Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 1’: The Second Movement

So after the downright exciting and powerful ending to the first movement of Mahler’s first symphony, we come to the second movement. Another modified structure, Mahler uses the framework of a minuet and trio, though replacing the minuet with an Austrian folk dance in 3/4 called a Ländler. The Ländler section of this movement is in A Major, with the trio section modulating to F Major.

The movement starts with a strong forte bass motif consisting of a two bar phrase which emphasises the tonic and dominant of A Major. The Ländler theme itself is first heard 9 bars into the movement with an off-beat quaver pick up from the whole woodwind section. This is another example of Mahler utilising the wind sections to create a fuller and ultimately inclusive section of the orchestra. In my personal opinion, this movement is my least favourite of the four due to neither of the sections going anywhere adventurous like in any of the other movements of this work. However, Mahler does play around with performance techniques in this movement, such as dynamics. Near the end of the Ländler movement at figure 11 there is a transition section where only lower strings play a chromatic quaver motif and decrescendo from to ppp. Then at figure 12 the woodwind and upper strings return with the initial Ländler theme at a quaint pp. This though is then interrupted, bizarrely, by a bassoon marked ff which is a great contrast from the rest of the orchestra who are marked pp. Further on between one bar the orchestra go from pp to ff, which creates a dramatic explosion of musical genius that heads towards the next section of the movement.

To settle into the new trio section of this movement, Mahler writes a 4 bar transition for one horn. The horn plays a slow two-note motif to settle the impending slow waltz into a comfortable speed. The trio, which sees the Ländler theme manipulated subtly underneath by the 2nd violins and violas, starts as a quaint and quiet section until Mahler uses texture and dynamics to create a bigger force within the movement. The initial Ländler theme returns with great force at the end of this movement and once again the movement is brought to a fiery end with a full orchestral tonic quaver.

Interestingly in the first three performances of symphony 1 were harshly criticised, and one fairly big reason for this was the second movement that was in place before the Ländler and Trio were written. The title of this second movement was Blumine which means ‘Goddess of Flowers.’ This movement was a condensed orchestra with the prominent feature being a trumpet solo. This may have been a refreshing change in orchestration for the work, however, for me I prefer larger ensembles for a symphony as I find that I connect with a bigger sound much easier. After this cut to the work, Mahler’s initial programme notes which outlined very ambiguously the story of the work was also cut as Mahler didn’t like the thought of it stinting people’s opinions of the music. A more ‘open to interpretation’ path was then followed from this point onwards. One more aspect that was cut after the third-fourth performance was the title of the work itself. Initially called Titan, the title was cut and it was then on published as ‘Symphony 1.’

This movement is an interesting one, not my personal favourite though but nonetheless it offers an interesting twist on the minuet and trio structure, as well as highlighting the powerful forces of performance directions. I find the movement fits well within the context of the whole symphony, however, out of context it doesn’t have as much sparkle as the other movements.

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