Mahler started working on his Second Symphony in 1888, the same year he finished his First Symphony (“Titan”). However unlike the First, which “gushed out of” him as “mountain river” as he once wrote, it was completed 5 years later in 1893. It was not that he struggled with the composition itself, the prolonged process was mainly because that in the beginning he didn’t intend to turn the original work (that later became the first movement) into a symphony. That piece was titled “Todtenfeier” (“Funeral Rites”), which Mahler called a symphonic poem, was completed in September 1888. Afterwards Mahler simply put it aside and worked on other pieces such as his Wunderhorn song cycle, until middle of 1893. In short period of time he completed the Andante and Scherzo, and added his song ‘Urlicht‘ as the fourth movement. Then he struggle a bit on the Finale, eventually decided to bring chorus and solo vocals into the final movement, and completed the symphony in July of 1894.
Though completed in piece meal fashion over a six-year period, all movements come together with “remarkable unity”, and all “movements seem to fit wonderfully together in terms of both music and moods”. Part of the reason may be that the work is highly programmatic, reflecting Mahler’s view on life, death and resurrection. In the early programs of the performances, Mahler tried to convey the subject of the symphony in the form of a series questions: “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all of this just a terrible joke?…Is there a hereafter for us? Is all of this a wild dream, or has this life and this death a meaning?”
The general understanding of the work is that the first movement is a funeral march commemorating the hero from his First symphony, the slow Andante is considered to reflect the fine memory of the past, the Scherzo paints a picture of meaningless existence and life, the fourth movement, Urlicht (Primeval Light), counters that view with the longing of peaceful union with God, which appropriately leads to the powerful Finale, Auferstehung (“Resurrection”), that describes the struggle of humanity and transcendence of human souls back to God.
The Second is undoubtedly one of the most powerful of all Mahler’s works. Five movements, with vocal soloist and chorus in the last two movements, the work typically lasts an hour and half. Mahler himself said that “the whole thing sounds as though it came to us from another world. I think there is no one who can resist it”.
1. Allegro maestoso. Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck
The first movement alone is massive and powerful, complex in structure and rich in emotions; it is so heavy in comparison to the ensuing movements that Mahler marked specifically on the score “here follows a break of at least 5 minutes”.
The central idea of this movement, originally titled “Todtenfeier” (“Funeral Rites”), is a funeral march. Funeral of whom? Mahler wrote that it is the hero in his D Major symphony (the First). Yet the constant and dramatic development of this central theme, alternating with other contrasting calm and pastoral themes, obviously go beyond any plain sad funeral tune. Floros stated that in Todtenfeier Marhler “wanted to express artistically all perceptions of death developed by mankind.”
The movement loosely follows sonata form but with an unusually large development section, of which can be clearly seen as divided into two parts, which numerous new subjects development.
The opening starts on lower strings, dark and intense, but then lands firmly on the C minor funeral march motif:
This motif permeates the whole movement.
It’s followed by an introduction passage (mm.6-16) played by the lower strings, based on the minor mode motif in a steady march rhythm. It is unconventional in that it sounds more than a brief motif but a fully structured subject melody:
What follows is the first subject led by woodwinds, that sounds like a counter melody for the introduction, which continues on the background exactly as in the introduction, yet perfectly fits together with main melody on top:
Such amazing polyphonic crafts can be heard many times in this symphony, as in all of Mahler’s symphnoic works.
Shortly after that comes a small climax of the march theme, notice how Mahler emphasizes the dotted rhythm of the opening motif:
The second subject comes on E major started by violins:
The subject then stirs up emotion, and reaches another small climax but ends to minor mode:
Then we hear a flashback of the opening, somewhat a bit faster (Mahler marked “forward moving”):
Often we amateurs may think this is the beginning of development; but experts (Bekker, Floros etc) consider it a third theme group of the exposition, probably because Mahler integrated the Cross symbol (again, as he did in the First Symphony) mixing with some development of the main theme.
Here’s the Cross symbol:
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Again Mahler won’t sit still on a single theme, he now adds a counter melody on the horns and cellos, stamping ff firmly on the funeral march dotted rhythm:
Which soon leads to the climax of the exposition, with powerful sweeping broad melody on strings and trumpets now dotting the marching steps:
The funeral march continues but now turns to the background, quieter and steady, and becomes an ostinato on the lower strings, accompanies with the deep tam-tam. This is the end of exposition:
The development is extraordinarily long and considered to have two parts. The section does much more in introducing new materials than developing the two subjects earlier, with the second part mostly “anticipating” important motifs in the Finale. This is probably the main reason this movement is deemed modified sonata form.
The first development starts with a recall of the second subject, and soon brings out a pastoral motif on the English horn:
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It is followed by a short calm and sweet passage, played by two clarinets with a beautiful hollow sound (Mahler marked Echoton, “echo sound” on the score):
The English horn now plays a new melody, elegant yet expressive, accompanied in unison by base clarinet; while viola supports the main line with gentle flowing sixteenth notes, the funeral march rhythm shadows on the background by cello and base:
Further developments are done on the Cross symbol (i.e. the third theme group of the exposition), as well as the second subject, which is now a variation on the flute, faster in tempo, brighter in color:
The solo violin has a momentary exchange of pleasantry with the flute but then the music quickly fades away, and the opening main motif rushes back to us, followed by triple forte blow of the tympani and tam-tam, the second development has now begun:
The dotted funeral march rhythm is highlighted by solo tympani, as if a wake-up call bringing us back to the solemn reality. Then the pastoral theme comes back, but the tone has turned grim:
What follows is the main feature of the second development. We first hear a horn chorale of the Dies irae theme:
Then few more key themes which are later heard in the Finale are presented, including the Dies irae, the eternity & ascension, and resurrection. Floros stated that these materials are “anticipating” the Finale, seen between mm.282 – 290 in this movement:
We should remember that this movement was written over 5 years prior to the rest of the symphony and originally intended to be a standalone piece (symphonic poem), so it seems Mahler decided to reuse these motifs in the Finale. This same technique can been observed as well in his First Symphony.
With the march motif continues to underline the development of these themes together, the music intensifies and pushes forward until reaching the climax of the entire movement, a plunging sequence of the main motif followed by a catastrophic crash:
The opening main motif starts the recapitulation, followed by the same introductory passage, the first and second subject, and then the pastoral theme (which is now played by the strings), all in a condensed form. Soon comes the Coda, which starts with same ostinato rhythm now played by the harps:
The Coda ends with a series downward triplet, similar to the plunging theme earlier, but changed from a forceful dotted march rhythm to weaker triplet, and closes with two pp pizzicato plucks on the strings.
 Floros, Constantin: Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. English translation edition, Amadeus Press, 1993.
Carr, Jonathan: Mahler: A Biography. p.47, p.34. Overlook Press, 1997.