“The further the music develops, the more complex the apparatus used by the composer to express his thoughts becomes.”
- Gustav Mahler
The second movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is marked “Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz” (Turbulently Rough, With Greatest Vehemence). Where the first movement Funeral March expressed mourning, despair and anguish, this second movement gives us overwhelming rage and anger. The fury of this sonata form movement is the next step in the psychological grieving process that Mahler is traversing in his Fifth. The size and scope of this second movement also shows us the real function of the first movement. Many large sonata forms of the late 19th century had sizable introductions, usually in slower tempo than the rest of the movement. Mahler’s “introduction” section grew, evolved, and broke off into a movement of its own as what is now the Trauermarsch. With that in mind, it becomes clear why Gustav coupled the grief of the first movement with the anger of the second as the first large portion of this symphony.
The first theme of this sonata form starts right out at the first measure of the exposition. This music is not subtle about what it is trying to express. If you have never lost your temper with some sort of table pounding, glass breaking outburst, you may not completely comprehend the emotions of this movement. It just dives right in with a violent tantrum of near homicidal rage. Close listening of the music reveals a thematic connection to the first movement. Of course, Gustav doesn’t repeat anything note for note. He is constantly recomposing material, but the linkage of musical ideas between the two movements strengthens the argument for the first serving as an introduction to the second. The historian Theodor Adorno wrote about “inserts” and “interpolations” of material from the funeral march into the sonata movement.
As a younger man, these first two movements are the 25 minutes of music that sold me on Mahler forever. Heavy metal bands and punk rock were in their heyday. I was moving from one hair-raising avant-garde jazz album to the next, as the spicy dissonant sounds mellowed with repeated listening. I remember an afternoon I returned home with a used LP of Herbert von Karajan conducting Mahler’s Fifth. At the time, good speakers were large speakers, and a friend and I cranked up the first side of the album to see what this Mahler business was all about. The first side contained movements I and II. (For those of you that are slightly age challenged, those black vinyl 12 inch records had music on both sides. You flipped it over to continue listening.) My windows rattled, the neighbors came out to see what was going on, and my dear mother come upstairs to request a reduction in volume before police action was required. I have been a Mahlerite ever since.
In-depth study reveals the second movement to be an ingeniously organized sonata form. The exposition encompasses the first 140 measures of the score and the first 3:12 of the video below. The development section is found in bars 141 to 322 of the score, and is the four minutes of music from 3:12 to 7:34 in the attached performance. A recapitulation starts at bar 322 (7:34) and a closing coda section at bar 520 (11:44). All of the elements of sonata form are present, but I’m not so sure a more detailed labeling of each theme and transition is going to serve a purpose here. The clarity of form has clearly taken a back seat to the emotional content of the music. As a listener, the mood and expressive content is what is key to following Gustav through the grieving process he is leading here.
There is one passage I am compelled to point out, because it becomes important later on in the symphony. At bar 464, 10:33 in the video, we are introduced to a great Chorale in D major. This has been labeled by some as Mahler’s “Vision of Paradise”. It is a vision, a premonition, an anticipation of the end of the symphony. If you remember the clip in the first of these posts about Mahler’s Fifth, this Chorale returns to triumphantly close the finale in movement five. Here in this first exposure to the music, it almost seems out of place in the middle of all of this grief and rage. The “vision” is one of another place, one that we have not reached yet. As such, this glimpse of a bright mood cannot be sustained, and the movement closes with another catastrophic climax and collapse.
Mahler’s life was filled with moments of great tragedy and loss, and he responded to those events with as much pathos and neurosis as anyone ever has. Ironically, this stormy music of the Fifth Symphony was written in what was one of the HAPPIEST times of Gustav’s life. He had a great deal of success as an orchestra and opera conductor. His compositions were starting to be performed and appreciated for the works of genius that they are. He met, fell in love, and married a young beautiful wife, Alma Schindler. Alma had submitted and served all of Gustav’s ridiculously selfish requests he placed on their marriage. I’ll hazard to guess he even had her rise early in the morning to prepare his breakfast, in the off chance he might be hungry in the morning. Alma gave birth to their first child, starting their family. As a composer, I can understand a bit of the duality here. One cannot usually be productive when one is paralyzed and drowning in a pool of grief and anger. The stability of happy times is an essential element to the creative process, even when the subjects of that creativity are not joyous. Alma did not always agree, and in fact was quite upset with Mahler working on things like the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) during this time. How could he kiss their young child, and then walk off to his composing hut to work on such things? I can only justify Gustav by pointing out that he was always working on the most expressive music, portraying the most powerful emotions and feelings of human existence.
Next up, the middle part of the symphony and longest movement, the third movement Scherzo.