What a piece! Like the last movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, I find it difficult to think analytically about music of such moving emotion. There are some questions I would love to be able to ask the composer, though. What sort of funeral march is this? For such grandiose, powerful music, who could possibly have died? And then, as a funeral march, is it really effective? True, there are no moments of levity, and I detect no hint of satire anywhere in the movement, but how can the solemnity of death be reconciled with what is, in a strange way, celebratory music? Such questions are, of course, primarily aesthetic in nature, and I can’t answer them without living in Mahler’s time, and perhaps in Mahler’s life. Throughout my study of Mahler’s music, I have striven to examine the music for its compositional attributes, and taken the music at face value, but such music as this cannot help but raise serious extra-musical questions. I’ve been reading David Huron’s book Sweet Anticipation, in which he gives a valuable sentiment. To paraphrase: “Even if we are one day able to understand music, it will never cease to be beautiful.”
How many times did I hear this opening trumpet solo through practice room walls as an undergraduate? My trombone teacher, Tony Chipurn, used to joke about the first round of trumpet auditions for the Cincinnati Symphony: “ta-ta-ta–taaa,” “Thank you!” But this music is no joke, not for even a moment, and this trumpet solo announces the key, the mood, the meter and the basic rhythm of the composition, all with just a few notes. Those first four notes are that important, and a fine performance gives them direction. It must not only state the notes, but provide the impetus for the rest of the symphony.
No sooner has the key been established than the rest of the brass and the strings come in with a contrasting harmony. The trumpet has named the key as c-sharp minor, but the enormous chord in measure 13 is A major, opening the world of this music up. The double-dotted rhythms in the trumpet are, again, crucial to the expression, and Mahler makes persistent use of dotted and double-dotted rhythms throughout this movement; it is these rhythms that give this funeral march its character, whether as the trumpet’s double-dotted solo rhythms, the strings’ later use of dotted-quarter plus eighth-note rhythms to present both primary and secondary melodic material or the underlying martial rhythm, seen for example in measures 14-16 in the strings and winds.
The dotted rhythm introduces the primary march theme at the anacrusis to m. 35. This melody is introduced by violins and celli in unison–in a relatively weak register for the violins, but in a more lyrical register for the celli. In m. 43, the theme is developed, with the second violins, and then the violas, joining the first violins.
At m. 61, the original trumpet solo returns, at the original pitch, but harmonized instead in the key of F-sharp minor, and harmonized instead of alone. Instead of the parallel chord of D major, as would be expected from the opening passage, the goal of this passage is the tonic chord of the movement, C-sharp minor. This allows a return of the first-theme material at measure 89, now harmonized by a countermelody based on the same dotted-rhythm material as nearly every other utterance in the symphony so far.
Mahler is nothing if not consistent. After a modulatory passage that brings the music to Ab major, the dominant, a secondary theme enters at m. 121. Based on the dotted-rhythm motive of the primary theme, this presentation in thirds is highly reminiscent of material from the third movement of the First Symphony, the contrasting theme of that funeral march. How funeral-march-like is this piece after all? Much of the resemblance and mood breaks down in this section, which leads into a developmental section, introduced by the trumpet solo material.
This development section, beginning in earnest at m. 155, is centered around a rhythmic motive that is a transformation of the dotted-note motive that formed the core of the melodic material up to this point. This consists of a half-note tied to the first-note of a quarter-note triplet, followed by the other two notes of that triplet. This cell is the basis of nearly every important melodic motive for the next hundred bars.
At measure 233, the trumpet solo returns, bringing back the material from the exposition. Measure 278ff has a fascinating melodic treatment–beginning in solo trumpet and solo viola, and over the next few bars, adding instruments to become a near-tutti texture in bar 286, at which point, the texture thins to solo clarinet, oboe and flute. As expected in a classic sonata-allegro, the second theme now returns in the tonic key (m. 295). In teaching third-year Analysis, I emphasize the importance of understanding the modifications composers make to their transitions to reconcile the two competing key areas. Here, Mahler significantly shortens the transition to allow the secondary theme to reappear in the tonic key rather than moving to the dominant. The music is in D-flat major, an enharmonic spelling of the parallel major that allows the second theme to remain in its original mode.
In measure 316, the timpani enter with a reminder of the opening trumpet solo, moving to a secondary developmental section, placed interestingly late in the game, almost 4/5 of the way through the movement. In this A-minor section, the dotted-note motive of the exposition and the triplet figure of the development are combined in a sequential passage that leads to a final climactic chord at m. 369. At this point, the music now must descend from E-major, the dominant of this second development section, to G-sharp major, the dominant of the piece. It reaches its goal not through functional phrasing, but through a typically Mahlerian chromatic descent, with a deceptive goal at m. 393, when coloristic chords seem to imply another move away from C-sharp, but land on F-sharp, explaining to the ear that this has all been coda material. Mahler has placed developmental material in the coda, following in the footsteps of Beethoven.
The coda itself is given a coda, featuring the return of the solo trumpet material from the opening. Instead of the entire melody, we are merely reminded of it. The movement ends with a flute flourish–a rare moment highlighting this instrument among the Mahler symphonies so far–followed by a menacing pizzicato in the low strings.
Where does this movement fall in relation to the opening movements of the four previous symphonies? The First Symphony began with what seemed like the beginning of the world ex nihilo. The Second has its own funeral march. The Third Symphony’s enormous opening movement (“Part One”) dwarfs the rest of the piece, despite Mahler’s best efforts. The Fourth Symphony opens with music that is tautly related to the rest of the piece. But here, in the Fifth Symphony, is music that draws in the listener to the point that it simply doesn’t feel as long as its fifteen-minute duration. This is, afterall, the goal of any composer– the suspension or at least the reordering of time. A great composition, like a great movie, feels like an otherworldly experience while keeping the audience’s attention. In this movement, Mahler has done this successfully.