Use of the old revitalizes the new, a truism exemplified in Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major (1900). Like his peers, he discovered collections of centuries-old German folklore and reworked significant ones for voice and orchestra. One of those collections was Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1805) collated by the Romantic authors, Achim von Arim and Clemens Bretano.

From this classic, Mahler selected the poem, Child’s Vision of Heaven/Das himmilsche Lebe. He incorporatedits four verses, by intervals, within the fourth movement of his Fourth Symphony. The soprano’s lilting playfulness always brought smiles to audiences and referenced similar patterns in preceding movements: The result was an hour of music that intrigued psyches and enlarged humdrum worlds.

This always has been my experience with Mahler’s Fourth, both in symphony halls and YouTube. Yet my unfamiliarity with the German language prompted me to look up Das himmilsche Lebe and imagine that rustic world of past ages when Christianity was shared.

The poem reflects the simple, unadorned faith, simplicity, and joy of children, just in from the fields, gathered around the itinerant storyteller beneath the sprawling oak.

Critical to their sense of heaven is the heavenly vegetable patch: good greens of every sort, good apples, good pears, and good grapes…The abundance of fish, fowls, lambs, and wine suggests the satisfaction of full bellies, accompanied by bread that Saint Martha and the angels make. Overseeing this harmony are other saints Peter, John, Luke, and the martyr Ursula, reputed from Cologne, Germany. In that world, whenever it was, such listeners thrived until the arrival of the next storyteller.

In the poem, Das himmilsche Lebe, all is indeed very well. Mahler’s arrangement for soprano provides inexplicable joy to the score—Such is the Kingdom of heaven.