we consider Mahler’s earlier life and works. The Second Symphony (1894) expresses man’s time on earth and his resurrection; the Third Symphony (1895) reached to include an all-encompassing view of nature, life, and spirit. The Fourth Symphony, then, can be seen as a release of sub-conscious tension, influenced by the imagination of the inner man (Beethoven). Interestingly, these symphonies, plus the colossal Eighth Symphony, are the only symphonies of the ten Mahler wrote which employ the voice, and as such they are often taken as a creative unit.

The symphony opens in a pastoral tone, proceeds to a parody of Death fiddling away, turns to a lullaby-like (warmth...lullabies...security...) slow movement and concludes with a simple song sung by the child idealized, a lyric soprano instructed by the composer to "convey an impression of childlike animation without parody". A brief description of each movement will be helpful.

The first movement combines subtlety and naiveté. Mahler shaped simple folksong melodies into symphonic form with logic but without the grandiose gestures typical of Mahler. We hear sleighbells, a barnyard, and a far off call to Paradise, a high flute over plucked strings, like an "echo from infancy" (Cardus, p. 125).

Movement Two is a danse macabre with the solo violin tuned one tone higher than the rest of the strings. In a sketchbook, Mahler described the movement as "Freund Hein spielt auf" (Death Strikes Up), making this the only movement in the symphony which Mahler subtitled. In medieval German folklore, Freund Hein is a fiddler who frightens the young and simple, but not the pure in heart, a bogeyman leading the way to the Beyond. Mahler wrote of this movement: "The Scherzo is mystical, bewildering, and weird. But then in the Adagio, which dis-entangles everything, you will see that after all, it has not been so bad". The artist in him kept him on the right side of the little angels. Cardus observes that there is nothing in the movement contradicting the main unburdened style of the symphony as a whole (p. 134).

The third movement, marked Adagio, is the bridge between the emotions of the first two movements and the heavenly vision of the fourth. The variations anticipate the ascent to heaven: the tone is soft and sweet. As the movement draws to a close, the gates of Heaven open in a blaze of arpeggios and harp glissandi as we enter the "hush of a region magically above the terrestrial world" (Cardus, p. 143).

...security...being cared for...food...warmth...being a baby...growing up...teenaged...

The text of the final movement is Mahler’s representation of a child’s view of Heaven in which the birds of the air and a Noah’s ark of animals hurry in an expectant rush to the heavenly feast. Using a text (Das himmlische Leben) drawn from the 1801 collection of folkpoems which he used so often, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Mahler tells us of a Heaven where angels bake bread, eleven thousand maidens dance and Saint Ursula laughs at the scene; everything awakens in joy. Heaven is no awesome place: its pleasures are many and enjoyed with the keenness only children know. The sense of evil found in parts of the first three symphonies and mocked in the Fourth by Freund Hein is gone.

The key to this movement, however, and, in fact, to Mahler’s view of Heaven as an idealized world is revealed in the text: in this brief, simple folkpoem we see a world where the female saints are all-giving providers, while John, Peter, Herod and Luke preside over the sacrifice of the innocent lamb and fish (interestingly, two traditional symbols of Christ). We think of Mahler’s childhood. We will see that these creations may be interpreted as mirrors of relationships and emotions which occurred in the composer’s life.

The possibilities for relating a creative individual’s conception of Heaven to psychopathology theory appear manifold. Unfortunately, in a paper of limited length, such possibilities must be limited. Two intriguing theoretical views of this problem will be offered: the first, Freud, will be presented because of its immediate association with Mahler himself; the second, Erik Erikson, stated because of its implication for our own times and its ability to cast new light on Mahler’s creation of the Fourth Symphony as a manifestation of his own psychopathology.

...teenaged...sexual impulses...loss of innocence...guilt....feeling depressed...

Freud met Gustav Mahler once in 1910. In a 1935 letter to Reik, Freud recalled

I analyzed Mahler for an afternoon in the year 1910 in Leyden. If I may believe reports I achieved much with him at that time. The visit appeared necessary for him, because his wife at that time rebelled against the fact that he withdrew his libido from her. In highly interesting expeditions with him through his life history, we discovered his personal conditions for love, especially in his Holy May complex (mother fixation). I had plenty of opportunity to admire the capability of the psychological understanding of this man of genius. No light fell at this time on the symptomatic facade of his obsessional neurosis. It was as if you would dig a single shaft through a mysterious building (Reik, p. 343).

Freud related Mahler’s striving for perfection and his "Holy Mary" complex, the infantile pattern behind the then fifty-year old composer’s philosophy. He saw that in striving for perfection, Mahler sacrificed his relationships with other people, and consequently did not enjoy his wife, friends, or life. Life passed him by. Mahler wrote "Others wear the theater out and take care of themselves; I take care of the theater and wear myself out" (Reik, p. 344).

These observations raise a second question: what was there about Mahler’s relationships with the key women in his life which might account for the content of his creative output in general and the Fourth Symphony specifically? Mahler’s wife Alma wrote that the treatment which Mahler’s mother received at the hands of her husband Bernard must have haunted the composer’s childhood because he knew that "the marriage was an unhappy one from the first day" and that his mother had to suffer "unending tortures" a result of "the brutality of (her husband) who domineered his delicate wife and flogged the children" (Alma Mahler "Memories"). In later conversations with Natalie Bauern-Lechner, the composer made no direct mention of the scenes which occurred between his parents. Donald Mitchell notes that this omission must be viewed as a significant suppression of unpleasant memories. Alma Mahler recalled that she "never heard Mahler say an affectionate word of his father" (p. 8).

The young Mahler was clearly an impressionable agonized observe of this relationship, observations which must have intensifies his Oedipal feelings regarding his mother, and which may account for many occurrences later in his life: his marriage at a late age (40) to a much younger woman, his intense relationship with his older sister Justine, and the marital difficulties which prompted his meeting with Freud.

These feelings were mirrored in his relationship with his young, beautiful wife Alma, and were revealed when Mahler met Freud in 1910. Mahler, whose parents were separated in age by ten years, married Alma Schindler, a woman eighteen years his junior, in 1902. Freud assured Mahler that this age difference which worried the composer was what attracted his wife to him. He went on to tell Mahler that he unconsciously sought a wife life his mother: Mahler’s mother suffered and grieved: Mahler wanted his wife to do the same.

In her book of memoirs, Alma Mahler confessed that Freud was indeed correct. The composer’s mother’s name was Marie: Mahler wanted to change his wife’s name to Marie. He asked that she appear more "stricken", as if in unconscious memory of his mother. Reik wrote that Mahler’s mother-in-law, listening to the composer’s complaints that Alma had had so few sad experiences, replied "Don’t worry, that will come".

The feelings regarding his parents and his wife helped to form the personality which could create the cosmic world of the Third Symphony. But it also created the sensitivity which produced the gentle heavenliness of the Fourth Symphony. This leads us to our second theoretical viewpoint. Erikson in describing the development of infantile sexuality observes that

a drastic loss of accustomed mother love without proper substitution at this time (that is, basic trust versus mistrust) can lead to acute infantile depression or to a mild but chronic state of mourning which may give a depressive undertone to the whole remainder of life. But even under the most favorable circumstances, this stage leaves a residue of a primary sense of evil and doom and of a universal nostalgia for a lost paradise (p. 80).

                    ...feeling depressed...depressive undertone...Dad’s death...state of mourning...lost paradise...one-time
                    mutuality...trust...and misstrust...

Mahler’s child hood was not spent under the "most favorable circumstances". Far from it. How then can we use Eriksonian concepts to relate the turmoil of Mahler’s early years to his later creative output?

Erikson writes that bizarreness and withdrawal in the behavior of many sick individuals hides an attempt to recover social mutuality (lost during the stage of basic trust and mistrust) by testing the borderlines between senses and physical reality, words and social meanings; that the mother creates a sense of trust in the child by administration which in its quality combines sensitive care of the baby’s needs with a sense of trustworthiness within the framework of the culture. In providing this, by guiding by permission and prohibition, the parents represent to the child a conviction that there is meaning in what they are doing (p. 249).

How might this apply to Mahler and his Fourth? The answer seems evident: the second oldest of a loveless marriage in which the wife and children are subjected to the physical and verbal abuse of the father certainly must be deprived of the necessary attention of which Erikson speaks. The lack of parental permission and prohibition is underlined when it is remembered that Mahler’s frailly constituted mother not only cared for the household, but bore fourteen children in twenty-one years, often, as was the case of Gustav and his younger brother Ernst, separated in age by only nine months. Certainly, a sibling only nine months younger would, no matter how loved, be regarded at least subconsciously as a "hated interloper" (Chipman, p. 73) into the blissful paradise of early infancy.

But why the form used in the Fourth? Erikson continues that parental faith supporting trust in the newborn in the touchstone of religion; all religions have in common a childlike surrender to a provider who dispense earthly fortune as well as spiritual health, a demonstration of man’s smallness by way of reduced posture, admission in song of misdeed and evil intention (Freund Hein?), a fervent appeal for inner unification by divine guidance (Saint Peter in Heaven looks on...), and finally the insight that individual trust must become a common faith, individual mistrust, a commonly formulated evil (p. 250). Suddenly, a composition which tonally and textually depicts an idyllic religious setting seems completely understandable as a product of a childhood such as Mahler’s.

Mahler’s music was a manifestation of the whole man. In music, he found his only way of living an uninhibited, emergent life. Mahler was not a composer who thought first of fidelity to his medium, but rather used music to express himself, realize himself as an expressing mind, nature, and spirit, using it to seek integration a s a man and an artist. With Mahler, one symphony begets another, showing us psychological growth and change. Mahler himself said that no later work of his could be understood by anyone who had not lived through all its predecessors.

A more general question now presents itself: how may we justify our application of psychopathology views to someone dead nearly ninety years? Freud, of course, established a precedent by writing a "psychosexual study" of someone who had lived more than four hundred years before. This however is not sufficient justification. I feel Erikson is near the mark:

To reconcile historical and psychological methodologies, we must first learn to deal jointly with the fact that psychology and psychologists are subject to historical laws and that historians and historical records are subject to those of psychology (p. 403).

In assessing both historical and psychological data, the psycho-historian realizes that in its broadest sense "the immature origin of man’s conscience endangers his maturity and his works: infantile fears accompany him throughout life" (p. 405). For the creative individual in particular, we as psychologists and historians must acknowledge that the child is indeed the father to the man.

Mahler, in many respects, created at the very edge of what Pirsig considered to be the Classic-

Romantic dichotomy. While most times he employed the musical materials of his era to explore his psychological condition, often, especially later in his life, the existing forms simply were not adequate to contain him. Like Phaedrus, there were irreconcilable elements in Mahler: he was a belated "Classic"’ yet coming in the wake of Beethoven and Schubert, he was a "Romantic". At the same time, he was neither: in later works such as Das Lied von der Erde (1911), Mahler foresaw Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. And by applying, sublimating , the psychic forces contained in him as a result of his upbringing, he created a musical universe which [ninety] seventy years later can evoke the most primitive fears and emotions in listeners of the 1990s.

...1990s...teenaged...college...away from home...being on my own...maturity...getting old...dying...mortality...heaven...immortality...

Why does Mahler, even though he speaks to us from another time, retain the ability to stir something deep within us? Why think of the Fourth Symphony? Mahler, in expressing his basic conflicts in his music is reminding us of our mortality through his own. Funny, in a stroke of irony which we can only call Mahlerian , he reminds us of our mortality, and so guarantees his immortality.


Cardus, Neville. Gustav Mahler: His Mind and His Music. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1972.

Chipman, Abram. "Mahler: A Psychomusical View", High Fidelity. May, 1974, pp. 73-76.

Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton and Company, 1950.

Freud, Sigmund. Leonardo da Vinci. New York: Vintage Books, 1916.

La Grange, Henry-Louis de. Mahler, Vol. 1. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1973.

Mahler, Alma. Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1940.

Mitchell, Donald. Gustav Mahler: The Early Years. London: Rockliff, 1958.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.