As the fourth movement resolves into a vision of heavenly rest one could easily believe that our journey is at its end, but of course this short movement (only four minutes) could hardly balance out and resolve all the issues and challenges the symphony had posed up to this point. No, we must see the fourth movement for what it is, the promise and the vision of salvation, but not the manifestation of it.
The fourth movement ends serenely and sublimely in D-flat major (remember that key!), and fades into silence. Once again, though, Mahler tells the conductor to go immediately ahead to the finale, and the silence is shattered in the utmost violence. Of course, we’ve heard this music before, the agonized dissonance of B-flat minor over c natural, in the crisis point of the third movement. This opening gesture quickly elides into a more lyrical section in C major– yes we’re back in a major key again, but we’ve somehow lost that heavenly vision embodied in D-flat, we’ve fallen back to earth. Though c is the tonic note of the symphony, this turns out not to be a return to stability but the beginning of a new voyage, and this C major turns out to have been a preparation for the F minor section that follows (note that the key is a perfect fourth away, that same interval turns out to be important in the structure of the piece as it is in the melodic make up of it).
The fourth movement introduced one new sound, that of the human voice. It seems likely that after the introduction, as we arrive in this new key, that the voice would return. Instead, Mahler gives us something even more novel, an effect that Beethoven never used in the 9th. We hear, far in the distance, the sound of several horns playing in unison. It’s a foreboding, desolate call. This first appearance of the offstage band lasts only four bars, then the orchestra takes over with music that seems to be searching for direction; there is a quality of anticipation and uncertainty in this passage. Gradually, one by one, we are introduced to a number of themes: a chorale theme first heard in the woodwinds, a more hopeful melody in the horns, and a very anguished one in the english horn. As it turns out, Mahler is doing exactly the opposite of what Beethoven did at the beginning of the finale of his 9th Symphony. Beethoven used the opening of his ninth to sum up all that had happened before in the piece, Mahler uses the opening of his second to show us all that is to come. Throughout, there is a sense of suspense: which of these themes will ultimately launch us on the journey to come? Once each theme has been introduced, we are confident that the central journey is ready to begin. The trombones restate the chorale theme (now it could really be Bach we’re hearing), but then again, the hopeful horn theme returns, even more grandly, and finally in C major, there is a great breakthrough. Where before the horn theme had dissolved from hope to despair, the trombones return with the chorale theme, but now in C major and with the melody transformed. Instead of falling back to the main not after one step, the melody rises onward. It is the second theme of the first movement, the great brass theme of the third and the opening of fourth movement. It is the first transformative moment in the symphony- we now know that we will never return to the world of Totenfeier.
Mahler himself, in a letter to his friend (the soprano Natalie Bauer-Lechner again) provided what is surely the definitive description of the next section. The great C major arrival finally subsides into the despairing horn theme from before, the trombones once again fall back after only one note up the scale, as C major turns out only to have been a dominant of F minor yet again. Mahler tells us- “It is the day of the Last Judgment… The earth trembles. Just listen to the drum-roll, and your hair will stand on end! The Last Trump sounds; the graves spring open, and all creation comes writhing out of the bowels of the earth, with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Now they all come marching along in a mighty procession: beggars and rich men, common folk and kings, the Church Militant, the Popes. All give vent to the same terror, the same lamentations and paroxysms; for none is just in the sight of God. Breaking again and again- as if from another world- the Last Trump sounds from the Beyond. “At last, after everyone has shouted and screamed in indescribable confusion, nothing is heard but the long drawn-out call of the Bird of Death above the last grave- finally that, too, fades away. There now follows what nothing of what has been expected: no Last Judgment, no souls saved and none damned; no just man, no evil-doer, no judge! Everything has ceased to be. And softly, simply there begins: “Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n…” (“Rise again, yes, you will rise again”) “the words themselves are sufficient commentary.”
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c 2006 Kenneth Woods