Part of the problem in thinking about this piece will prove to be cutting through what I think of as the “mythology–” a tragic piece responding to tragedy, with hammer blows, and fate-motives–and getting to what makes it, in the end, a magnificently effective musical statement.
The truth is that none of the extramusical meaning means a thing if the piece isn’t well-crafted and well-executed. Fortunately for us, Mahler was not only pouring his soul into the piece, but he was using his mind as a composer at the peak of his creative powers.
I must begin with some thoughts about scoring, because this orchestra is simply enormous. I remember being a college student and seeing the Cincinnati Symphony fill its stage to near capacity for this piece, and it seemed as though not a single musician more could have been on the platform. One of my music history teachers, John Trout, taught that Mahler’s orchestra was of that size not for the sake of power, but to allow a greater number of combinations of instruments, and to illustrate this, he used an example from the Kindertotenlieder, the work Mahler finished just before the Sixth. Indeed, in that vocal texture, Mahler did score delicately, but he also didn’t score for an orchestra of the size found in the Sixth. As much as Mahler’s scoring is at times delicate, always well-conceived and above all masterful, I think, in this movement at least, it is about power. Sixteen brass have the effect at times of a slap in the face, particularly when the trumpet in F is near the top of its range.
Most of the mood of this first movement is simply menacing, and it is cast in one of Mahler’s strictest sonata-allegro forms, with no slow introduction as in the opening movement of the First. To my hearing, the secondary theme begins in the pick-ups to m. 77, with the key change to F major, a closely-related key to the home key, a-minor. The exposition is repeated, with the development section clearly beginning in m. 128. The recapitulation begins in m. 291, with the return of the main theme in A major and the secondary theme at m. 357 in D major–keeping the same relative harmonic distance of “adding a flat” but not the same key relationship. A coda begins at m. 379, in precisely the place that it “ought” to begin in a sonata model.
Mahler has not, up to this time, been an especially strict follower of the classical forms, and I have to wonder what caused him to begin to be so now. In reading program notes and musicological discussions of this piece, I have never read that, in addition to hiding autobiographical information and working through his not-inconsiderable angst in this piece, Mahler also adheres as close as can be expected to a formal model that had largely passed by the wayside (although Beethoven was always close to Mahler’s mind, and to the minds of his contemporaries). This is Mahler’s first all-instrumental four-movement symphony (the First was originally in five movements), and as arch-Romantic as its expression seems, at the same time, its conception, at least in this first movement, is as meta-Classical as Brahms or Mendelssohn.
With the formal overview covered, then, here are some spots I find to be of interest.
The main theme, beginning in m. 6 has a highly characteristic octave jump that creates from the first moments of the piece a lurching, yet strangely deliberate quality. This octave motive, though, is only part of Mahler’s material. In m. 8, the violins have the first appearance of a developmentally supple fragment that will appear again and again through the movement, most interestingly in inversion as the head motive of the secondary theme.
Dotted rhythms are crucial to this piece–they are propulsive, pulling the ear constantly forward, but with each iteration giving a sense of pause before the “late” second note. Almost every measure of the main theme includes them, with the exception of those measures in which the melody dissolves into running 16ths (as in mm. 11-12).
In a technique again typical of the Classical sonata-allegro, the transitional material begins with a modified version of the main theme in m. 25. This time, the octave leap is down, not up. A sequence in m. 31 over an insistent pedal A starts to open up the harmonic realm, until the main theme returns in m. 43 over a chromatic descent from A to E, the goal of this section.
In m. 53, the running 16th notes come apart into trill gestrues in the woodwinds and low strings. The scoring is compelling, particularly the last statement of this idea in m. 56 by the contrabassoon in its low register with the basses. Here is a deviation from the Classical model–at this point, the secondary theme should enter in the dominant, but Mahler instead returns to the tonic to give the first appearance of a motive that he has used before, but will take on paramount importance in this symphony–the major triad changing to a minor triad on the same root. In this first instance, mm. 59 and 60, it appears in the trumpets and oboes (note the intriguing use of dynamics here), in the home key, A. It is followed by a transitional passage that does lead to the second theme, in the key of F, which is reached by a deceptive resolution of the dominant in m. 77.
Before continuing on, I must consider this changing chord-quality motive. A change from a major to a minor chord is rarely part of the “textbook” tonal vocabulary. It would tend to suggest a passing tone, often from IV to iv to I (la-le-sol is the specific voicing I have in mind). A more likely event might be a diatonic minor triad becoming a secondary dominant chord, as, for example, i to V/IV, but this is the retrograde of what Mahler is giving us. Does this fall under the rubric of “coloristic chord succession” from the Kotska-Payne textbook, where those authors throw up their hands, as if to say, “Sometimes composers just write what sounds good!” The other usage of this sort of succession that comes to mind is in the Italian madrigalists, particularly Gesualdo, in which this sort of motive becomes a means for expressing a text. As a motive, then, it has the advantage of being unfamiliar enough to the listener that it doesn’t simply blend into the texture.
The secondary theme is derived from the first theme–its head motive is a reworking of the material found in m. 8. This motivic tautness is a characteristic that I greatly admire in all of Mahler’s music–while his work may seem sprawling, there is an underlying unity that justifies its dimensions, and Mahler truly does not overstay his welcome. I don’t consider myself to have a great attention span, particularly for the spoken word, but, truthfully, sometimes for musical utterance as well. Mahler holds my attention, not through variety but through unity.
I find it interesting that at the beginning of the first ending (m. 121), Mahler returns to A minor in a retrograde fashion from the way he got there–moving from F down to E, and thence to A in the bass. This would not be a completely tonal solution but for the fact that the F is not the root of the chord here.
Again, Mahler’s development section is tightly conceived, even if it ranges widely from a harmonic standpoint. Measure 149 sees the main theme in e minor, which moves quickly back to the home key in m. 156. One of my favorite melodic moments in the piece happens at m. 163, when a very strident, almost Tchaikovskian melody appears in the violins and high woodwinds. It is, of course, derived from the main theme.
Measure 180 has a typically Mahlerian descent in the bass to a new key–now D minor. This means of modulating is typical of Mahler, and I believe he may have borrowed it from Wagner; more research is needed on this point.
Measure 201 begins a slow section that is a point of repose (almost relief) within this massive movement. Although the Seventh Symphony has a more pastoral character, Mahler uses cowbells for the first time in this section, with an interesting notational solution instead of the standard roll notation that he might have borrowed from the snare drum.
With that, I must close–I’ve far exceeded the time I allotted myself this morning, and other duties beckon. I refer myself to my notes in the score.