We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

Perhaps the best possible illustration of these points, and the most vivid model of symphonic maximalism, would be Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in C minor, the actual subject of the letter from which the foregoing quotes were extracted. Composed over a six-year period beginning in 1888, the symphony received its first complete performance under the composer’s baton at Berlin in December 1895. On that occasion it bore the subtitle “Auferstehung” (“Resurrection”) after the text of its choral finale. Even during Mahler’s lifetime the subtitle came and went, betraying an ambivalence that also peeps between the lines of the letter.

Sometimes Mahler acknowledged a programmatic component in the symphony, sometimes he denied it. Sometimes he admitted that he needed some verbal (or “poetic”) hook on which to hang the music of a large-scale composition; at other times he claimed that his first two symphonies together recounted the story of his own (inner) life; at still other times he maintained that whatever programmatic content he might agree to describe would be only a sop to the duller members of the audience. “When my style still seems strange and new,” he wrote to Marschalk, “the listener should get some road-maps and milestones on the journey—or rather, a map of the stars, that he may comprehend the night sky with its glowing worlds.”8

What is known for certain is that the programmatic content of the symphony’s first movement underwent a metamorphosis. That in itself was nothing new: a well-known precedent was Miliy Balakirev’s Overture 1000 Years, which started out simply as the “Second Overture on the Themes of Russian Folk Songs” and ended up as a symphonic poem entitled Russia. With Mahler the dynamic went the other way, from more to less detailed, reflecting his eventual commitment to “absolute music,” full of intense but undefined (which is to say undelimited) expression.

Under a stimulus chiefly provided by Franz Liszt, the genres of symphony and symphonic poem had begun to converge toward the end of the nineteenth century, so it will not overly surprise us to learn that the symphony’s first movement was initially conceived as a symphonic poem and existed in that form for several years before acquiring its companion movements. (Even more tellingly, what we know as Mahler’s First Symphony was given its first performance in 1889 as a “Symphonic poem in five movements” called Titan after a novel by the German Romantic author Jean Paul.) The American musicologist Stephen Hefling has established that the Second Symphony’s first movement, called Todtenfeier (“Funeral Rite”) in its symphonic-poem guise, originally followed a scenario adapted from Dziady (“Forefathers’ eve”), a narrative ballad by the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz.9 One of Mahler’s friends had made a German translation of the poem, in which the hero’s name happens to be Gustav, and published it under the very title that Mahler would adopt for his symphonic poem.

The fourth part of Dziady, the “Gustav poem,” is a tale of doomed love and suicide, culminating in the hero’s funeral and his soul’s subsequent hovering in limbo until his beloved joins him in death. Mahler was attracted to this poem, Hefling suggests, because of the way it paralleled the miserable end of his recent affair with Marion von Weber, for whose sake he had completed Die drei Pintos. Hefling has given his hypothesis impressive support by closely reading the music in terms of the poem. But no contemporary listener had that chance. By the time of the first performance the Mickiewicz program had been suppressed—or rather, sublimated—and replaced by another that consisted mainly of questions of an “ultimate” or eschatological character, designed to put the listener in an appropriately “philosophical” frame of mind and stimulate an appropriately lofty response to the symphony’s “absolute” content—an endeavor more worthy, in its demands, of what Mahler deemed a truly contemporary art.

As Mahler put it, somewhat mendaciously, in his letter to Marschalk, “In conceiving the work I was never concerned with the detailed description of an event, but to the highest degree with that of a feeling.”10 The “never” was clearly an exaggeration, but the aim was clear: to transcend what Mahler elsewhere described as “that insipid, erroneous way of composing, which is to choose for oneself a limited, narrowly circumscribed incident, and to follow it programmatically step by step.”11

Here instead is the version of the program that Mahler actually wrote out for publication as a program note at the premiere:

We stand by the coffin of a well-loved person. His life, struggles, passions and aspirations once more, for the last time, pass before our mind’s eye.—And now in this moment of gravity and of emotion which convulses our deepest being, when we lay aside like a covering everything that from day to day perplexes us and drags us down, our heart is gripped by a dreadfully serious voice which always passes us by in the deafening bustle of daily life: What now? What is this life—and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it? Is all this only a confused dream, or do life and this death have a meaning?—And we must answer this question if we are to live on.12

In the end he decided against printing even this much; but that did not prevent him from confiding an even more abstract but at the same time even more urgent version of the program to Marschalk in the famous letter:

I have named the first movement “Funeral Rite” (Todtenfeier), and, if you are curious, it is the hero of my D major Symphony [that is, the “Titan” of the First] that I am burying here and whose life I am gathering up in a clear mirror, from a higher vantage point. At the same time it is the great question: Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Is all this merely a great, horrible jest?—We must resolve these questions somehow or other, if we are to go on living—indeed, even if we are only to go on dying! Once this call has resounded in anyone’s life, he must give an answer; and that answer I give in the last movement.13

And now to the music. In terms of sheer dimensions, its maximalism requires little comment. At more than twenty minutes’ length the Todtenfeier was by itself longer than most eighteenth-century symphonies, and was outstripped only by the monumental Adagio from Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. (Mahler redressed this shortfall in his next symphony, the Third, in which both the first movement and the last exceed a half hour’s duration.) In terms of sonority, a listing of the symphony’s roster—not all of it used in the first movement—can speak for itself, for this was the largest orchestra ever specifically demanded by any composer to date:

  • 4 flutes, alternating on 4 piccolos
  • 4 oboes, two alternating on English horns
  • 3 clarinets, one alternating on bass clarinet
  • 2 E♭ clarinets, one alternating on B♭ clarinet, both to be doubled in fortissimos
  • 3 bassoons
  • contrabassoon
  • 10 horns (four for use offstage)
  • 8–10 trumpets (4–6 for use offstage)
  • 4 trombones
  • contrabass tuba
  • Percussion (requiring seven players):
  • 7 timpani, 6 (3 players) onstage, one offstage
  • 2 pairs of cymbals, one offstage
  • 2 triangles, one offstage
  • snare drum (more than one if possible)
  • glockenspiel
  • 3 tubular bells
  • 2 bass drums (one offstage, played with a wooden stick)
  • 2 tam-tams (gongs), high and low
  • 2 harps, several players per part if possible
  • Organ
  • Largest possible contingent of all strings

At the first performance the instrumentalists numbered 120, which means that there were between sixty and seventy string players. In addition to this, the last two movements require the participation of two solo singers (soprano and alto) and a large mixed choir. Even before the voices are heard, the symphony had made a decidedly operatic, or at least theatrical impression by virtue of the offstage brass band, previously employed outside of the opera house only by Berlioz and Verdi in their highly theatricalized Requiem Masses. But of course Mahler’s symphony was also a requiem of sorts, or at least (as the organ proclaims) a quasi-sacred work, even without taking note of the religiose texts that will be sung in the two last movements in “answer,” as Mahler implied, to the questions propounded in the first.

Another sort of maximalism was expressed through the medium of intertextual reference. Like any composer conscious of his late appearance in a canonical succession—or, to put it another way, like every composer of symphonies since Brahms—Mahler was not only enormously conscious of his heritage and the obligations it imposed, but was also aware of the opportunities it afforded him to “signify.” By making deliberate references to the works of his great predecessors (but always regarding them as forerunners to be vied with and if possible surpassed), Mahler was able to communicate wordlessly a good deal of the programmatic content that he declined to paraphrase verbally for fear of the limitations such paraphrase imposed on the audience’s subjective response.

Is There or Isn’t There? (Not Even the Composer Knows for Sure)

ex. 1-1 Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 2, I, first page of the score

The opening page of the score (Ex. 1-1) makes pointed “poetic” reference to no fewer than three Beethoven symphonies—the three that were by tradition the most heavily fraught with meaning. Even before a note is played, of course, reference will have been made to Beethoven’s Ninth: the poetic texts in the program and the physical presence of the singers on stage telegraph Mahler’s determination to revive the infiltration of oratorio into symphony that Wagner had blessed and Brahms had subsequently anathematized. But the opening string tremolo, disclosing neither tempo nor key, was an equally pointed reference to the famously nebulous beginning of Beethoven’s Last.

At the same time the brusque unison motifs given out by the cellos and basses, and the fermata that separates the second of them from what follows, could not help but evoke the peremptory opening of Beethoven’s Fifth; and of course so did the key of C minor, throughout the nineteenth century the most “meaningful” (and obliging) of keys. One of the things the key of C minor obliges is a breakthrough to the major in the finale. But anyone responding to the march tempo and the amplifying direction, Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck (“With grave and solemn expression throughout”), would have been reminded of the Marcia funebre in Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica—an association that all by itself connotes two of the main components of Mahler’s unstated program involving the funeral of a hero. The Eroica association contradicts the one to the Fifth insofar as it places the key of C minor in relation not to its parallel but its relative major. And sure enough, Mahler’s symphony will end as triumphantly as did Beethoven’s Third, Fifth, and Ninth, but in the “Eroica” key of E♭ major.

In Beethoven’s day such a key relationship could be expressed only in the middle of a work, not between the two ends. By Mahler’s day—thanks in part to his own previous work, notably the song cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (“Songs of a wayfarer”) in which the wayfarer’s wandering is symbolized by a “progressive tonality” in which every song ends in a key other than the one in which it began—a tonal metamorphosis or modulation over the full course of a work was no longer necessarily regarded as a contradiction of “organic” form. And so Mahler’s symphony both proclaims its loyalty to Beethovenian precedent and announces an advance over it: a perfect testament to the optimistic modernist view of tradition as perpetually self-renewing and inexhaustible.

Nor is the Beethovenian tradition the only one to which Mahler proclaimed allegiance. By the time of his writing, there was another heroic funeral march in C minor to emulate: the one Wagner wrote for Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. As we shall see, Mahler paid it as conspicuous a tribute as he could possibly have done, for this was another reference that elucidated (and enhanced) his own secret program. As traditions continue, the store of available subtext accumulates; as potential reference proliferates, actual reference is “maximized.”

But of course the most potent area for maximalism was the actual sound surface—the melodic, harmonic, and tonal events that constitute the “purely musical” content of the score. It was not only the most potent area but, as Pound pointed out, also the most necessary; for if Mahler hoped to equal the impact that his great predecessors had achieved in their time, he would actually have to surpass both its intensity and its sublimity. That is, the sounds themselves would have to outstrip their predecessors in pungency, and they would have to duplicate the fascinated bafflement that Beethoven and Wagner had produced in their audiences—and all of this would have to be achieved, moreover, in a manner that could be directly related to the achievements of old, so that it would look like a valid continuation, worthy of inclusion in the “permanent collection.” A tall order, this, amounting to a dilemma.


(8) Ibid.

(9) See Stephen E. Hefling, “Mahler’s ‘Todtenfeier’” and the Problem of Program Music,” Nineteenth-Century Music XII (1988–89): 27–53.

(10) Mahler to Max Marschalk, 17 December 1895; Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler, p. 172.

(11) Gustav Mahler in den Erinnerungen von Natalie Bauer-Lechner, eds. Herbert Killian and Knud Martner (Hamburg, 1984), pp. 170–71; quoted in Hefling, “Mahler’s Totenfeier,” p. 43.

(12) Donald Mitchell, Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986), p. 183.

(13) Weiss, Letters of Composers, p. 394.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001005.xml