I was afraid that I would arrive at this piece and it would be absolutely overwhelming, but that hasn’t been the case. Not in the slightest. The problem I’m having is that I just don’t like what I’m hearing very much.
I don’t think this is Mahler’s best effort. Perhaps in writing a “Symphony of a Thousand,” he had to paint with broad brushstrokes: too broad, if you ask me. I hadn’t listened to this piece seriously in a very long time–at least fifteen years, and I knew much less about how to listen then than I do now. Plus, I think every college-aged brass player has to get excited about Mahler–any Mahler–just because it’s orchestral music that doesn’t involve counting quite as many rests. Let’s face it–Mahler was good to the brass section in a way that some other composers weren’t (although plenty were). So in my testosterone-fueled, late-teenage years, this piece may have seemed like a little bit of heaven. I have to admit, though, that there is a little bit of hell here, too.
One of the very exciting parts about studying Mahler has been getting to know his unique orchestration. He may call for quadruple woodwinds, but it isn’t so that they can all play as loud as possible at the same time. Rather, he mixes, blends and balances in a manner that could only be honed by a familiarity with the orchestra that I can only envy. As a conductor, he must have been literally analyzing scores as he was on the podium during rehearsal, committing every effect to memory.
Usually, this expertise shows through in the scores, but not here. There are quadruple woodwinds, and a large brass section, but they almost continuously used en masse, and usually in the sort of mixed scoring that band directors often derisively call “safe scoring.” Perhaps the simple truth is that the enormous choruses of the premiere required this, but it is disappointing in comparison to the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies.
This first movement is not without its merits, though. Mahler may have ignored his genius for orchestration (or perhaps not, as the music does succeed in overwhelming the listener with sound, just not the analyst). I can’t deny that, as art and as craft, this is an effective composition, just as is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Like 1812, though, it is unrellenting in a way that is somewhat off-putting. Both these pieces are great music, but they are great in the way that the Grand Canyon is great–their beauty and their appeal lies more in magnitude and sheer forcefulness than in greatness.
Just what is symphonic about this movement? Is it possible for a piece that is virtually sung throughout to be a symphony? Up to this time, Mahler had incorporated voices at the end of his symphonies–almost as though he had exhausted what instruments might have to say, just as Beethoven did in his Ninth, but here they appear from the beginning–from the second measure. The singing is nearly unrellenting for over one hundred measures–the first major instrumental interlude comes at m. 122. The material here–still fairly broadly scored–is related to the thematic material presented so far, and it is only 18 bars before the voices enter again.
I don’t understand the almost constant doubling of the voice parts–even the soloists–throughout this movement. This was not Mahler’s approach in the Second Symphony, at least not to the extent we see it here. I think perhaps that knowing the circumstances of the premiere–a festival setting with an enormous chorus–may have influenced his decision, and perhaps overly so. Is it possible that, if Mahler had lived longer, he would have revised this work, as he did so many of his others? Perhaps 1915 or 1916 would have seen a version scored with more reasonable forces in mind.
There does seem to be a basic sonata principle at work here. The instrumental interlude seems to suggest the beginning of a development section, and the harmonic pace of the movement quickens after m. 122. At m. 169, following a deceptive cadence, a second instrumental interlude begins, this one lasting until m. 217 (significantly longer). When the voices reenter, the music is in C# minor, and both key and text (which is recycled) continue to suggest the development of a sonata-allegro.
Beginning in m. 231, Mahler dwells on an important text: Lumen accende sensibus–Kindle a light in our senses. The Romantic yearning for a full feeling of existence is summed up in this line, and Mahler repeats the text several times, where he has mostly set the text much more plainly up until now. It reappears in a massive climax in m. 262.
At the pickup to m. 275, the children’s chorus enters for the first time, and at a moment where it seems as though nothing else could make this music bigger, grander, this entrance makes it clear that there can be more. The music now moves from C-sharp minor to E minor, and then to E-flat major, the home key. This is not the final return, though, and the key changes again, by sequence, to A major in m. 355, and then to Db major just a few bars later.
A return of the accende lumen text leads back to the true return to the home key in measure 385. Over the next twenty-eight bars the music builds to a truly titanic climax that is the recapitulation. It appears over a dominant pedal that leads to a long frustration of the tonic chord–we have recaputulated melodically, but not harmonically, and there is no clear tonic chord in E-flat until m. 525. At some point, there is a transition to coda material–the plagal-function harmonies in m. 564 confirm this–and a final push to an enormous last page.
On, then, to the second movement, the final scene of Faust. And then to the piece in this set that I know the least, the Ninth. After that, I have decided to send myself into some of the best works of the 1940s by several different composers. I’m not certain yet precisely which pieces these will be, but I know that 2011 will see me in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Elliott Carter’s Piano Sonata.