I’ve done the listening and score study this time around, but I simply am short on time this morning, so here are my big ideas, and I will leave the close reading for another time.
How long can one go as a composer before beginning to sound like oneself? I find the opening of this movement to be similar in mood and material to parts of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Mahler has been Mahler from the beginning, of course. There are always Mahlerisms, and I have been seeking them out through the course of this exercise, but self-quotation is another matter entirely. And again, this is not the outright recycling that composers have frequently used when time or energy ran short. In some ways, this is the third symphony in a row that has begun with music that seems to resemble a funeral march.
A harmonic analysis reveals many “wrong way” progressions–I teach my theory students to favor the falling fifth, falling third and rising second root motions, but Mahler frequently moves in the opposite direction. From a harmonic standpoint, sequential patterns are important here. There are many instances of slow harmonic rhythm (and pedal point) punctuated by sequences that change chords twice in each bar. The pedal point tendency is not new, but this use of sequence happens to an extent that seems relatively unique to this movement.
Mahler’s melodic material is highly cohesive–as usual, there is a great deal of motivic development. At the same time, Mahler very rarely uses “simple” melody-with-accompaniment textures in this movement, which is something of a contrast with the Sixth Symphony. Even in expository passages, melody is almost always combined with another melody, and in developmental sections, it is difficult to know what the main melodic idea is at some points.
Scoring is drastically different from the two previous pieces. Mahler had been tending to a mixed scoring, with blending of instrumental colors, and, especially in the Sixth Symphony, most of the orchestra playing a good deal of the time. Here, instruments seem more likely to play as sections without reinforcement from other sections, although there is still a good deal of flutes-doubling-violins to add penetration to their high register. Instead of the eight horns customary to Mahler, there are only four, plus a tenorhorn in Bb (my assumption is that this is something like the British bore baritone I remember from my brass band days). Color has become more of a concern for Mahler. If memory serves from some undergraduate research into Mahler’s compositional practices, it was around this time that he rejected the piano reduction as a first draft, worried that it made his music too pianistic. Instead, he began to work with a short score of four to five staves. I have found this technique to be extremely helpful in creating band and orchestra pieces.
In some ways there is also a variation technique at work here. Material presented as a funeral march reappears as a strange, wobbly dance, and then again as a triumphal fanfare. Mahler never explicitly wrote a “theme and variations,” but he certainly appears capable of employing that strategy.
Onward then–I refer myself to my copy of the score.