Sitting between the monumental opening movement and the gigantic Finale is a the three lighter movements. These movements not only provide contrast and balance to the high drama presented in the opening and finale movements, but also fulfill the desired semantics of the overall programmatic nature of the symphony.
II. Andante moderato
Floros considered the first and second movements form an “extraordinarily strong contrast to each other”, where the first movement is “boldly conceived and of a basically dark character”, the Andante moderato (the second movement) “conveys an idyllic feeling”. That’s why Mahler noted the score that the performance should rest for at least five minutes before this movement starts.
The second movement is roughly a variation of two themes structured in five sections. It opens with theme A, an elegant and pleasant dance in 3/4 meters. The tune is rich with the leisure swing of an Austrian Ländler:
The theme elaborates in full and comes to a cadence, and theme B starts with a section of light triplets on the strings:
against the string’s scherzo rhythmic background appears the theme’s melodic line on the woodwinds:
In the third section, theme A1 comes back to theme A but now shows the ingenious creativity of Mahler: he put a completely independent yet perfectly fit countermelody on the cellos, played along with theme A repeated on the background by the strings. Floros considered this an example of double theme:
Section four is B1, which starts with a sudden fff on the lower strings, is the variation of theme B, stronger in dynamics and more excitement in mood:
Original melodic phrases of theme B are somewhat varied also, and further extended into strings:
When last section starts, theme A is repeated but now by pizzicato on the strings:
Arrangement of countermelody also changed to woodwind playing the Ländler background and violins playing the tune:
Deryck Cooke viewed the second and third movements together as “a two-movement interlude concerned with life – its happiness and its bitterness”, and the second movement is “basically wistful in mood and eventually overshadowed by an intrusion of the first movement’s angry atmosphere (in the second statement of its trio section)”. It seems here Cooke was referring to the section B1 mentioned above.
III. In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement)
The third movement is still in 3/4 but much faster tempo. The material is characterized with restless, never-ending “twisting and twining” of melodies, representing Mahler’s view of the mechanical, busy yet meaningless aspect of daily life. Mahler’s own description of this movement in his letter to Max Marschalk was “this ever-moving, never-resting, never-comprehensible bustle of existence becomes horrible…life strikes you as meaningless, a frightful ghost”.
The movement is considered a scherzo and has a similar structure as previous one, largely built around two themes. Theme A came from Mahler’s song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. It opens right after a few short strokes by the tympani, with the restless sixteenth notes moving up and down:
If we listen to the performance of the original song (such as this one), we’d find that theme A materials are pretty much based on the entire song, which in its own right presents various colors. Such as the humorous “curly” tunes of the clarinet:
Similar mood on the piccolo:
the pleasant Ländler-like dance:
and these sweet melodies on oboe:
However Mahler wrote completely new material for theme B, which was first introduced by cellos and double basses playing piano, with sudden burst into ff; also note that the theme is now on C major, a much more energetic mood contrasting to theme A (triangle is used here, which is rare in Mahler’s work):
What follows the theme is a chorale like passage on trumpet, lyrical, peaceful, even a bit nostalgic:
As the development of the two themes come close to an end (i.e. A1 & B1), we hear a loud (fff) screeching dissonant outburst by the full orchestra. This is what Mahler referred to as the “cry of disgust” (of the meaningless existence and life). It is followed by a descending melodic line that is obviously part of the opening phrase of the Finale:
There are more important motifs played near end of B1 that provide thematic connection to the Finale. First is below phrase on trumpet and horn at mm. 496:
Then at mm. 509 we hear again the above motif with a bit variation but played by the horn with pp in the background of the violins (that are playing a descending line). The horn part can be heard again during the first horn call in Finale (mm. 50-52).
This is the first of the two ending movements with vocal component. A solo Alto sings the poem “Urlicht” (“Primeval Light”) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. With or without any programme, Mahler intention here can be clearly seen from the texts. Given the context of preceding movement’s painting of the dull and endless daily life without purpose, he is expressing the desire to walk away from all that and turn to his faith in God. The poem states:
I am from God, I want to return to God.
The loving God will grant me a little light,
Will light my way to blissful life eternal and bright.
As a light beat tam-tam draws the third movement to an end, this movement starts without pause. The introduction starts by the soloist directly singing a short phrase “O Röschen rot! (O little red rose)“:
Then follows a chorale by trumpets, calm and solemn:
Part A opens with the soloist singing “Der Mensch liegt in größter Not! (Man lies in greatest need!)“:
We then hear this bridge played by solo oboe with deep affection:
Now Part B enters and turns into minor mode, rhythm is a bit more livlier, we hear the soloist singing “Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg (There came I upon a broad path)“; solo violin echos on the phrase:
When part A returns, it becomes more urgent (basically doubles the beats); here Mahler makes his statement of faith, “Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott! (I am from God and shall return to God!)“:
Note that the opening chorale material is heard while Part A is first presented (mm. 27), and then again here during repeat of A, at the end of the movement. The ascending scale with ritardando & legato line fits well with what the text is expressing, essentially the longing of spirits rising and returning to God. “Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben! (Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!)“:
 Floros, Constantin: Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. English translation edition, Amadeus Press, 1993.
 Cooke, Dyreck. Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to his Music. Cambridge University Press, 1908.