Moderately, not rushed, Sonata form. Flutes and sleigh bells open the unusually restrained first movement (and used later with a melodic theme known commonly as the 'bell theme', which helps define sections throughout the movement) often described as possessing classical poise. As would be expected for the first movement of a symphony, the first movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 is in sonata form.
Bedächtig. Nicht eilen—Recht gemächlich (Deliberately. Unhurriedly—Very leisurely). A few bars of introduction in which the sound of flutes and sleighbells predominate (the 'fool's cap and bells', according to Adorno, who compared this opening with the 'once upon a time' of fairytales) lead into the first movement proper, which begins 'as if it did not know how to count to four'. The initial ascending theme, typically Viennese in character, belongs to a larger family of similar melodies in Mahler's works. It is shortly followed by a second theme on the lower strings that is as calm as it is pastoral in nature. But such simplicity is soon belied by a development section in which the different motifs are combined, linked together, transformed and inextricably intertwined or, in the words of Erwin Stein, 'shuffled like a pack of cards'. Time and again they engender new motifs, while at the same time remaining recognisable in their own right, constantly juxtaposed or superimposed in ever new combinations.