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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).

See full score / Watch on Youtube

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:

C) Development of Slow/Second movements There are effectively two slow movements in this symphony, the second movement (and 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 closing words of the fourth movement 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!It starts like this:

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.

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

The words to the final chorus begin as follows:

“With wings that I have gained
I shall rise!
I shall die so I can live!”

These epic ideas of rebirth are reflected in the vast forces that Mahler uses and the whole symphony ends in triumph with a huge fortissimo chord.

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.

Watch the end of Mahler 2 on Youtube.