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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2 – 1st Movement . Analysis by Gerard Schwarz

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Video transcript

- The Totenfeier by Gustav Mahler is a remarkable piece coming at a remarkable time in a remarkable composer and conductor's life. Mahler had a number of positions in small towns as a conductor. And at the age of 26, he arrived in Leipzig as the second conductor of the opera. In Leipzig, he met Baron Carl von Weber. Carl von Weber was the grandson of the great German composer, Carl Maria von Weber. Carl Maria von Weber was a great composer especially of operas, Euryanthe, Oberon, and especially Der Freischutz. Der Freischutz is a magnificent opera. The quintessential German opera may be one of the first of the great operas. That and Fidelio of Beethoven. And Mahler loved it, and he enjoyed very much meeting his grandson, and his grandson gave him sketches of an opera called The Three Pintos Weber had never finished. Mahler took it on and two years later, when Mahler was 28, that was premiered in the Mahler version, The Three Pintos, and it was his first great success. Well something else happened during that time. Mahler met von Weber's wife, Marion, and he fell in love with her. And that is incredible affair that went on for years. At the time, he was writing the first symphony. It was about a hero and a triumphant ending. And then the Totenfeier is a death ceremony or a funeral right. Mahler says that this was now the death of that great hero from the first symphony. Interestingly, he wrote this piece and no one would play it. No one would conduct it, it was not premiered really until he combined it five years later to be the first moment of the second symphony. It's a famous story about Mahler playing this on the piano for the great pianist and conductor, Hans von Bulow. The way Mahler says it, von Bulow sat there with his hands over his ears looking down, Mahler would look up, and von Bulow would look up, then he start to play again and he put his hands over his ears again and looked down. And Mahler would look up and so forth. And when it was over, von Bulow said to him, "If this is music, I don't know what music is. "This is, this is not music." And what's interesting, to note that, because when Tchaikovsky showed the first piano concerto, Now this is the work that von Bulow premiered, showed it to the very great pianist at the time, Rubinstein, Rubenstein said it was unplayable and it was a horrible piece and you shouldn't, should never do this piece, you should change it all. Tchaikovsky to his credit didn't. Mahler to his credit didn't. (orchestra playing) The Totenfeier begins with very aggressive tremolo, and then Mahler writes with utmost strength this part for the cellos and basses. (orchestra playing) Each scale gets a little bit softer and then there's this long passage for the cellos and basses. And every once in a while, the tremolo will explode and assume contrabassoon, will enter to double the double bassoon cello line. (orchestra playing) Remember, this became the first moment of the second symphony, and like all composers, he didn't like all of the programs that we attach to his symphonies even though he himself wrote them and then usually eliminated them. But the melody that comes in play by the oboe, and English horn, and clarinet, one could consider to be a funeral march. (orchestra playing) So, we see this first theme group very clear. There's one very poignant moment played by the, all the woodwinds, upper woodwinds, flute, oboe, and clarinet, very touching. The second theme is in a contrasting key, and it just makes you think of heaven. There's soft, beautiful violins accompanied by four horns. (orchestra playing) In short order, the first theme begins to be developed, and he has no material during that development section. (orchestra playing) Eventually, the harps create the transition between this development of the first theme to the restatement of the second theme, again by the first violins, this time accompanied by two horns. But in a very similar elegant, gorgeous, poetic way. (orchestra playing) And then something new comes in. The English horn plays a kind of pastoral setting. You can just imagine, knowing Mahler and knowing where it's come, that this, this is like the shepherd who's calling on the cows, and no cowbells this time. He does that in the later symphonies. But the English horn does bring this pastoral feeling. (orchestra playing) And the oboe plays a pastoral soft song. Clarinets extended. A beautiful, duet for two horns. Cello plays the same pastoral motif of the English horn. And then the cellos and basses come back in. So they play a pasture that is reminiscent of the opening. It's soft and it's an accompaniment figure to a very simple new melody played by the English horn and the bass clarinet. (orchestra playing) This new theme played by the English horn and the bass clarinet is developed as one would expect from Mahler. And that goes on quite a while, and there's a huge climax, big cymbal crash, and the material gets really wild. (orchestra playing) Eventually, the second theme is coming back. This time, it's played by the solo flute accompanied by the two harps. (orchestra playing) The oboe enters as does a solo violin. The trumpets have a little chorale, but again, it's a very lighthearted one. After all the aggressiveness of the development section to find this kind of subtle beauty as what Mahler did all the time, tremendous contrast, dynamic contrast, orchestrational contrast. (orchestra playing) Then, there's this tremendous outburst of all the strings exactly the same material as from the very beginning of the symphony, but it's very short-lived. (orchestra playing) And it leads us to material reminiscent of the accompanying material played by the cellos and basses. English horn comes in with little gesture. And then there's duet by the trumpet and trombone accompanied by flute, oboe. (orchestra playing) Tremendous build up, tremendous development, leading to a huge climax, and what Mahler does at this moment is he makes a little break, so this climax comes. There's a little stop, and then we go again for a couple of bars and then he makes a stop. And we go again for a couple of bars and he makes a stop. And then we go absolutely wild. (orchestra playing) Very exciting, loud, everything, everyone is playing, and it builds and it builds and it builds, and the brass suddenly changes the tempo, slightly slower, and it brings us back to the recapitulation. So there's a big, down big where the whole orchestra plays. The timpani puts a roll, and then the strings play the opening material that the double basses and cellos play. (orchestra playing) All of the melodies come in, everything now was condensed. The pastoral melody comes in played by the violinist. And then there's this duet between the first and third horn. The other horns, two through six, are also playing, but they're just holding single notes. (orchestra playing) Then comes the funereal ending with this scale going down by the low strings. (orchestra playing) In a sense, it's the ending of this hero's life. The very end is a little section for the trombones and the fourth trumpet, and it leads to just a series of chords at the end. (orchestra playing) And at the very end, the second trumpet and the oboes do what became a very typical Mahler gesture. He went from a major chord to a minor chord. And then there's just a couple of bars. He first wrote it fast schnell And this cascading scale by everyone in the orchestra is done fast, and then he changed it and he wrote tempo one. So we do it in that way, and then there are just two little pizzicatos and a little timpani stroke. And obviously, the great hero has died. (orchestra playing)