A day-and-a-half of snow days this week means that I can get to this a little bit ahead of schedule.
I’ve chosen to examine Mahler’s work from a purely compositional standpoint, but for a summary of Mahler’s programmatic and spiritual understandings, I would direct the reader to this excellent note by Chicago Symphony program annotator Phillip Huscher.
The tonal center of the movement is C major, but with a contstant yearning toward D, beginning with the opening material. The overall progression of the movement, from C minor to C major, F major, twice, then to a D major section, finally ending in C again.
Like the first movement, there is a tautness, a motivic clarity that isn’t present in Mahler’s Second or Third Symphonies to the extent it is here. There is barely a single bar in this movement that doesn’t contain motivic material introduced in the first twenty measures of the piece. The various motives have differing roles throughout the movement–some thematic, some transitonal.
The movement begins with a horn solo that strangely emphasizes D–re in the key of the movement, and two keys removed from the tonic pitch. There is a great deal of Mahler’s typical ambiguity between major and minor as the motives that are more thematic in nature begin to be revealed–first in the flutes, then in the strings. If I had to type-cast the melody here, it would be moto perpetuo, in part because of the importance of the motive composed of six sixteenth-notes and that tends to run into itself.
This reliance on motives allows Mahler to make extensive use of melodic sequences, just as in a Bach invention. I’ve often told my students that the key to writing tonal music is to remember that there are basically two techniques–functional phrases and the sequences that connect them. Mahler here is reinforcing my lesson.
The scordatura violin deserves a mention. Mahler scores for it in such a way that when it is present, it is always at the orchestrational foreground. Lesson–if you’re going to use a strange instrument, feature it.
The opening material returns in measure 110, preceded by a sequential modulation that points to the pitch D–the secondary center of the piece. The recapitulation is largely similar to the first 100 bars, with some textural elaboration and rescoring. At the end of this section, the sequential passage returns, and again leads to D–but this time to a large D major section. This section seems to substitute for the C-minor section at the beginning of the piece, leading back to C major at m. 314.
This brief C-major section leads to a coda a measure 329, substituting for the F-major music that ended the first two large sections. What most impresses me is that the opening material here beomes the closing material. The horn solo from the opening bars that acted as the door into this piece is now the door out. Appropriately for a middle movement, the ending is somewhat abrupt.