I used this movement the other day with my freshmen to explain one of the ways that musicians determine tempo–the tempo of the opening is determined by the ability of the timpanist to play clearly the first two measures. Since the standard timpani technique doesn’t involve the double-bounce stroke, there is a fairly finite speed at which the timpani solo here can be played.
Less literally, I’ve been trying to determine if the title means “Rondo as Finale” or “Rondo, then Finale.” There is a reasonably clear seven-part rondo structure that dissolves into a long coda. The first version of the refrain begins in m. 7, with a theme in the brass which includes some daring trumpet writing–D6, approached by a slur of a sixth. A tricky proposition, and this perhaps accounts for the doubling of this line by the clarinets and oboes. This refrain appears in C major, in contrast to the E minor of the opening six bars.
The strings take over the texture in m. 27, with a dotted rhythm that will reappear later in the piece, and not just in the refrain. Measure 31 is the final new material of this section, repeated half notes which will prove prominent later on as well. The remainder of the refrain is devoted to restatement of material so far, and to a fanfare which leads to the tonic chord in m. 51. There is then a direct modulation to a chromatic mediant–A-flat major, which is the key for the first episode.
The first episode begins with a rising eighth-note figure and a change in tempo. The material here is reminiscent of Mahler’s more folk-influenced material. Rather than a “round dance,” we have a much squarer dance that begins hesitantly in the woodwinds, and is answered with the melody in the cello (m. 56ff). Unlike most classical rondos, this episode is not harmonically closed, and works its way back to the second refrain, visiting C major (m. 79), then to D major, in alternating sections of 3/2 and 2/2. Beginning at m. 116 (Pesante), the music moves back toward C major by common chord modulation, to prepare the second refrain.
Beginning in m. 120, the second refrain continues until m. 152, making it a somewhat truncated version of this material. The transition to the second episode is more or less monophonic, following a cadence on C major. The second episode begins in m. 153 in A minor. Oddly, it begins with melodic material from the first episode, in the violas in m. 154. This material based on the earlier section continues until m. 186, when the strings enter with a unison figure reminiscent of some of the “Turkish” music of Mozart. Three measures later (m. 189), the brass reenter with the chorale which signalled the retransition to the refrain. Here, however, while much of the transitional material returns, it leads not to the refrain in C major, but to further music in a developmental mode (this is the appropriate place for a development section in a sonata-rondo). Some lovely music for string quintet in A major follows at m. 220. An interjection in Db major (m. 241), seems to move even further from a return to the refrain. This is followed by another unison passage for the strings, alternating between 2/2 and 3/2.
Beginning in m. 268, a version of the refrain melody, reworked for 3/2, appears in the brass in the opening key. From this point forward, there are several possible candidates for the refrain, but none is explicit. Perhaps the most convincing is the chorale for the brasses beginning in m. 360. This is followed by the unison string material from m. 241 (m. 368), only a half-step higher in the key of Bb.
The remainder of the movement is suggestive of coda material, and as usualy for Mahler, builds to the end. Some interesting moments include a whole-tone passage leading to a cadence on Db major in m. 506. A final appearance of the refrain chorale appears in m. 539, this time for the full brass section and accompanied by the timpani solo from the opening of the movement. Measure 568 is a brilliant section for winds and percussion that is reminiscent of English change-ringing. The last cadence of the piece occurs in m. 580, from which a run of sixteenth notes leads to the end of the piece.
On to the Eighth Symphony, then. September will be for the sacred-themed first movement, and October will have the profane second movement. See you there!