Many considered the Finale of Mahler’s Second one of his most powerful movements ever written. While this may have attributed significantly to the programmatic aspect of the work (that is, the message Mahler conveys in the movement), the power of the music itself, which comes from its large assemble of two vocal soloists, a mix choir, a huge orchestra placed both on and off stage, and most importantly its emotional intensity, can never be understated. All the analysis aside, many people agree that the experience of listening to the entire symphony, especially a live performance of it, is extremely powerful and moving.
How do we perceive the “meaning” Mahler is trying to express here? Deryck Cooke made following insightful summary of the “psychological sequence” the Second symphony:
So the ‘programme’ of the symphony resolves itself into a symbolic description of a psychological mood-sequence: a sense of outrage at the omnipotence of death, a haunting awareness of the fragility of life’s happiness, and a feeling of disgust at the mechanical and aimless triviality of everyday life, followed by a turning away to faith in God, and belief in resurrection and eternal life.
While those description of the first three movements probably came mostly from the programme Mahler had drawn out himself, we don’t need to look no further than the text of the vocal parts in last two movements to understand what conclusion Mahler had drawn.
Structure & Semantics
The Finale begins right after the fourth movement without break. Even with untrained ears, one can discern the four distinct parts without much difficulty: a stormy introduction, a slow (langsam) exposition, a fast (allegro) development, and a vocal section. The structure maybe compared to sonata form, but it sounds far away from the tradition, particularly with the last part, which may at best be considered a varied recapitulation.
Two characteristics stand out in the Finale: a) it links back to the previous movements, especially the first, and b) the vocal part uses material from the instrument section. In summary these are the key themes presented throughout the movement:
- Introduction: Fright fanfair, Eternity & Ascension (mm.1~42)
- Exposition: Caller, Dies Irae, Resurrection, minor mode (mm.43~193)
- Development: Complex development of all above, “death march” (mm.194~447)
- Varied Recapitulation: Resurrection, Ascension, Eternity, major mode (mm.448~764)
In expressing his “belief in resurrection and eternal life”, Mahler presents and develops all these themes under the background of an apocalyptic view, which references the biblical Judgement Day representing end of the world. With that comes the initial fright and chaos brought upon the world by the final Judgement (fright fanfare theme, the Caller theme), the ever approaching fear of Death (Dies Irae theme), the spiritual transcendence of eternal life by returning to God (resurrection theme, eternity & ascension theme), and the fierce fight and struggle for people to reach it (the “death march”). This apparently differs from conventional view of apocalypse that refers to end of the world.
All the key motifs and themes are presented in the introduction and exposition. The beginning of the movement starts with a tremendous screech of dissonant and tam-tam crash, the so-called “fright fanfare” theme, which is previewed earlier at the end of the third movement:
It then quiets down with a descending scale, and the horns enters on pianississimo playing the “eternity & ascension” theme:
The short introduction (mm. 1-42) now ends.
The notion of “Caller” mainly comes from the heading at the beginning of this section (No. 3) on Mahler’s manuscript (it was left out in the published score), which reads “Der Rufer in der Wüste” (The Caller in the Wilderness). The opening remote and gradually intensified long horn calls, the Caller theme, is a proclamation of the coming of Judgement Day.
The passage that follows is a series of triplets on oboe, very soft and lonely, as if reflecting on the first lines of the opening movement (see mm. 6-7); in the midst of the progression we hear the trumpet recalling the phrase near end of the Scherzo:
Then comes a phrase on the trombone sounding affirmative of the Caller:
Theme that follows after a brief pause is the Dies Irae theme led by clarinet:
It is followed immediately by the Resurrection theme, accompanied by the by pizzicato Strings playing those triplets from earlier:
At this point Mahler laid out the first round of progression of Caller –> Dies Irae –> Resurrection theme sequence. The sequence is now presented again, started by the Strings with the Caller theme:
Though continuing with pianissimo, Mahler inserts a new theme that anticipates the entreaty heard in the vocal section (“Oh believe, my heard, oh believe”. The material is an instrumental recitative, played by the lonesome English horn:
What’s also different from the first round is that the Dies Irae + Resurrection theme pair this time is a solemn chorale by the full brass in major mode, as opposed to minor in first round:
Now comes the third time the Caller theme is presented, and it breaks out into a spectacular fortissimo by the full orchestra, fused with the Ascension theme, the exposition reaches a small climax:
As the climax fades away, we hear the trombone theme again, concluding the exposition.
This is the most dramatic part of the Finale. What we hear is a shockingly stark contrast to the exposition, where Mahler, with his masterful crafts of thematic transformation and polyphonic texture, combining themes from the exposition and turns them into a fierce yet magnificent march. With great intensity Mahler paints a fearful scene of approaching death and the struggle to reach Resurrection.
It starts with this famous long crescendo percussion roll, landing on the repeat of the “fright” theme heard at the opening of the movement, followed by a repeated “shouting” motifs (on the high pitch of piccolos):
We then hear the first march-like form of the Dies Irae, supported by strong sixteenth note rhythm on the second violins:
Notice the fright theme is combined with it on the trumpet. Next, the march changed from the original four-half-note form to condensed four-quarter-note form:
Now comes the Resurrection theme on the trumpet, contrapuntally against the Dies Irae march on the strings (with slight variation from mm. 220):
Tension grows higher as these themes are played along going against each other, as we can hear here between the march and the fright fanfare:
and the shrills of the shouting theme:
Towards the end we hear Dies Irae marching with full force while Resurrection theme forces itself rising out on the trumpet, but then leading to a terrifying collapse:
Another theme from exposition, the “Entreaty”, which was an instrumental recitative on a slow and lonely English horn, now comes in and becomes more lyrical, much enriched, and with an anxious and intense mood; meanwhile we hear the Fright fanfare theme on the background played by the trumpets:
As the climax comes to a halt, the development section ends with eternity and ascension theme, echoing the beginning of the Finale:
The recapitulation starts at mm.448. Floros marked this a “varied” recapitulation, mainly because that though the recapitulation section uses mostly motifs and themes from exposition, the Dies Irae motif, the Fear motif, and the Shouting motifs do not return. Dominant are the Resurrection, Ascension, and Eternity motifs. Another major contributing factor of this varied recapitulation is the fact that it is performed by a chorus, and the duo of a soprano and alto.
Just as the exposition, Mahler put down the heading of Der grosse Appell (“The Great Roll-call”) on his manuscript but omitted it on published version. The title reflects Mahler’s true view of the Apocalypse, which is eternal ascension of human spirit and Resurrection.
And just as the opening of the movement, we first hear the Caller theme by the horn. But instead of simple repetition, Mahler presents a fresh new texture: solo flute playing long lasting note while offstage trumpets (placed on both sides) plays a remote fanfare that is said to announce the Apocalypse approaching (emphasized also by the tympani roll):
The piccolo plays fast winding melody as if bird fluttering and singing, wondering round the steady line of the flute, but on the background the unmistakably caller theme by the horn, with the constant tympani roll, Mahler paints a scene of wilderness under an apocalyptic sky. It is as Mahler put it, “a last trembling echo of life on earth”.
As the vocal sections are presented, the overall tone of the music gradually intensifies, growing from the initial ppp to a climactic fff in the end. They are divided into eight parts (stanzas), of which the Resurrection theme is the dominating voice sung by the chorus, with interludes of secondary themes in between, including the recitative (Oh Believe…) sung by alto and soprano. The first two stanzas came from the poem Die Auferstehung by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, the other six were written by Mahler himself.
Here are the list of all parts:
|Stanza #1, Resurrection, chorus, ppp (mm. 472)
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|Interlude, eternity and ascension (mm. 497)|
|Stanza #2, Resurrection, chorus, ppp (mm. 512)
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|Interlude, eternity & ascension (mm. 535)|
|Stanza #3, Solo alto & soprano: “Oh believe” (mm. 561)
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|Stanza #4, Resurrection, chorus, sharp contrasts (ppp – f – mf dim. – ppp) (mm. 617)
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|Stanza #5~6, duet alto & soprano: “Oh agony, you piercing pain” (mm. 643)
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|Stanza #7, Eternity & Ascension, chorus, from ppp to ff (mm. 671)
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|Stanza #8, Resurrection, chorus, fff (mm. 712). Chorus sings a variation of the theme while trumpets and trombones play the original theme, overwhelmingly powerful and triumphant:
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|Last stanza, Postlude, Eternity, full orchestra with organ, ff – p – fff (mm. 732)
0:00 / 0:00
 Cooke, Dyreck. Gustav Mahler: An Introduction to his Music, p.56, Cambridge University Press, 1908.
 Floros, Constantin: Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies. English translation edition, p.68~p.75, Amadeus Press, 1993.