Two Sunbeams in Mahler's 4th Symphony


Even in the clutches of the devil, light can shine through! That's what Mahler's 4th symphony teaches us. Every page of the score of Mahler's 4th is chock full of master brushstrokes. Most people focus on the sublime slow movement and moments in the concluding orchestral song ("The Heavenly Life). But two of my favorite passages are short moments in the scherzo—and they pierce right through the devil and his fiddle! Mahler was directly inspired with this scherzo by a self-portrait of the Swiss painter Arnold Boecklin that features the devil playing fiddle just behind him.

Arnold Boecklin "Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle"

Arnold Boecklin "Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle"

Mahler instructs the solo violin to tune the strings a full step higher so that the instrument sounds strained  and tense. Everyone comments on that. But the effect that most strikes me is when the muted strings play quietly punctuated by a harp accenting just the high F of the violins, but playing it fortissimo. It's like a sunbeam shooting down to the devil!

Such a simple idea, but so piercing. This "stab" of divinity hints at a larger glimpse of heaven we hear later in the trio, one that itself reveals the ultimate destination of this symphony—"The Heavenly Life" depicted in the final movement. Here the effect is also of contrast. The basses play a tune the disappears into the depths when the whole orchestra turns on this "divine" light pianissimo. Sustained violins and flutes hover over harp and strings that pluck a simple accompaniment. This is all very quiet. Excerpt for the clarinets! They play a melody fortissimo against this tapestry. The whole effect is also so uplifting because the harmony has suddenly shifted from F major to the brighter D major.

The contrast of these two "sunbeam" moments with the music that precedes them are just as imaginative as their orchestration. Mahler is best when he pits light against dark! These two moments tend to get lost among all the other marvelous passages in Mahler's 4th, but I find them particularly stunning. Feel free to share your own in the comments.