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1894 – Mahler Symphony No. 2

 

1894 Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 2
Instrumentation Strings, 4 flutes (doubling picc.), 4 oboes (2 doubling C.A.), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass), 2 Eb clarinets, 4 bassoons (2 doubling contra)  10 horns (incl. 4 offstage), 10 trumpets (incl. 4 offstage), 4 trombones, tuba, 2 harps, organ and extensive percussion, soprano and alto soloists plus choir
Movements IAllegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck (With complete gravity and solemnity of expression) IIAndante moderato. Sehr gemächlich. Nie eilen. (Very leisurely. Never rush.). IIIIn ruhig fließender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement). IVUrlicht (Primeval Light). Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht (Very solemn, but simple) VIm Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempo of the scherzo)
Overview Mahler was a very well known as a conductor in Austria by the time he wrote the second symphony and throughout most of his life he had to compose mostly in the summer when he was less busy conducting. The premieres of both his first and second symphonies were disastrous in that they were very badly received, particularly by critics. Mahler would not achieve the respect as a composer that he now receives until after his death.

Mahler gave various explanations of this symphony and they all centre on the idea that it portrays the struggles and death of the hero in the first movement, the striving of the soul towards God and his final redemption (relevant to Topic F).

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A) Development of whole structure The overall structure is driven by the underlying narrative described above.  A little like Schumann 3, there is a slow movement before the finale, but the overall impression is of two very weighty outer movements, with a series of three interludes in between. See below for details.
B) Development of first movements The first movement of Mahler’s second symphony is nearly 25 minutes and it shows a typically Romantic approach to sonata form in that it contains huge contrasts and drama. The stormy C minor opening:

 

gives way briefly to a quiet and lyrical second subject in E major.

 

The music periodically has promises of redemption, another example being this towards the end of the exposition:

 

Towards the end of the development there is even a hint of the final key of the whole piece (Eb major – the relative of the opening C minor) although this time it quickly descends into chaos and then C minor gloom:

 

In the end, despite many twists and turns, it is in C minor despair that this movement, which lasts more than twenty minutes, ends. The emotional torture of this movement leads Mahler to ask for a five minute pause before the next movement, but this is rarely adhered to in performance.

C) Development of Slow/Second movements There are effectively two slow movements in this symphony, the second movement (an Andante) and a fourth movement that was originally a standalone song entitled Urlicht or ‘Primeval light’.

Both movements provide some relief from the at times chaotic and turbulent movements that surround them.

Mahler wrote that the Andante second movement was like a memory of a happy moment. It is like a Landler (sometimes found in third movements) and has a delicate sense of innocence. The form is very simple as the Landler idea is alternated with two contrasting ideas in the form ABACA.

This is the opening:

The fourth movement is very different and takes the form of a song, the closing words of which are as follows:

I am from God and shall return to God!The loving God will grant me a little light,Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!

The movement begins with hushed reverence:

D) Development of the third movement The third movement is a sinister 3/8 scherzo back in the C minor of the first movement.

The relentless rhythms and distorted melodies lead eventually to a a tutti fff chord with thundering timpani and percussion that has been described as a shriek of pain:

The movement ends, however, with a whimper, fizzling out on an extraordinary unison scored for contrabassoon, very low horns, harps and double bass:

E) Development of the fourth movement Mahler’s finale has some similarities to that of Beethoven’s ninth symphony in that he begins with material that has some echoes of previous movements and incorporates solo singers and a chorus.

 

In a programme note in 1901 Mahler wrote:

Once more we must confront terrifying questions, and the atmosphere is the same as at the end of the third movement. The voice of the Caller is heard. The end of every living thing has come, the last judgment is at hand and the horror of the day of days has come upon us. The earth trembles, the graves burst open, the dead arise and march forth in endless procession.

The most obvious reference to previous movements is the ‘shriek’ of pain that we first heard in the third (see above), but the rumblings in the bass and the ascending melody are also reminiscent of the beginning:

There are many extraordinary moments in this movement but one pivotal one is when a trombone chorale (hymn) idea in Db major gives way to a burst of C major:

It turns out to be a false dawn, as this C major subsides into F minor.

The final breakthrough comes with the entry of the chorus, but just before this Mahler creates a very novel soundworld with his use of offstage brass set against onstage flute, piccolo and timpani:

The words to the opening are as follows:

“Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead,
My dust, after a short rest!”

From this idea, which was foreshadowed in the brass ideas earlier in the movement, Mahler builds the orchestra a choir up to a gigantic climax, at which these same words are repeated:

F) Development of the Orchestra Mahler uses vast forces in this piece as can be seen above including at least eight brass players offstage. Mahler is trying to express an epic journey from the anguished cries at the beginning to the triumphant orchestral and choral conclusion. Mahler once said that “a symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything” and orchestrally he seems to be trying to achieve this at the end of work as the orchestra is supplemented by organ, choir, tubular bells etc. There are also some extraordinary touches, like the unison at the end of the third movement and the use of offstage brass (see above).

Watch the end of Mahler 2 on Youtube.