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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Reaching (for) Limits
Richard Taruskin

But moments of dramatic horror must be kept rare so as to retain their potency, and also so that they may lend focus and compelling shape to what otherwise might merely be a sprawling temporal span. Unprecedented buildups of harmonic tension toward cataclysmic, cacophonous resolution can only occur once or twice per piece. Elsewhere, what made Mahler’s harmonic idiom seem new and disorienting was precisely his avoidance of powerful root motions by fifth. Such motions, formerly “tonality’s” bread and butter, were now special effects. For purposes of ordinary harmonic navigation, half steps continued their progress toward domination—a progress that can be traced back to Schubert, and that had reached a previous peak in Wagner and Bruckner, Mahler’s most immediate mentors.

We can view this process with telling clarity by tracing the modulatory path within the Todtenfeier’s exposition section. The movement begins, harmonically speaking, in a state of near-immobility. The combination of the dominant pedal, held tremolando for nineteen measures (and maintained thereafter, with only momentary interruptions, for another sixteen) and the stark unison writing that only yields to an almost equally stark two-part counterpart after twelve bars, prevent any but the most primitive sense of tonal orientation to emerge. The first complete tonic triad is not sounded until the downbeat of m. 28. (Until then, the predominating “linear” texture had permitted some pretty excruciating part-writing dissonances to occur, like the parallel seconds on the last beat of m. 23.) Not until m. 41 is a tonic triad preceded by a fully expressed dominant, and when it finally happens, its rarity is underscored by a great climactic explosion of brass and percussion.

So far we have been witnessing a maximalization of an effect first encountered in the Eroica (although it had had some precedents in Beethoven even by then): the “achievement,” through effort and stress, of the first tonic cadence—an effect that in itself enacts or symbolizes a kind of ethically fraught, heroic deed. Once Mahler has achieved the tonic, however, he quits it with equally maximalized dispatch: in a span of eight bars he manages to traverse a virtual light-year of tonal space, to the key of E major, the domain of the “second theme.” And in another fifteen bars he has reached the exposition’s closing tonality, an equally unexpected, tonally distant E♭ minor.

This passage of harmonic sleight of hand is reduced and summarized in Ex. 1-3. It is all done with half steps. First the tonic C-minor triad is expanded, in the third bar after fig. 2, by half steps in contrary motion: its fifth ascends to A♭ and its root descends to C♭ while the third, held constant, acts as an anchor. The A♭ minor chord thus achieved is inflected two bars later, at 3, by another half-step motion whereby the E♭ in the middle voice (reconceptualized as D♯) resolves as a leading tone to the new tonic, E. It is almost as if Mahler had set himself a kind of musical chess problem: white to get from C minor to E major in two moves.

Half-Steps Over Fifths

ex. 1-3 Gustav Mahler, Todtenfeier, modulatory progression to secondary theme area

Of course the tonic triad of E major has been expressed so far only in the position, which (being a cadential preparation) is more a promise of the new key than a fulfillment. The dominant (B major, preceded by its dominant) arrives in confirmation after eight more bars, and is tantalizingly surrounded with chromatic neighbors before sinking back to B♭ while its companion notes, respelled as E♭ and G♭, join it in a new cadential that promises final resolution not to E but to E♭. We have been through a passage that could not have been more definitely in E major, yet one in which the tonic had failed to appear even once in stable, cadentially supported form.

Mahler has one more half-step inflection up his sleeve. The G♭ of the E♭-minor triad, shorn of its companion notes, is peremptorily altered to G natural to prepare a modified repetition of the exposition at fig. 4. As soon as the cellos and basses break in with their explosive recall of the first theme, the G tremolo is retrospectively reconfigured as the fifth of C minor rather than the third of E♭; but for a moment Mahler had allowed a direct inflection of a minor triad to its parallel major. And in so doing he set up one of the symphony’s most important leitmotifs—one that will resonate in his oeuvre far beyond this symphony, in fact.

The primitive inflection of minor to major or vice versa functions in Mahler as an elemental barometer of moods. The resolute upward inflection of G♭ to G at the exposition repeat is mournfully mirrored at the analogous point at the exposition’s close (eleven after fig. 6) by the downward inflection of B natural, the dominant’s leading tone, to B♭ (Ex. 1-4a). Even more pointed is the repetition of the mournful mirror in the recapitulation (seventeen after 23), where G♯ is inflected downward to the same G that had been produced the first time around by an upward inflection (Ex. 1-4b).

Half-Steps Over Fifths

ex. 1-4a Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 2, I, mm. 107-108

Half-Steps Over Fifths

ex. 1-4b Gustav Mahler, Symphony no. 2, I, mm. 381-386

The reversal of direction links the motif with a much older symbolic use of the semitone—the ancient Seufzer or “sigh-figure” first described at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Joachim Burmeister, a theorist of musical rhetoric, who had deduced it from the music of Lassus. (Also compare the sigh-figure that takes place within the tonic triad seven measures before the movement’s end, precipitating the Todtenfeier’s last shudder.) The sigh-figures before fig. 6 and after fig. 23 serve to trigger the closing sections of the exposition and recapitulation respectively, in which another age-old half-step device, the basso ostinato reiterating a chromaticized descending fourth or passus duriusculus (a staple of the earliest operas), is conjured up to perform its appointed task as an emblem of lament. Needless to say, Mahler’s immediate model was no seventeenth-century Venetian like Monteverdi or Cavalli, but rather the exactly analogous spot—the first-movement coda—in Beethoven’s Ninth. And another simultaneous reverberation of ancient and recent pasts occurs in the midst of the development section (e.g., eight before fig. 17), when the Dies Irae, evoking not only primeval funerary rites but also the fantastical dream visions of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), rears up in the horns, marked sehr bestimmt (very distinct).

Digging up the most ancient of traditional expressive devices—here, affect-laden semitones and ritual cantus firmus tunes—and displaying them alongside the most modern variations of those same devices was another sort of maximalism, here recalling a maneuver associated with such works as Brahms’s Haydn Variations, in which near and remote ancestors are “timelessly” associated and equated. Brahms dug back to the late seventeenth century for his remotest forebears; Mahler digs almost a century further back and juxtaposes his ancient trophies with even more up-to-the-minute modern equivalents. His “tradition” dwarfs Brahms’s at both ends.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001007.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 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001007.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 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001007.xml