Less than a week behind schedule now–I’ve been listening and studying the score, but to decide to sit down at the computer and type a bunch of words that maybe no one will ever read takes some fortitude. Mahler’s 4th Symphony will follow, about two weeks on each movement through January and February. I’m starting to think about what project will follow this one at the end of the year–let me know if you have ideas.
This movement conjours lots of memories, partly because in college we (that is, my brass player friends and I) were all crazy about it. I’m hearing it with very different ears now than I had then. All brass players who want to be more than just brass players have to work through their “louder, higher, longer” phase, and on the other side of that, I can say that I’m not as taken with this movement as I used to be.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve since read Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, in which the book ends (spoiler alert) with the protagonist’s funeral, which service is ended with this very movement. Is this choice on Roth’s part meant to be ironic? Who would actually play this entire movement for a church full of mourners? The Bernstein recording lasts nearly 40 minutes, which I think may be a little bit drawn out. I’m curious to know what Mahler’s tempi were in this case.
I’ve decided that this piece is musically meaningful because of several features, both internally and in relation to the rest of the piece. In the overall structure of the piece, it is as much coda as it is finale. Mahler is continuously bringing in plagal material–the subdominants and supertonics that have always signified the end of a tonal composition. Just as Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus ends its portion of Messiah, this harmonic emphasis serves to signify that this enormous composition, this epic journey, is coming to a close. This movement, like the epilogue to an expansive novel, celebrates what has come. Ironically enough, there is no return of earlier thematic material or even the slightest reference to the other movements. There is only pure, beautiful, very tonal music.
The internal structure of this movement is interesting, but not particularly surprising. It seems to be cast in rondo form, like many of the last movements of many Austro-German symphonies from Mozart on. The refrain consists of the chorale that thrilled my friends and me back in college–the first forty measures, complete with their own coda (the long tonic pedal beginning in m. 29).
Measure 41, with its key change, presents for the first time a kind of transitional material, or perhaps it represents the first episode. The music settles not in the written key of F# minor but in C# minor in measure 51. The material that follows suggests F major, allowing the minor subdominant (g minor) of the home key to make an appearance that brings back D major, in a way, at m. 92. Even though the tonic chord fails to appear, it is clear that the music is in D major from the presence of the dominant and by the return of the sequential theme from the refrain. The refrain itself returns in m. 108.
As is typical of rondo form, the second appearance of the refrain is shortened–a mere reminder of the dominating material of the piece. Measure 132 is the start of the second episode–after transitional material similar to that which appeared before the first episode, and beginning with material that is similar to m. 51ff, but which is now developmental in nature. The sequential motive from the refrain and the do-sol-le-sol motive of the transitional material provide the fodder for this developmental section, which continues until measure 214, when the chorale theme begins to reappear. We are back in the home key, but not yet truly home.
The fullest tutti of the movement so far is in m. 220, and revealingly is a chord of undoubtedly plagal function–a minor subdominant, which further reinforces the coda-ness of this movement.
The final refrain begins in m. 252 with the chorale theme in the brass. Despite appearing over a dominant pedal instead of a full harmonization, it is clear that we have arrived at the end of the piece, and the basic structure of the refrain is intact. From this point forward, any digression from tonic must inevitably lead back.
The coda to this entire coda movement begins in m. 300, and from here the music speaks for itself.
This is the most extensive, most complex composition I have ever attempted to pull apart like this, and I am frankly still puzzled by it. It is in many ways almost too large to understand in its entirety–while a painting can always be viewed from afar, I find it difficult to “step back” from this piece. In many ways, too, it is a prototype for what is to come, for after the relative respite of the Fourth these next two months, the remaining pieces only get more difficult and more expansive in their scope, and four of them lack the tool of a song text to fall back upon. I should be in awe, and a little bit intimidated, because this is the musical equivalent of hiking the Appalachain Trail.