After the highly-charged, dramatic and ultimately tragic arc of the first movement, it is natural that one would need some time to recover. After all, Mahler waited five years after completing Totenfeier before continuing on to the second movement. As it turns out, Mahler anticipated the audience’s exhaustion and specified that the conductor should wait at least five minutes before continuing on to the second movement. The second movement of the symphony could not be more different from the first. If Beethoven, specifically the Beethoven of the first movement of the 9th Symphony and the slow movement of the 3rd Symphony, was the model for Totenfeier, it is surely Schubert who is the inspiration here.
The second movement begins simply, as an elegant, folksy dance known as a Landler, a dance form Mahler would return to often in his symphonies. How can we accept such a bucolic episode as credible after the high tragedy of the first movement?
As it turns out, Mahler’s vision of the symphony was that after the funeral march, everything that follows is, in the words of Donald Mitchell, seen and heard “through the prism of death.” This second movement is no lazy idle, but a bittersweet look back on a happy moment of a life now lost. This becomes increasingly clear in the episode that follows, in which the music becomes both more elusive and more sarcastic. Beethoven was fond of a form that might be called “double theme and variation” form, that is he presents two quite different themes, and then writes a series of variations alternating one theme followed by the other, each variation in essence heightening the character of its respective theme. The slow movement of his 9th Symphony is clearly his most famous example, and my favorite example is the slow movement from the String Quartet in A Minor, op 132, the “Heiliger Dankgesang” or Hymn of Thanksgiving. This is clearly Mahler’s model, as the movement is built around repetitions of these two themes, each appearance of the first theme becoming sweeter, more charming and more elegant, each repetition of the second theme more menacing.
Listen how in the next variation of the first theme, Mahler adds this extraordinary, heart-melting counter-melody. Now hear how instead of sneaking in gently, this variation of the second theme explodes with menace. Finally, just as the second theme has become ever more threatening, in the final statement of the first theme Mahler begins pizzicato and ppp, to create an atmosphere of utmost elegance and delicacy. The movement ends as serenely and delicately as it possibly could. So, a moment of peace, preserved and idealized through the window of the beyond, what could be next…
c 2006 Kenneth Woods