Mahler second symphony: death of a hero
Now globally recognized as a masterpiece and performed everywhere in the world, Gustav Mahler’s second symphony had a very troubled beginning: Mahler himself had to finance the premiere and was even forced to give out free tickets to fill the hall. There were also practical difficulties: the concert was in Berlin but Mahler was working in Hamburg and could not get out of any of the performances he had to conduct. So he had to travel to Berlin after his performance at the opera house, rehearse for 3 hours the next day and come back to Hamburg to conduct another opera performance.
“Next to your music, Tristan sounds as simple as a Haydn symphony! If that is still music then I do not understand a single thing about music!”.
Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock
Hans von Bülow
Sadly, von Bülow died before Mahler completed the symphony. At Bülow’s funeral, a children’s choir sang Friedrich Klopstock‘s Auferstehn. Mahler was struck and, in his own words: “It flashed on me like lightning and everything became plain and clear in my mind.” Klopstock’s hymn became then a part of the symphony.
Mahler originally composed the first movement of Symphony n.2 as a funereal symphonic poem, titled Totenfeier: the symphonic poem was a form that was particularly popular at the time – just think about Richard Strauss for example.
In writing to composer and journalist Max Marschalk, Mahler comments on the first movement of the symphony with these words:
“Why did you live? Why did you suffer? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke?”
He would eventually give his own answer to these questions in the last movement.
It took Mahler around 6 years to write the symphony (by the way, this symphony was completed in the same year in which Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was premiered) and he started it in a very awkward place: Totenfeier became the first movement of the symphony. But Totenfeir is a funeral march, which is usually where things end. But death is only the beginning. He made it clear on a number of occasions that the hero that triumphs in his first symphony is the same hero we are now mourning here:
“The real climactic end of the first symphony comes in the second”.
The opening of the movement is striking, immediately calling for attention. But despite the gigantic orchestration of the symphony, the opening only asks for violins and violas in tremolo and FF with the cellos and basses bursting in on the second bar.
If there is one thing that you need to conduct Mahler in a certain way, it’s the independence of the hands. Cue the upper strings with one hand and switch to the other for the lower strings.
Mahler was exceptionally detailed in his scores, often addressing his notes to conductors themselves. In the first few bars he outlines:
- a written out explanation next to the tempo indication (Allegro maestoso): “With a quite serious and solemn expression“;
- the cello and basses are marked as “wild“,
- and the footnote is for the conductor: “In the first few bars of the theme, the bass figures are to be played quickly and in a violent rush [quarter=144]; the rests, however, should be performed at [quarter=84-92]: the fermata is short – as it were a swing back to regain new strength“.
After the first few bars, the cello and basses calm down and provide the accompaniment for the funeral march, played by the oboes and the English horn. The dynamic is piano but notice the wedges, marking the weight on each note Mahler is really asking for. And take note of the register in which the oboes are playing: it’s the lowest for the instrument and makes the theme dark and kind of threatening. To keep the piano dynamic Mahler calls for both oboes in unison plus the English horn. Everyone else is in either pp or ppp.
Shortly before number 2, we have the certainty that our hero is dead with the first outburst of the entire orchestra, but we are rapidly taken to a completely different section: the second theme is already here, in all his calmness played by the violins and 4 horns, while the bass line plays with the menacing triplets we’ve heard so much in the previous section.
As noted on the score, the clarinets should only be an echo, which automatically gives more weight to the horns line; the horns are also marked “very clear” 7 bars after number 3.
The serenity of this passage only lasts a few bars when it’s torn in pieces by the scream of the violins which takes us back to the roars of the beginning.
We are back at square one. Well, not quite. We have heard the material already, so Mahler plays with it in a mini-development of the musical material.
The rage outbursts and calms down in these typical Mahler gestures of completely contrasting emotions. The harps lead the transition to the reiteration of the second theme but before that, I want to point out another remark the composer makes for the conductor: the double basses go down to a low D. Normally, double basses come with either 4 strings or 5 to reach the very low C. Not all basses in the orchestra have the 5th string (or the extension) and Mahler was perfectly aware of the issue:
“If there are not at least 2 double basses with the C string, then 2 basses must tune the E string down to D. Playing the missing notes an octave higher, as it is sometimes done, is not to be tolerated here”.
1 bar before number 5 the horns should be slightly more prominent than the woodwinds because they bridge with the rest of the brass at number 5.
7 bars after number 5 make sure the violins play with a lot of bow and not too short.
Second theme reiteration
The second theme comes back, in a different key and with a different orchestration.
And then something new happens: the English horn plays a kind of pastoral theme, a connection to nature that Mahler loved so dearly.
Right at number 8 make sure the accents in the second violins are only a vibrato and not an actual violent accent
This bucolic moment fades away as the cello and basses go back to a rhythm closer to the ones in the beginning. The English horn and bass clarinet play a new theme. The development of this section ends with a big climax and a FFF, after which we’re taken back to the second theme once again, this played by the solo flute accompanied by the harps, while the first violins are in tremolo and the cello plays a trill on the dominant.
The oboe enters as well as a solo violin. Everything is kind of light-hearted in full contrast with the erupting and disrupting feelings of the previous section.
This could be very well the development section of the movement: the themes are presented intertwined with all the other musical ideas, everything is moving in different directions, sometimes together sometimes collapsing, there’s a change in the orchestration and the energy. But is it? Or is it, in fact, a third exposition? Mahler is tearing down the very fabric of the symphonic structure and making it difficult for us to find where we are. Patience, he has a plan, and eventually everything will be clear.
Of course, as a conductor, you need to know what the plan is right from the beginning but, once again, starting from the big picture and working your way into the details will do the trick.
And so the outburst of the beginning comes back abruptly, sort of reminding us that that oasis of calmness we just heard was but the illusion of a moment. The strings come back and the silence in between their parts is filled by low woodwinds and brass on top of tam-tam and timpani. The outburst lasts only 10 bars and we are taken back to another development section: the cello and basses play an accompaniment that comes from previous material, the English horn reminds us of the color of the funeral march at the beginning of the movement. Mahler tells the conductor to start at a slow tempo and very slowly work his/her way up, without rushing. This is so difficult!
Trumpet and trombone play a duet while the flute and the oboe counterpoint with, again, previous material, either in its original form or in an inversion of it.
3 bars before n.17 make sure to bring out the 4th and 5th horn (nicely paired with the violas), especially on the last beat of the bar where their duplets will increase the tension playing against the triplets of the violins.
There’s a tremendous build-up spurring from this material and at the climax, Mahler stops with a comma, and then restarts, and then stops again, and then everything breaks loose. We sink into darkness with a reiteration of the musical materials that seem unable to find a way out of themselves. The brass put a stop to the development with the Molto Pesante part, then the entire orchestra ends it with an unequivocal gesture.
It’s not over: timpani and violas keep the roll and the tremolos and we’re taken into the recapitulation. Everything is condensed here, shortened in comparison to the exposition(s).
On the third and fourth bar of number 22 make sure to ask for more weight from the horns, especially on the trill. Give a sharp and clear upbeat to get a crystal resolution of the trill in the following bar. Notice the difference in dynamic compared to number 2: there is no diminuendo in the woodwinds on this bar.
And then we come to the end: somber and threatening descending scales played by the cello, basses, and harps lay the ground to the funereal horns. Everything smells of death here, there’s no hope left, except for a moment where we land on a C major.
That doesn’t last long and in what became somewhat of a Mahler fingerprint we go back from major to minor.
The entire world collapses with the orchestra’s cascading scales, and then there are just 2 bars, that reduce the orchestration to timpani and string pizzicatos in pianissimo.
The hero is dead. And there’s nothing left.
Not many composers are as demanding as Mahler: aside from the emotional surcharge, as conductors, we also need to learn how to pace ourselves. This movement is 20 minutes long and there’s a very long way to get to the end of the symphony.
If you’re interested in the manuscript you can find it here.
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