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

There remains one more aspect of maximalism to describe, and that is the colossally underscored contrast in mood, tempo, key, and orchestration that sets the Todtenfeier’s E-major “second theme” off from the first. (The use of scare quotes around “second theme” here signals that the theme so designated is not by any means literally the second melody to be heard, but rather the melody that expresses or embodies the movement’s main secondary tonality.) This was a characteristic of late-nineteenth-century symphonic writing that Mahler seems deliberately to have enhanced so as to magnify the impression of a world-encompassing reach, or a reach into the inner world, where Weltanschauungs originate.

The history of the nineteenth-century symphony, or at least of one of its major strains, might well be told in terms of the progressive growth of the second theme to the point of virtual elephantiasis, such as now we find in Mahler. Beginning in Haydn as just a little touch-down on the dominant (for which purpose a repetition of the first theme might do just as well, as in Haydn’s “London” Symphony, no. 104), the second theme had grown from the time of Schubert to that of Bruckner into a virtual “lyrisches Intermezzo,” to put it in poetic terms borrowed from the title of a famous book of poems by Heine: a “lyrical interlude” signaling a retreat into a Schubertian “music trance,” a state of subjective reverie in which the quality of time is radically transformed from one of purposeful progress to one of virtual suspension. Rhythm becomes less pulsatile, tempo is usually decreased. But even when the tempo is not explicitly relaxed, recourse to long-sustained notes, legato phrasing, and dilatory harmonic rhythm produce a subjective or psychological relaxation all the same.

Even Mozart’s symphonies exhibit this lyrical tendency in distinction to Haydn’s; even at the end of the eighteenth century the symphony could be seen as branching off into two strains that contrasted ever more radically over the course of the nineteenth. The previous lyrical benchmark had been set by Chaikovsky, in the first movement of his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique,” already widely performed by the time Mahler’s Second was first heard, and hence received by audiences as a precedent for it, even though Mahler’s first movement was composed earlier. Chaikovsky’s second theme—an expansive Andante displacing a nervous Allegro non troppo—takes the form of a fully self-sufficient, potentially detachable composition in its own right, preceded and followed by silence, with its own internal structure (involving subsections and subthemes) and its own fully articulated conclusion, completely dwarfing the rest of the exposition.

Mahler’s second theme goes Chaikovsky’s one better in that, while it is less fully developed in its initial expository statement, it continues to haunt the movement, lending the form a layer of strophic balladry (shades, after all, of Mickiewicz?) that crosscuts and complicates its linearly progressing “sonata form.” Mahler, sketching, called the theme the Gesang—”the song” or “the singing”—as if to emphasize its Chaikovskian quality of lyrical intrusion. Its first (E major) appearance is cut off, as we have seen, after a mere fifteen bars. It unexpectedly reappears, having been cut out of the exposition repeat, at fig. 7, a sort of no-man’s-land between exposition and development, in the key of C major (foreshadowing Elysium, as someone thinking of Beethoven’s Ninth might guess), and lasting twice as long. Unlike most “second themes,” it intrudes “dialectically” upon the development section at fig. 13, with a tempo marking (etwas drängend, “somewhat hurried”) that contradicts its earlier character of respite and therefore seems all the more oppressively to signal anxiety.

The final appearance of the Gesang, ten bars after 22, restores its original character and key, and adds a few plagal cadences reminiscent of the final “redemptive” pages of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. But the major-minor inflection in Ex. 1-4b, encompassing two voices in imitation (G♯ to G in the horn, E to E♭ in the first violin), dispels all promise of redemption, and the movement ends in a bellow of despair.

What now follows is the most “maximal” moment of all: a command from the composer, “Here there must be a pause of at least five minutes’ duration.” Requiring of the audience that they sit still and contemplate what they have heard for five minutes is explicitly to require that they behave as they would in church. The Todtenfeier has stopped being a representation of a solemn rite and has actually become such a rite. Never had the sacralization of art—another process that can be traced over the course of the whole preceding century—been so graphically asserted and enforced.

While in terms of the sheer emphasis accorded it, Mahler’s second theme is comparable to Chaikovsky’s, its mood is quite different. Rather than passionately expressive it is vividly pastoral, even bucolic in quality, owing to the use of such additional stock illustrative “figures” as pedal tones (evocative of drones, hence of bagpipes) and “horn fifths” (evocative of rustic or primitive “natural brass”). In later symphonies like the Sixth (1904) and the Seventh (1905), Mahler reinforced the pastoral imagery of his “second themes” by actually including “cowbells” (Heerdenglocken), the bells placed since ancient times around the necks of cattle to prevent straying from the herd, among the percussion instruments in the orchestra.

This obsession with the pastoral and the primitive—and the association of such images with fleeting interludes of lyrical contemplation—is a common feature of early modernist art. It betokens the wistful irony of the thoroughly modern, thoroughly urban spirit, conscious of its separation from the “natural” world and alienated by that consciousness from its own stressful environment. This nostalgic obsession ran like a thread through Mahler’s work over the course of his whole career—alas, a somewhat stunted career, since Mahler was very much the victim of its stresses, succumbing to heart disease shortly before his fifty-first birthday.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Reaching (for) Limits." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001008.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001008.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-001008.xml