Since there are four movements in Mahler’s first symphony, I’m giving myself about two weeks on each one. Truthfully, I’ve been working on the first movement and the scherzo over the last couple of weeks, and I’ll keep coming back to this movement, but I want to get some of my thoughts down right now.
The opening sonority seems to always elicit comments, because it’s just reall interesting–every A on the piano in the strings, mostly using harmonics. Myorchestration students will be flustered to know that Mahler simply indicates that the notes are to be played as harmonics and lets the players figure out how to produce them. For shame! Although, they are all octaves of open strings, so it isn’t as crucial, I suppose.
Then, this falling fourth motive–many of the themes in this movement begin with the falling fourth, and it is like Mahler from the beginning is telling us what to expect in this movement. The beginning evokes night to me–especially night in August when the cicadas are out making lots of noise. To what extent is this about a day in the life of the artist? The fourths become a chain of notes–in bassoons and oboes in m. 7. The first time, this theme is presented, the double reeds hold the penultimate note, Bb over the multi-octave A while the clarinets give a distant fanfare. By measure 13, when the Bb resolves deceptively to B-natural, Mahler has given us the bulk of the material he uses in this movement.
Dr. Russel Mikkelson, the director of bands at Ohio State, likes to say that composers are like bad poker players in that they show us their cards at the beginning of each hand. I would amend that by saying that *good* composers do this.
The second statement of the falling fourth theme goes directly to its goal–the A. Fantastic orchestration–piccolo, oboe, English horn and bass clarinet give a very interesting four-octave spread.
The offstage trumpets bring the fanfare closer–over the next few pages, the movement gathers steam–cavalry fanfares and cuckoo calls. The falling fourths theme begins to metastasize, virtually falling all over itself beginning in m. 49. As we begin to gather strength for the “Hauptzeitmass” (principal tempo), a snaky, chromatic line in the cellos and basses pull the pitch center from A (the dominant) toward D, the tonic key of the piece.
I am amazed at how much of this movement emphasizes the key of A. I haven’t done a measure-by-measure census, but it feels as though there is more music in A than in D. Is this harmonic scheme part of what allows Mahler to write a larger scale piece? When you write in the tonic, you can end at any time, because you are home, but in the dominant, you are always having to get home.
I’m beginning to get a feel for Mahler’s use of repetition as well. The melody that begins at m. 62 (just before the repeat sign) appears in more or less complete form eight times before the end of the repeated section.
I’ve been struggling to deal with the large repeat here as well. It performs much the same function as the first division in a binary movement–introduces the tonic key (which we haven’t yet heard), and moves to the dominant (which we’ve heard a lot). I think I’ve decided that it does a great deal to balance the movement. Mahler isn’t a composer we associate with formal balance the way we do, say, Hadyn, but I have no doubt that “successful project” (Persichetti’s phrase) has a great deal to do with balance. In order to balance the fairly extended opening, Mahler needs a fairly long fast section at this point. However, given the development that is to come, it would be a mistake to simply present theme after theme at the outset.
Fantastic orchestrational moments:
- the bass clarinet counterline against the first presentation of the song theme (m. 64ff)
- the very cool unison E5s in measure 88-90 in cello harmonics, harp and solo oboe. What an amazing effect!
- the momentary parallel fourths between violins, flute and oboe in measure 98
The developmental section after the repeat is back in the slow tempo (beginning m. 163). The flute echoes a motive pulled from the song theme, in the manner of yet another bird call. (Messiaen was not the first composer to listen to birds!). A lovely transition to F major, brought about by the ’cellos use of a cell from the main theme, first using F# (m. 170), then F-natural ((m. 176). The octave-As from the beginning are shown to be a common tone to the new key.
Then–I love the use of the lowest strings of the harp in m. 189–I’ve borrowed this effect in my own music. The horns have a melancholy little tune in D minor, which sets up a return to the home key, although the bass remains F-natural. The return to D-major is accomplished by an inverted augmented sixth chord, which makes the D-major horn call at 207 that much fresher. Again, we see a fourth, only this time rising instead of falling.
D-major leads to A major (m. 227), then C# (later enharmonically spelled as Db, at m.243). Harmonically, this is a development section, but there is also much non-developmental activity–repetition and exposition of new themes. In addition, we keep expecting the ”song theme” from the repeated section, but it keeps getting put off.
I keep wanting to think that this is a sonata-form movement, but I just can’t find the evidence. I would like to suggest that there is a sonata principle at work here, but that Mahler has left sonata form behind. Any takers?
The song theme finally reappears at m. 283. There is a sort of recapitulation happening, but not in the right key (we are still in F major!). Nonetheless, one by one, the themes come back, and even the keys.
The climax gives us first the fanfare material and then a glorious forte version of the D major horn melody, both in their original keys. The crescendo into this moment reminds me greatly of what Beethoven would write just before the triumphant return of the main theme. However–the preparatory material is tonally ambiguous, instead of the “standing on the dominant” that typically ends Beethoven’s sonata forms. The fanfare material is in D, but over the octave As again.
It is as though the movement has come full circle–the fourths motive has carried us through, and the remainder of the piece is a final reminder of the song theme. The ending always feels abrupt, but of course there is plenty more to come.