Still playing catch-up… as usual with the project, the music rarely gets the time I would like to put in on it, and especially not the time it deserves. I wear, perhaps, more hats than would be ideal, but at the same time, it is nice to not have to plug away on the same work all the time, I suppose.
It is, perhaps, the tragedy of Mahler’s shorter, simpler, interior movements to be relegated to a certain level of obscurity. In this movement, for example, there is no thundering bass drum, no jarring cymbal clash, no solemnly intoning trombone. Yet, from any other composer, this movement would be a great work, standing out from the background. I think, again, of Lutoslawski’s complaint (in the introduction to the score of either the 3rd or 4th symphony) that the Romantic composers tried to do too much in their symphonic writing–that three or four “big idea” sort of pieces was too much to handle in a single sitting.
This second movement is a great deal more subtle than the first, and than the corresponding movements in the first two symphonies. It has a an interesting four-part structure, in which the third and fourth parts are varied repetitions of the first and second parts, respectively. It suggests, in various ways, rondo and composite ternary without truly being either.
I am strongly considering requiring my students to engage in an in-depth study of this movement when I teach orchestration next fall. Mahler does not overwhelm the listener with effects but simply writes melodies, develops them and orchestrates them well. In only the first two systems of music, the transfers of melody from oboe to violins to clarinet are masterful, with changes in the accompaniment that take place accordingly. For example, in the fourth full measure, where the oboe dips down into a range that requires a fuller sound of most players, the pizzicato accompaniment shifts from violas to celli, with their more resonant pizzicato, and then back to the violas when the second violins take the melody in m. 10, and again into the cello’ when the clarinet takes the lead in m. 13. None of these shifts is strictly necessary, but each develops the depth of the color of the movement in a very short time, and each is able to be accomplished with barely an acknowledgement from the listener–like subtle changes in lighting in a painting.
Measure 21 gives a contrasting theme in C# minor. Not only does the key change, but Mahler uses rhythm to set the music apart–instead of a stately minuet, there is now a triplet rhythm that propels the music in a drastically different direction–I am led to wonder if my reference recording (Bernstein with the NY Philharmonic) may be a somewhat to langourous tempo for this movement; is it intended to be more like the first Scherzo of the Second Symphony? Just what sort of “Tempo di menuetto” did Mahler have in mind?
The music is quickly back in A major, and the triplet-based theme doesn’t last on its own. By m. 35, it has given the music back to the original set of motives, and a reprise of the original material (roughly) lasts until m. 50.
A new section in 3/8 begins at m. 51, an example of Mahler’s use of metric modulation. The theme here is highly figural, where the material of the minuet section was much more lyrical. For a composer such as myself who views music through the lens of rhythm, this section is the more intriguing one, because in the answer to the opening theme, Mahler employs polymetrical devices, beginning with 5:4 rhythms in m. 61. The result is a much more hectic texture–full, and yet not polyphonic, what a conductor I once had used to call a sonic scrim. No aliquot division of the bar lower than 7 goes unrepresented, and the second violins have a trill to boot. The mto the stately first section is magnificent.
To complicate matters further, a section in 2/4 follows. Mahler has essentially exhausted the rhythmic options available to him in twenty bars, and now requires a change of meter (from compound to simple) to keep up this exercise in rhythmic exploration. In m. 80, this change is reversed–a masterstroke, really.
Mahler wishes to return to the material of the opening of the movement–the minuet music. In order to do so, he must somehow return to a triple meter to make a smooth transition (intergral to Mahler’s understanding of the requirements of his time, I believe–there can be no cadence and then restarting in the old meter because it would disrupt the coherence of the movement and display the disparate parts for what they are). Thus, the 3/8 of m. 52 becomes 9/8 in m. 80 and the duration of a full bar becomes the duration of a single beat, then transfered through ritardando and a final meter change to 3/4 at mm. 90-94, with m. 94 being the return of the opening material. This transition has another masterful orchestrational moment–the composite rhythm between the flutes in m. 91 results in a doubling of the sixteenth-notes in the first violins in the same measure. The rhythm played by the second and third flutes–dotted-eighth plus sixteenth–then becomes the main rhythm for the next two measures and changes the rhythmic language firmly back to simple meter.
As one begins to expect of Mahler, the return of the opening material is more thickly scored and more fully developed. There can be no mere restatement. The doubling of clarinets and violas in m.104 and m. 106 in an otherwise strings-only texture is a subtle detail. The passage would work well enough without it, I believe, but with the clarinets, it sings in a slightly different way–these sustained notes were absent from the first presentation of this material, and reinforcing them orchestrationally reinforces them in the listener’s mind.
The return of the 3/8 and 2/4 material at m. 145 is significantly longer than its earlier counterpart–mostly in the lengthening of the 2/4 section. Again, Mahler develops very interesting rhythmic textures, as that at m. 193ff. There is a persistent argument between simple and compound divisions of the beat.
The A material stages a comeback in m. 218. I am fascinated by the wind accompaniment for the flute and solo violin beginning in m. 234–effective yet completely unobtrusive. A brief coda.
This movment is simply a study in how to write a good piece of music–there is economy of material without being repetitive; excellent orchestration without being flashy; clarity of design without being overly formal. A composer would do well to emulate such things.