If Mahler’s Third Symphony originated as an evolutionary depiction of the world from inanimate life to the flowers, animals, human realm, angelic spheres, and finally to God, the Fourth Symphony (1899–1900) takes life after death as its subject. The two symphonies are also linked by thematic material, Mahler’s Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Leben (“The Heavenly Life”), which the composer had originally intended as the finale for the earlier symphony but then used to close the Fourth (and to interweave through its other movements.)
Always finding the poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn inspiring (the first four symphonies all contain Wunderhorn material), Mahler was particularly charmed and moved by The Heavenly Life. A childlike vision, Heaven is seen as a merry, carefree place with good things to eat—angel-baked bread, excellent wines, succulent fruits, tender meats, abundant fish, and divine music. And it was the quality of heavenly cheerfulness that the composer sought to imbue in his symphony. He referred to the Fourth as a “humoresque,” and it is perhaps his sunniest work. “What I had in mind here was extraordinarily difficult to bring off,” he told his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner.
“Think of the undifferentiated blue of the sky, which is harder to capture than any changing and contrasting shades. This is the basic tone of the whole work. Only once does it become overcast and uncannily awesome—but it is not the sky itself which grows dark, for it shines eternally blue. It is only that it seems suddenly sinister to us—just as on the most beautiful day, in a forest flooded with sunshine, one is often overcome by a shudder of Panic dread. The Scherzo is so mystical, confused and uncanny that it will make your hair stand on end.”
In the finale, the composer turned once again to the human voice—a soprano—and set The Heavenly Life as an orchestral song.
While Mahler’s vision of Heaven is naïve and childlike, that of Olivier Messiaen in L’Ascension (1932) is mystical, numinous, and mysterious. One of the most important works of his youth, it finds the 24-year-old composer already a “theological musician” (as he styled himself), although one not yet incorporating the song of birds (“avatars of angels”) in his music.
The piece comprises four “meditations” with Biblical verses or prayers for contemplation:
- Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père ("The majesty of Christ asking His Father for glory")
- Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel ("Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven")
- Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale ("Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal")
- Prière du Christ montant vers son Père ("Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father")
The composers' paths to Heaven couldn't be more different.