Gustav Mahler is a composer whose music again and again finds connectivity in contrast and contradiction. His music is full of starkly contrasting opposites, and yet he always seems to find connection and unity between light and dark, fast and slow, happy and sad, and beginnings and endings.
Mahler had a greater gift than almost anyone for creating powerful and effective connections between beginning and end from his first works. The ending of his First Symphony makes a glorious noise, but what makes it mean so much emotionally is the way the horns bring back the descending melody in fourths from the very first page of the symphony.
Beethoven never wrote a symphony with such a strong sense of connection from beginning to end, but others did.
What we called “cyclic” form in music history class was a concern of many 19th c. composers. Brahms’ return to the theme of the 1st mvt at the end of the 3rd Symphony is a wonderful example of a composer using one idea to embody the emotional journey of a work. There’s also the example of Berlioz use of the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique.
Mahler’s approach, however, seems more akin to that of Bobby Schumann, who had a similarly uncanny ability to not only make a large piece come full circle, but also to create a complex web of relationships and conflicts between and among ideas throughout a symphony. Schumann’s music is also rich in creatively unresolved cognitive dissonance. For instance, Schumann’s 2nd Symphony not only uses the chorale/fanfare theme of the first bars to connect the beginning and end of the Symphony, but also uses it throughout as a narrative tool to hold the piece together. In addition to the chorale/fanfare theme, he creates other connections and relationships through quotations of Bach, and thematic transformations of his own materials, some of which lead us back to Bach or back to the fanfare.
As it happens, Mahler learned a lot from Schumann’s approach to form- his distinctive use of 5 movements to create a symphony in 3 parts is learned from Schumann 3. Mahler 5 and Schumann 3 take the listener on very different journeys, but they share an almost identical structure. In both works the first two movements and the last two movements are paired through an intertwining of rather explicit shared ideas. Also, in both cases, Parts 1 and 3 (mvts I/II and IV/V) have a sort of narrative connection. In between, in Part I, you have a movement that stands apart.
Schumann had a real genius for creating connections between movements of the same work- when the theme of the glowering E-flat minor 4th mvt of the 3rd Symphony returns in E-flat major at the very end of the work, the effect is (or should be!) overwhelming, much like the return of the opening theme at the end of Mahler 1. (Is it a coincidence that the theme of Mahler 1 is essentially Schumann’s theme in inversion? Remember- Mahler 1 was originally Mahler’s first attempt at a 5 movement symphony in the same form as Schumann 3).
Where Mahler goes farther than Schumann is in making similarly audacious connections between different symphonies. Ideas from Mahler’s 3rd Symphony return in the 4th, ideas from the 4th carry through to the 5th. There are quotes in Das Lied from the 2nd Symphony, Kindertotenlieder (which is quoted also in the 5th and 6th Symphonies) and other works of his.
But Mahler doesn’t just create connections between ideas (like motives and melodies), he re-uses very distinctive and original formal schemes again and again. In other words, once a uniquely Mahlerian formal structure or pattern is established, he returns to it, references or de-constructs it in later works to give a sense of evolving perspective.
Most Mahler fans will be familiar with Mahler’s description of the form of the last movement of his 6th symphony: “The hero suffers three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” What fewer readers will know is that he described the Finale of his First Symphony to Natalie Bauer Lechner in almost identical terms; “Again and again the hero receives a blow to the head from fate and with him the victory motive,” and just when he seems to have raised himself above fate and become its master, and only in death- since he has conquered himself, and the wonderful concord of his youth reemerges with the theme of the first movement- does he achieve victory.
The triumphalism of the 1st Symphony and the fatalism of the 6th may seem universes apart, but they tell basically the same story using the same tools (in a sense, the 6th simply stops at the moment of death, rather than continuing to a transformative ending as the 1st does). As always in Mahler, we can marvel at his ability to create such a connection between two such seemingly different movements. The triumphant and the tragic symphonies take us on the same journey, but we get off the train in different stations completely. In this sense, seeing the connection between the Finale of M1 and M6 makes the end of M6 all the more devastating- he’s taken the path that once led to triumph and followed it into a black hole of oblivion.
By the time of Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler ‘s ability to weave together seemingly unconnected materials has evolved to an extraordinary level. The connections between the beginning and end of the symphony are fascinating. DLvdE begins in ¾- something Mahler had never done in a symphony before, and it also ends in ¾, again something completely new in his output. Although the music that opens the work and ends it sounds completely different and evokes a completely different emotional response, it is not on the meter that is shared. Both are in the same key signature, and Mahler even goes so far as to include an A-natural in the final C major to underline the fact that the two keys are made of the same stuff. The main motive of the 1st song is the first 3 notes of the violins- A-G-E. The final section of the last song is built largely off the notes E-G-A. The two musics are essentially in the same tempo (about 60 beats per minute)*, although one sounds fast and dramatic and the other sounds timeless and serene (interestingly, the timeless and serene music is far more rhythmically difficult. Another paradox: what sounds calm is tremendously complex and challenging).
But the connections reach far further. The most often discussed feature of the Finale of Mahler 1 is the “failed” ending- the movement starts in crisis, progresses through a range of emotions and dramatic transformation before arriving at a moment of triumph. We think the piece is ready to end- we seem to have found the answer we are looking for. The horns even start playing that victory theme, the theme of the 1st movement in major. However, the music collapses and triumph evaporates, and we have to start the struggle all over again.
Something almost identical happens in Der Abschied, the Finale of Das Lied. The form of the movement is A-B-C—A’-B’-C’. “A” is a funeral march in 4/4- music of crisis, “B’” is in 2/2 and expresses a range of emotions and dramatic transformation, and “C,” in ¾ is music of transfiguration, music that essentially solves the problem not only of Part A an B, but of the whole work up to that point.
The key strcutural moment in Der Abschied is right out of Mahler 1- it is a moment of ecstatic breakthrough, as the poet exclaims “Oh Beauty! Oh eternal life-love drunken world!” For a fleeting second, it seems like the end of the work is in sight, that we have found the answer (and in a sense, we have- this is the music of the ending), but the music almost instantly collapses. Triumph evaporates and becomes despair, and we must start the journey all over again.
As you can see, Der Abschied has at its heart the same structural device that makes the Finale of Mahler 1 so special- this moment of “failure” at the heart of the drama. If you think that’s just an accident, you probably don’t know your Mahler so well.
Bruno Walter said that Mahler’s works were all an attempt to answer the same existential question (something he shared with Beethoven). In the midst of the Finale of the 1st Symphony, we think we have found “the answer” but that moment of triumph quickly slips away, and we have to continue on a longer, greater journey to find the “real” answer at the end of the work. So it is too in Der Abschied.
However, the “real” answer of Mahler 1 also proves ephemeral. Just as the explosion of affirmation and joy in the middle of the Finale is shattered, so to is the “ultimate” triumph of the 1st Symphony shattered by the beginning of the 2nd Symphony. Mahler even went so far as to say the Funeral March which opens the 2nd Symphony is for the hero of the 1st. In this sense, Mahler’s music seems to express a sort of Buddhist worldview, in which endless cycles of suffering are repeated again and again, with real consolation only to be found in wisdom. Mahler fell silent for many years after completing the first movement of M2. I think this wasn’t just a musical crisis, but a profound philosophical one. In writing a continuation of M1 that completely negated its triumph, Mahler was left with a very real question as to whether it was worth continuing, if each triumph was just destined to be followed by another collapse.
The music of late Mahler seems to have advanced so far from that of his early works, both technically and spiritually. In Der Abschied, Mahler seems to have realize that heroic earthly striving, as expressed in the 1st and 6th symphonies can never escape that eternal cycle of suffering. Neither can religious revelation as depicted in the 2nd, 4th or 8th. In Der Abschied, we seem to have found a new answer- that freedom from death is freedom from the fear of death. After many false triumphs, this finally seems to be a true answer.
And yet, Mahler’s next work, the 9th Symphony, begins with a quote from the final bars of Der Abschied. What was an ending, becomes a beginning. What was an answer becomes a question. The cycle begins again. **
** It’s easy to collapse into despair at the thought of this: that the cycle continues on after Das Lied. However, in Mahler 1 it’s not that the “answer” proves to be wrong, but that it comes too soon. I think this is the case within Der Abschied- the very exclamation “Oh Beauty! Oh eternal life-love drunk world” in retrospect shows us why this moment is doomed to collapse. The music is the right answer, but the text isn’t. This sense of intoxication and attachment is not what the piece is seeking. The answer is the answer, but the time is not right- the journey has to continue. As long as Mahler was composing, he would have to go through these cycles of destruction and rebirth, of fulfillment and dissolution- at least in Der Abschied, he seems to have recognized this and come to terms with it.