The great scene of the end of the world plays out as a march, mostly in F minor. Four flats in the key signature, far from the purity of the C major peroration that preceded it. The final scream Mahler describes is a masterstroke- we’ve been expecting him to return to C major throughout the Last Judgment, but instead we land with the bass instruments all playing the note c-sharp fff, while the upper instruments all unleash the “scream of indescribable confusion” in B minor. It’s the same shattering, dissonant harmony from the beginning of the movement, the one we first heard in the scherzo, now transposed up a semi-tone. Its meaning is now clear, its very ambiguity now shows its purpose- it is a depiction of the confusion and chaos at the end of the world.
In an instant, just as in the beginning the bass note becomes the tonic, except that instead of c becoming C major, c-sharp now becomes D-flat major, the key of the fourth movement, the key of our earlier vision of heaven. We’ve suddenly moved from the four flats of F minor to the five of D-flat major. As in the exposition, this arrival proves ephemeral. Just as before, the offstage horns return, changing our point of arrival into a further point of departure. Their purpose is now shown to us- they are the Last Trump. As the bird of death fades into silence, our promise of heaven is destroyed.
The choral entry that follows could not be more magical. The D-flat/C-sharp tonality finally reveals its purpose- it is not our destination, it is the dominant of G-flat major, six flats, the furthest possible key from C, a tri-tone away. The choir enters with us having traveled as far from where we began as we possibly could.
Mahler has already told us that it is “beggars and rich men, common folk and kings, the Church Militant, the Popes” these words are spoken to, our lost protagonist of Totenfeier has become one with the millions.
From here on, the magical moments come at an astonishing rate. Out of the opening chorale floats the sound of a new soloist, not the contralto of Urlicht, but a soprano who joins the choir for the words
There is another instrumental interlude, based on the same trombone peroration we heard in C major so long ago, but now in G flat, and pp instead of ff. Where before the horns ended the celebratory mood with a cry of anguish, Mahler uses the same music, now staying in major, to launch us into the even more hopeful next stanza.
“You are sown to bloom again.”
The contralto finally returns, singing the anguished music first heard in the woodwinds so long ago. We’re now being reunited with each of those themes from the beginning, as we meet each one, its meaning becomes clear. This section is in B flat minor, five flats, so closer to home yet darker. She sings
“O believe, my heart, only believe:
Nothing is lost to you!
All that you yearned for is yours, yes yours;
Yours, all that you loved and fought for.
O Believe: you were not born in vain
You did not live or suffer in vain.”
The choir, now only the men, now return, still in five flats, singing the chorale theme.
“All that is created must die
All that has died must rise again.
Fear no more.
Prepare yourself! Prepare yourself to live!”
Now the two soloists sing together, in passionate, overlapping exclamations, now in the four flats of A-flat major, the key of the second movement. Again, just one flat closer to home. The basses join in gently with a sort of variation of theme the women just sang. The key signature has changed once more, but we’re not aware of it yet as the harmony is moving quite rapidly. They sing:
“On wings that I have won by the ardent labors of love, I shall soar aloft.”
The music here does soar, moving sequentially higher and higher until we arrive at the next great climax-
“Sterben werd ich, um zu leben!” or “I shall die so that I may live again!”
Now it is clear where that last key change has taken us- somewhere we have not gone yet in the 70 minutes of music we’ve heard- E-flat major. One flat fewer than where we were, we’ve made our way back from the beyond to the key signature with which we started the symphony, three flats. Now however, instead of C minor, the key of the funeral march (also the key of Beethoven’s funeral march in the Eroica and Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music), we’re in its relative major, E-flat. This is the first key we should have gone to (Beethoven’s funeral march moves to E-Flat major after just 16 bars!) in the symphony, instead Mahler has held it back through the entire work. In fact, he’s used almost every key there is except for this one and the effect is shattering. We’ve returned to where we came from- remember when the alto said: “Believe nothing is lost to you!” and yet we’ve also arrived somewhere we’ve never been, never though of in the whole symphony. Finally the choir sings, squarely in E flat major:
In this final stanza, Mahler at last answers all the questions, musical and spiritual, posed by the symphon, and in particular by the cataclysm of the first movement. The suffering, despair and devastation of Totenfeier, which seemed so nihilistic before has now been revealed as the instrument of salvation. Having established our universality in the Last Judgment, Mahler now shows us that it is not membership in any subset of humanity, but the fact of being human that carries us to God.
c 2006 Keneth Woods