Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 was composed between 1899 and 1901. Its premiere took place in Munich on November 25, 1901, with the composer himself conducting the Kaim-Orchester, today’s Münchner Philharmoniker.
The symphony is scored for a large orchestra. It calls for four flutes (the third and fourth doubling piccolos), three oboes (the third doubling English horn), three clarinets (the second doubling E-flat clarinet and the third, bass clarinet), three bassoons (the third doubling contrabassoon), four French horns, three trumpets, four timpani, a bass drum, cymbals, a triangle, sleigh bells, a tam-tam, a glockenspiel, a harp, and strings. In addition, a soprano solo voice is introduced in the final movement. Despite the size of the ensemble, Symphony No. 4 is one of the quietest of Mahler’s symphonic pieces. In the first movement, for instance, the trumpets, the instruments that are typically employed to produce a loud sound, only appear in a small portion of the movement (approximately one sixth of the movement that comprises over three hundred fifty measures). Moreover, many of the trumpet notes are marked piano. For the rest of the symphony, Mahler keeps this manner of orchestration until the very last note.
The reason why Mahler maintains the serene sonority throughout Symphony No. 4 is strongly related to his decision to quote in the last movement Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), a song Mahler wrote in 1892. The piece, sung by a soprano solo, is about a child's vision of Heaven. The text opens with the following lines: “We enjoy heavenly pleasures and therefore avoid the earthly stuff. No worldly turmoil is to be heard in heaven.” Even from this much of the first strophe of the text one can easily see that it was important for Mahler to depict a feeling of innocence not just in the finale but also in the other movements. Mahler indeed incorporates thematic materials from the song throughout the entire symphony to maintain the heavenly atmosphere.