The purpleness of its translation into English hardly does justice to the program note that Mahler wrote for a Dresden performance of his Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) in 1901, here about the first movement specifically:
We are standing beside the coffin of a man beloved. For the last time his life, his battles, his sufferings and his purpose pass before the mind's eye. And now, at this deeply stirring moment, when we are released from the paltry distractions of everyday life, our hearts are gripped by a voice of awe-inspiring solemnity, which we seldom or never hear above the deafening traffic of mundane affairs.
What next? it says. What is life -- and what is death?
Have we any continuing existence?
Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?
If we are to go on living, we must answer this question.
Let us get the boring details out of the way: Totenfeier, “Funeral Rites” (or Todtenfeier, in its original, intentionally archaicizing orthography, thus betraying its clear sympathies with project of early 19th century Romanticism), is a tone poem written in 1888 that was later re-orchestrated substantially and subject to a few other musical revisions (subtly changed key relationship, deletions of a few bars here and there) to become the first movement of the Second Symphony.
All of this seems a bit ancillary to how we hear the work, though. While it is certainly worth actively recalling that Mahler’s mind was changing all the time, what is striking about the chimeric nature of Totenfeier’s existence is how much aesthetic pressure is placed on it. The above quotation makes this remarkably clear. It is a work, quite simply, about the meaning of life (or rather, that thematizes its meaningfulness); which is to say, Mahler imagined that music could ask such questions, and this is easy for a 21st century audience -- so used to a world of reified performance traditions -- to forget. The composer wants every gesture is to be read and heard this way, with this amount of import and weight. Grave seriousness is composed into the very fabric of the piece on local and global levels. It is written to sound exaggerated, expansive, perhaps even self-indulgent, but deeply, searchingly sincere; what is difficult for performers in the 21st century is to find a way to convey this that does not come across as melodramatic or insincere. After all, we’ve all heard a lot of music like this -- in concert halls, movies, on the radio, etc.; Mahler’s audience had not.
Mahler harnesses a modified, aggrandized, almost bloated sonata form is service of his expressive aims. And in an attempt to be inappropriately ironic, I will summarize it succinctly. The opening thematic group involves first the basses and cellos’ relentless march-like but slow drive forward, while the oboes’ main melody is just a bit more song-like. A too-beautiful-to-be-real second theme appears contextlessly, hardly prepared -- it cannot be believed, and quickly gives way to a return of the opening character. The same illusory second theme begins the development, the march rhythm of the opening re-inserting itself underneath at first unnoticed. Multiple attempts to achieve a durchbrech (breaking-through) lead instead to a cataclysmic recapitulation, re-orchestrated for maximum sardonicism with horns chillingly playing in hollow octaves what was once an oboe melody. The second theme is foreshortened in response, now sounding at first like a transparent lie, then like the hyper-expressive utterance of an over-sensitive soul. A long coda achieves a major mode that is clearly more of a consolation than a claim towards hopefulness. A final violent gesture collapses the movement to a single C, as if the inevitable product of the movement’s opening, equally unadorned, G.
Intertextually, the slow movement from Beethoven’s Eroica is invoked in several ways: both works are funeral marches in C minor. Both feature themes that involve prominent use of both the bass instruments and the oboes. The themes themselves noticeably invoke the interval of an ascending fourth (G to C, and also its inverse; this interval also begins Mahler’s second theme). Even the violent opening gesture of the Totenfeier seems to bear affective resemblance to the Eroica’s first two chords (and the clearly audible pitch -- G -- is common to both). On a more fundamental level though, the Eroica and Totenfeier situate similar places for the artist in the world. Mahler’s note asks an uncomfortably direct question: “Is it all an empty dream, or has this life of ours, and our death, a meaning?” while Beethoven answers it.