In recognition of the death of the great Mahler scholar Henry-Louis de La Grange, I offer up this analysis I wrote of a theme from one of Mahler’s most beautiful movements a few years ago.
I have talked to a number of readers and listeners who want to get into Mahler’s music but find it inaccessible, asking them what seems to put them off about it. One recurring motif in these discussions was the nature of Mahler’s themes. Never content to simply repeat sections of the music verbatim (only two of his Symphonies, the 1st and the 6th, have exposition repeats), his themes are subject to constant development and transformation, spawning seemingly endless variations with each new appearance.
From a formal perspective, these are the “A” sections of the movement, rather than the “B” sections with a minor-key theme or the development. They are all in the key of E-flat major, and I have chosen to end the selections at the point where they begin to modulate or transition to the next section.
The melody begins as innocently as could be imagined with a clear outline of the E-flat major harmony through an upwards and downwards minor sixth (motif A, which designates the rhythm as much as the shape). But note already that, whichever order the movements are played in, this harmony is a tritone away from the tonality of the movement that preceded it, and this invests the carefree gesture of the opening with an undercurrent of unease that only becomes more explicit with the unexpected flattened second in the first bar, part of a group of descending eighth notes/quavers (motif B). Although the harmony immediately returns to the tonic, this is darkened by the appearance of the minor third as part of an ornamental turn (motif C) and an upwards appoggiatura (motif D). The reappearance of the upwards sixth (now transposed up a third) seems to signal a move towards the conclusion of a regular 8-bar theme, but a sudden leap to the seventh and a series of staccato chromatic notes (motif E) extend it further (at this point all 12 notes of the chromatic scale have already been heard). It once again settles on E-flat, but this is unexpectedly treated as an appoggiatura, spawning a new variant of the opening that closes with the staccato rhythm of motif E. Two versions of B, first beginning on the sixth, then the flattened sixth, lead to the motif E, now taking on the shape of the opening, first with a major sixth, then an augmented fifth, followed by the B variants in reversed order, settling on the tonic with a minor third (turning into a major third in the harmony right after this example ends).
The second appearance of the melody begins with a horn solo. The rhythm of A is now used in a descending figure, followed by B as before, but now the flattened second is resolved to the tonic using the staccato rhythm of E. The minor third makes its appearance, treated as an appoggiatura like before, but the A motif now appears with its original shape inverted, and a half-bar is inserted between two bars including motifs B and C. The E-flat becomes an appoggiatura as before, but instead of turning demurely back to the tonic, a new rising motif (F) appears and is sequenced, leading to a jagged figure (G). Both of these are used extensively in the subsequent development. Following this sudden outburst, the rhythm of E is followed by that of A, which closes the melody as it opened it, with a descending figure.
The final appearance of the melody is the shortest of all. It opens up like a repetition of the opening, but the rhythm of E in the second bar (accented by the horn) interrupts this reminiscence. As before, the melody rises to the minor third and chromatically upward, but an extension of the B motif puts the A motif back into accented position, and the opening bar is repeated (and interrupted) as before. A sudden leap to the minor seventh recalls the first version of the theme with its chromaticisms, but a bar including B and C leads the melody back to the tonic (which is treated as an appoggiatura like before, but as part of a modulation away from E-flat).
Looking over these three versions of the theme, one immediately notices the features that only appear in a given one of them: the series of chromatic staccato notes in the first that unsettle the tonality before it has had a chance to become established, the passionate outburst at the end of the second, or the extension of the third that leads to a leap of a minor seventh. Taken like this by themselves, they might seem insignificant, as if Mahler did not know which version of his theme to use and decided to throw all of them in. Within the context of the movement, however, they are part of the ongoing development, which does not stop simply because a formal marker has been reached. Consequently, the later developments are affected by these variations, and everything that follows shows their progressive influence.
It has been more than a century since Mahler’s death, but only about half a century since his public and critical acceptance into the canon. While constant variation such as that in this gorgeous movement certainly increases the music’s richness, it also just as certainly makes it harder to grasp on a single hearing, perhaps leaving one with an unclear idea of what “the theme” was. At the work’s disastrous premiere, a critic opined that the F-flat in the first bar was “artificial”, but with the clarification provided by time, by a greater awareness of Mahler’s working method, and by a familiarity with the wonderful century of music that followed him, we can recognize that the F-flat is not only crucial from the standpoint of the music’s development, but the most organic and the only choice possible.
The rest of this movement can be found here: