Hey, do you have 90 minutes?  I hope so, Mahler’s Second Symphony demands your time. :)


The work in its finished form has five movements:

  1. Allegro maestoso
    Musically, the first movement – written in C minor – though passing through a number of different moods, often resembles a funeral march, and is violent and angry.
    The form of this movement is somewhat similar to a Classical Sonata form. The exposition is repeated in a varied form (from rehearsal letter 4 through 15, as often does Beethoven in his Late Quartets). The development presents several ideas that will be used later in the symphony, including a theme based on the Dies Irae plainchant.
    Mahler uses a somewhat modified tonal framework for the movement. The secondary theme, first presented in E major (enharmony of Fb major, neapolitan of Mib), begins its second statement in C major, a key in which it is not expected until the recapitulation. The statement in the recapitulation, coincidentally, is in the original E major (Fb major). The eventual goal of the symphony, E-flat major, is briefly hinted at after rehearsal 17, with a theme in the trumpets that returns in the finale.
    Following this movement, Mahler calls in the score for a gap of five minutes before the second movement. This pause is rarely observed today. Often conductors will meet Mahler half way, pausing for a few minutes while the audience takes a breather and settles down and the orchestra retunes in preparation for the rest of the piece. Julius Buths received this instruction from Mahler personally, prior to a 1903 performance in Düsseldorf;[10] however, he chose instead to place the long pause between the fourth and fifth movements, for which Mahler congratulated him on his insight, sensitivity, and daring to go against his stated wishes.[11]
  2. Andante moderato
    The second movement is a delicate Ländler in A-flat major with two contrasting sections of slightly darker music. This slow movement itself is contrasting to the two adjacent movements. Structurally, it is one of the simplest movements in Mahler’s whole output. It is the remembrance of the joyful times in the life of the deceased.
  3. In ruhig fließender Bewegung(With quietly flowing movement)
    The third movement is a scherzo in C minor. It opens with two strong, short timpani strokes. It is followed by two softer strokes, and then followed by even softer strokes that provide the tempo to this movement, which includes references to Jewish folk music. Mahler called the climax of the movement, which occurs near the end, sometimes a “cry of despair”, and sometimes a “death-shriek”. The movement is based on Mahler’s setting of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”, which Mahler composed almost concurrently. (This movement was the basis for the third movement of Luciano Berio‘s “Sinfonia“, where it is used as the framework for adding, collage-like, a great many quotations and references to other scores.)
  4. Urlicht (Primeval Light). Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht
    The fourth movement, Urlicht, is a Wunderhorn song, sung by an alto, which serves as an introduction to the Finale in a manner similar to the bass recitative in Beethoven’s Ninth. The song, set in the remote key of D-flat major, illustrates the longing for relief from worldly woes, leading without a break to the response in the Finale.
  5. Im Tempo des Scherzos (In the tempoof the scherzo)
    The finale is the longest, typically lasting over half an hour. It is divided into two large parts, the second of which begins with the entry of the chorus and whose form is governed by the text of this movement. The first part is instrumental, and very episodic, containing a wide variety of moods, tempi and keys, with much of the material based on what has been heard in the previous movements, although it also loosely follows sonata principles. New themes introduced are used repeatedly and altered.
    The movement opens with a long introduction, beginning with the “cry of despair” that was the climax of the third movement, followed by the quiet presentation of a theme which re-appears as structural music in the choral section, and by a call in the offstage horns. The first theme group reiterates the “Dies Irae” theme from the first movement, and then introduces the “resurrection” theme to which the chorus will sing their first words, and finally a fanfare. The second theme is a long orchestral recitative, which provides the music for the alto solo in the choral section. The exposition concludes with a re-statement of the first theme group. This long opening section serves to introduce a number of themes, which will become important in the choral part of the finale.
    The development section is what Mahler calls the “march of the dead”. It begins with two long drum rolls, which include the use of the gongs, In addition to developing the Dies Irae and resurrection themes and motives from the opening cry of despair, this section also states, episodically, a number of other themes, based on earlier material. The recapitulation overlaps with the march, and only brief statements of the first theme group are re-stated. The orchestral recitative is fully recapitulated, and is accompanied this time by offstage interruptions from a band of brass and percussion. This builds to a climax, which leads into a re-statement of the opening introductory section. The horn call is expanded into Mahler’s “Great Summons”, a transition into the choral section.
    Tonally, this first large part, the instrumental half of the movement, is organized in F minor. After the introduction, which recalls two keys from earlier movements, the first theme group is presented wholly in F minor, and the second theme group in the subdominant, B-flat minor. The re-statement of the first theme group occurs in the dominant, C major. The development explores a number of keys, including the mediant, A-flat major, and the parallel major, F major. Unlike the first movement, the second theme is recapitulated as expected in the tonic key. The re-statement of the introduction is thematically and tonally a transition to the second large part, moving from C-sharp minor to the parallel D-flat major — the dominant of F-sharp minor — in which the Great Summons is stated.. The Epiphany comes in, played by the flute, in a high register, and featuring trumpets, that play offstage. The choral section begins in G-flat major.
    The chorus comes in quietly a little past the halfway point of the movement. The choral section is organized primarily by the text, using musical material from earlier in the movement. (The B-flat below the bass clef occurs four times in the choral bass part: three at the chorus’ hushed entrance and again on the words “Hör’ auf zu beben”. It is the lowest vocal note in standard classical repertoire. Mahler instructs basses incapable of singing the note remain silent rather than sing the note an octave higher.) Each of the first two verses is followed by an instrumental interlude; the alto and soprano solos, “O Glaube”, based on the recitative melody, precede the fourth verse, sung by the chorus; and the fifth verse is a duet for the two soloists. The opening two verses are presented in G-flat major, the solos and the fourth verse in B-flat minor (the key in which the recitative was originally stated), and the duet in A-flat major. The goal of the symphony, E-flat major, the relative major of the opening C minor, is achieved when the chorus picks up the words from the duet, “Mit Flügeln”, although after eight measures the music gravitates to G major (but never cadences on it).
    E-flat suddenly re-enters with the text “Sterben werd’ ich um zu leben,” and a proper cadence finally occurs on the downbeat of the final verse, with the entrance of the heretofore silent organ (marked “volles Werk”) and with the choir instructed to sing “mit höchster Kraft” (with highest power). The instrumental coda is in this ultimate key as well, and is accompanied by the tolling of deep bells. Mahler went so far as to purchase actual church bells for performances, finding all other means of achieving this sound unsatisfactory. Mahler wrote of this movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” [12]