Mahler’s Second Symphony is in five movements and was completed in 1894, but the first of those was composed and published several years earlier in 1888 (at the same time as the First Symphony) as a tone poem called “Totenfeier” or “Funeral Rites.” It wasn’t until 1893, after he had finished the First Symphony, that he “realized” that “Totenfeier” wasn’t a tone poem, but the first movement of a symphony.
Looked at as a whole the entire symphony represents a journey from tragedy, despair and desolation to rebirth, transfiguration and hope- a journey familiar to Romantic listeners from the works of Beethoven. The 9th Symphony of Beethoven served as a very obvious model for this work, not just in its use of the human voice, but in its emotional arc. The symphony opens with one of the most dramatic gestures in the repertoire: a sort of primal scream in the violins followed by three strong, declamatory statements by the cellos and basses. This highly unstable opening (Mahler actually tells the cellos and basses to play the two elements of their phrase in different tempos) quickly evolves into the first statement of the funeral march theme. Within just a few seconds he has created an atmosphere of high tragedy. You can hear the opening here.
After a massive climax we hear music of mourning in the woodwinds, but soon after, we are transported to a new, more hopeful sound world with a theme that will reappear throughout the symphony. Have a listen. The exposition of the movement ends with a haunting, lyrical theme in the english horn and oboes, which dissolves into a new, rather sinister marching figure in the cellos and basses. Over this rhythmic figure, he layers yet another mournful melody in the woodwinds. Thus he begins the development section.
From this point, the music builds and develops towards what should be a tremendous climax, but turns out to be more of a crisis. Having built to a very intense fff, the music gradually becomes softer and faster, at first one feels that the mood is getting more stable, when, in fact, it is becoming ever more desperate. Finally the music disintegrates to near silence in the fastest tempo of the movement, and, as if in desperation, the entire string section finally interrupts with the cello and bass theme from the beginning. Things are so desperate that instead of alternating between fast and slow tempi, here he tells the players to play everything “schnell” or fast, and in accelerando, or speeding up each gesture.
After such a cataclysm, what next? In a stroke of genius, Mahler has the cellos start almost the same marching figure with which he began the development, only this time a half-step lower in e-flat minor instead of e minor, and this time he tells them to double-dot the rhythm, that is to exaggerate even more the difference between the fast and slow notes. The effect is devastating- if the development began in darkness, we’re now in the abyss. From this ultimate low-point, we build ever more inexorably towards the true climax of the movement. As in the previous build up, Mahler gradually layers one idea on another, creating more and more complex textures, but at the actual climax we have only one, purely rhythmic, idea, played fff in unison by the whole orchestra, which then seems to shatter into pieces as the strings, tuba and bassoons move away from the rhythmic unison in a descending scale. There is a moment of complete suspense as we wonder what could possibly come next, and just as the sound clears, our ears are drawn to the violas, who are playing the same tremolo g natural with which the violins began the piece. Just as we notice this, the cellos, basses now joined by the violins explode yet again with their opening gesture.
So much struggle, so much loss and all for nothing- we’re exactly where we started. So, this first movement is about negation, about defeat. The recapitulation is greatly contracted, and never really sews up the loose ends as it should. Whereas a Beethoven symphony would usually use the recap to clarify and resolve the tensions of the movement, Mahler’s only really allows time for us to absorb the full horror of what has happened. The funeral cortege seems to disappear in the distance, before the movement ends in one last gesture of anguish, another descending scale, like that at the recap.
You can continue on to the 2nd movement here.
c 2006 Kenneth Woods