“[...] Furthermore, I would not be happy to introduce a new work – the first that is perhaps a more practical response to existing conditions, and thus being received in a less prejudicial and more benign manner, in more favourable circumstances, can bring me the only reward I wish to obtain from my work: to be heard and understood – to the audience in Berlin, an audience that does not know me and that has been alienated from me in advance thanks to short-sighted criticism in the press [...] and I request that you, my dear Strauss, do not for the time being usher my fourth symphony into the realm of your ideas.” This well-turned phrase appears in a letter from Gustav Mahler dated July 1901, in which he attempts to prevent his colleague Richard Strauss from scheduling the first performance of his Symphony No. 4 in Berlin. Mahler was concerned about the acoustics of the hall, the quality of the orchestra, and in particular the attitude of the Berlin press, which had taken an extremely hostile stance towards his music in the past. He wanted the première of the new work to take place in the most ideal conditions. Thus, the first performance was finally staged in Munich on November 25, 1901 under the direction of the composer himself.
The story behind Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 is lengthy. The seed for the work was sown back in 1892, when the composer set to music some folk-song texts from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, entitling them Humoresken. Just as he had reused the music of his Wunderhorn lieder in his first two symphonies, Mahler was planning to include the lied Das himmlische Leben as the last part of his Symphony No. 3, entitling it Was mir das Kind erzählt. The fact that melodic material from this lied shows up not only in the fifth movement of the symphony, but can even be found in embryonic form in the first movement, is proof of how far Mahler had already progressed with the implementation of this idea.