To the next piece, then.
In some ways, the Second feels much more like Mahler than the First–a focus more on motive than on theme, on counterpoint over homophony. As well as Mahler seems to have opened up a world in the “Titan,” in “Resurrection,” we begin in that world, as though we have lived there all along. Where the First grew slowly out of stillness, the Second begins on the dominant pitch as well, but begins with an agitated, urgent feeling–brought on by tremolo in the strings instead of harmonics. Instead of the gently half-floating, half-falling fourths-based line in long notes, we here get an ascending, scale based line in short note values that propels us forward into the first movement. We are in the thick of the piece before we realize it.
This outburst in the low strings has something in common with much of the material of the movement–it acts like many a Bach fugal subject in that it outlines an octave which will later be filled by the voice in which it appears. Again, as in Bach, the motive undergoes a type of fortspinnung, or spinning-out. In general, a very different treatment than much of the material in the First symphony.
Beginning in bar 18, the woodwinds enter with another octave-filling melody, this also exposing the half-plus-dotted-quarter-plus-eighth rhythm that dominates much of the melodic material of the movement.
At the first climax of the movement, bar 38-41, we see the third crucial motive of this movement, a contrapuntal device, if such can be a motive. Two scales are placed in contrary motion. To any student of tonal theory or 16th-century counterpoint, this compositional device may seem completely obvious–or simply correct writing–but compared to the language of the First Symphony, Mahler’s emphasis on scalar contrary motion is a defining characteristic. The extensive use of pedal point in the earlier work is replaced here generally by a greater contrapuntal awareness and specifically by this device.
Rehearsal 3 has the music in B major, by direct modulation, with yet another octave-filling melody. I have been pressuring myself to be more sparing–nay, frugal–with motivic and thematic material, where Mahler seems profligate in his introduction of new themes. However, they are often at least partly related to each other, and, additionally, to craft a movement lasting nearly half an hour (in my Bernstein-NY Phil recording), much raw material is required.
With the material exposed, at rehearsal 4, we have a return to the opening of the piece, but, curiously, without the very first C-B-C-D-Eb. Rather, we hear the second “lick,” following which Mahler gets more quickly to business. The end of a group of themes, then, now followed by a transition? Or the repeat of an “exposition?” A major question, since I am teaching Forms and Analysis this semester, is how well, if at all, Mahler conforms to the classical forms, sonata-allegro, in particular. I have long felt that sonata-allegro form is but one way to achieve the exposition-development-recapitulation plan of a musical composition; for the untrained listener, the satisfaction lies less in the return of the tonic than in the restatement of the beginning in some way; a melodic affirmation that the piece has come full circle.
At m. 97, the basses give an ostinato motive that bears striking resemblance to a similar moment in the First (the first movement). While that melody had a rising contour, this one falls. Mahler characterized this movement as being a funeral march for the hero of the “Titan,” and here is a very specific link between the two.
A few measures earlier is the motive of the scales by contrary motion, appearing here in a transitional passage, but more often used in the run-up to a climactic moment. The hero descends to the grave, and ascends to heaven simultaneously. As Oscar Hammerstein wrote, “passions that thrill…are the passions that kill.” Schopenauer, Wagner, Mahler, and fifty years later, Broadway.
Rehearsal 8, measure 129, gives a subsidiary motive, again filling an octave, but, rarely for this piece, from the top down instead of from the bottom up. It feels a borrowing from Wagner’s Ring. It creates a particularly Wagnerian moment later in the piece (before rehearsal 23, in a “recapitultion” or coda–I’m not sure which).
The first (and only) time I heard this piece in concert, I was startled by Mahler’s use of doubled English horn and bass clarinet (m. 151ff), and have since stolen that scoring in my own piece for orchestra, Five Rhythmic Etudes. What I did not remember is the return of the same material for trumpet and trombone, (mm. 262ff). Again, one is struck by repetition. A few years later, Schoenberg would attempt to banish repetition from his work, and we have been living to an extent under this stricture ever since (his one-act opera Erwartung contains almost no motivic repetition in more than forty-five minutes of music). Is a large-scale work such as this dependent on repetition to be successful? It is everywhere–on the beat level, the measure level, the phrase level and the sectional level, both exact and varied.
On a related matter, I’m fascinated by Mahler’s “preview technique.” In the First Symphony, a large swath of the first movement reappears in the finale. I’m fairly sure that the first movement is not previewing the last movement. But in m. 270 of the present movement, the horns give a chorale melody that reappears nearly half an hour later in the finale. It leads here to one of the very characteristic (in both rhythm and melody) themes of the first movement, where in the finale, it leads to the key melody of that movement. This is not simply a compositional technique–mark that there is none of the craft here of a Bach contrapunctus–but rather a psychological device and a feeling of having been given a taste of things to come, a look into the ultimate direction of the piece, and since the subject of the first movement is death, and the subject of the last is, unabashedly, resurrection, we are here meant to understand that even in death there is life.
Measure 329 sees a final eruption of the opening material–more fully-scored, more determined than ever. This leads to what feels like a recapitulation, and the major-key theme–first heard at rehearsal 3 in E major, now in A major (the key relation hearkens to sonata-allegro)–almost evaporates into the end of the movement. Beginning in measure 384, Mahler introduces a shifting major-minor feeling that brings to mind the key motive of the Sixth Symphony–the instrumental piece most associated with death in Mahler’s catalog. The piece could have ended with a whimper on a major note, but this rocking back and forth allows the funeral march to fade into the distance. Are we left standing at the hero’s grave? The music unravels amid reminders of the material it was made of, last tastes of the world we knew.