Listening Guide – Movement 2: Nachtmusik. Allegro moderato


Like the finale, the second movement is a puzzle to many critics, focusing upon Mahler’s title for the movement nacht musique, literally night music, or more colloquially, a serenade, and his reference to Rembrandt’s painting Nightwatch, many of them relate the movement to the presumed theme of the night.
Constantine Floros notably describes the movement as a procession of a ghostly watch, moving to long-forgotten march rhythms and wistful songs long ago. Certainly, the movement’s introduction with its horn calls and answers marked as such in the score could be likened to signals of a night watchman.

Deacon Nuland suggests that the opening recalls the pastoral horn music of the third movement from Berlioz symphonie fantastique. And the haunting post-horn passages of the third movement of Mahler’s third symphony. What is easily grasped about this strange yet fascinating movement, its his recollections of the fantasy world of the thunder horn songs. Mahler fills this first nacht musique with sounds of nature, particularly bird songs and cowbells as well as kitschy popular tunes and military marches, paraphrases and quotations from Revelge and Tamboursg’sell, intermingle with Hoffmanesque visions that run the gamut from ghostly to Marionettelike.
Redlich denigrates this derivative material as both threadbare and disingenuous while Barford thinks the movement too long for its as he put it, slender and indeed tedious thematic material. But Mahler is in a playful mood, and the use of his own musical images as source material for parody is in keeping with what I believe to be his overall view of the symphony. I would suggest that the underlying theme of the movement is the contrast of divergent Wunderhorn images that are given a paradigmatic twist. Typical Mahlerian in themes and motives are treated with biting wit and devilish humor, in a manner not unlike Mahler’s parody of the hero of the six symphonies first movement in the scherzo. For example, the major de minor chordal motive of fate, which sounds so prophetic of doom in the finale of the sixth, here sounds uncharacteristically witty and even trite, while the fierce march from Revelge is transformed into virtually a march of the wooden soldiers.
Bird sounds that appear after the opening call and answer, pile up so profusely that they create a welter of senseless noise, coquettish little waltz tune in quarter time rather than the triple meter is quickly transformed into a rollicking march, dark shadows threatened to black in the mood of a lilting refrain, only to give way in an instant to frivolous gaiety. Thematic material is either distorted grotesquely or made to sound nonsensical. Even the several march tunes seem to parody their counterparts in the first movement.
Another similarity to the relationship between march rhythms in the opening Allegro and scherzo movements of the sixth numerous witticisms attract attention, such as expose wrong notes and the combination of silly ditties and toy soldier marches. Even descending chromaticism fails to engender the feeling of a downward pull into the abyss with which it is often associated. But instead sounds like a fast ride down a schoolyard slide, goblins seem to flit in and out sometimes sounding benign, other times malevolent. One could characterize the movement as a parody of things that go bump in the night but those things are Mahlerisms that indicate self-parody.
Yet Mahler was never more in command of his material than here, nor his orchestration more imaginative. Structurally, the movement is a perfectly symmetrical arch, containing two different trios, the return of the introduction divides the movement in Twain.

Mahler’s use or abuse of tonal principles is also unusual. Referring to the arching first theme that appears to go up in one key and down in another Adorno points out Mahler’s love of tonal ambivalence, the opening call and answer a dialogue between the first and third horns, the latter echoing the former as an Alpine quality as if these musical phrases bounce off distant mountain peaks. The opening horn call is in the major, while its answer is in the minor, a kind of pawn on the chordal fate motif. Each short phrase contains elements that will reappear as part of the movement’s basic thematic material.

The first call begins with a rising fourth Mahler’s favorite interval and continues to ascend on the notes of a C major chord, reminiscent of the walking theme from Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Later, this same phrase will expand into the first theme of the movement. The answer opens with a rising dotted rhythmic figure and closes with a falling one. After three repeated notes intervene, both call and answer and with a falling data rhythm that recalls the thrusting upbeat that begins the second theme of the first movement.
Another pair of horn calls contains figures that will be used in the theme of the first trio. Each of these pseudo-military signals begins on an upbeat, the smaller notes should be played slightly slower than the Allegro Moderato tempo set for the opening segment of introduction.

After the preliminary horn calls, and an oboe and clarinet engage in a playful dialogue of their own, on a combination of bird sounds, and other wunderhornesque peccadilloes, such as triplet, figuration, trilled quarter notes, and yodel figures, a rollicking assemblage of cross rhythms and alternating trills begin to build into a march-like precession, woodwinds join in the revelry with a variant of the devil’s dance motive, as this gay parade of nondescript rhythmic figures continues to build in C major, the first call quietly sneaks in, first on the English horn and bassoon, and then more obtrusively on the tuba, hinting at what will become the first theme proper, contrary to its surroundings, and the opening statement of the horn call that imitates it is played in the minor key with an E flat sounding like a roll note, rather than indicating a change of tonality or a darkening of mood. Gray’s noted trills, triplets, broken cord, pizzicato, and dactylic rhythms pile up as additional woodwinds enter until the variegated counter-rhythms become a riot as the polyphony of contrasting figuration. When the tuba is ghoulish call, again in the minor key against the major key of the rest of the orchestra sounds for the last time an enormous crescendo ensues, with the addition of a long trill on the Ruto reads. This conflation of convoluted rhythms becomes a cacophonous din that threatens to drive us to distraction. It may be likened to the profusion of divergent march tunes in the music of Charles Ives.
On its height the brass pronounced the major to minor fate motive against a long cascading chromatic slide and woodwinds that finishes up in bassoons and bass strings. Here the fate motive sounds rather like a caricature of itself, more grotesque than tragic.

This long chromatic descent leads directly into the A section and overlaps with the upbeat of the first theme in yet another example of Mahler’s telescoping technique, the tempo of this section tempo 1 is set at a slower and more comfortable pace than the introduction. In a light-hearted mood, the principal theme begins as a straddle-like dialogue between horns and cellos.

In its contour and rhythmic configuration, it recalls the dynamic corn theme in Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel.

This legendary prankster would have been quite at home in such musical parody. Beginning with the opening call from the introduction, the first theme rounds upon itself in a perfect arch, going up the scale in C minor and coming down in C major. A confusion of major and minor tonalities occurs frequently during the movement. The first theme presents itself as an easy-going March tune, with its rhythmic basis tapped out by the wood of the bow on second violins, reminiscent of its use in Revelge. Mahler then parodies the first theme by following it with an after theme, played softly by violins that is a retrograde inversion of the first theme and contains a rhythmic figure quoted from Revelge. Even the call and answer from the introduction appear in the first horn, while violas play the first theme.

Here’s the figure as it appears in Revelge.

Although this first part of the A section combines major and minor modes of C, playing humorous games with them, Mahler soon rectifies the apparent tonal confusion by changing the key Revelge light rhythm sounds ever so softly and delicately in the least refined members of the orchestra contrabassoon and string bass against the tapping rhythm heard earlier behind the march theme and second violins now playing by the second horn by whispering this march rhythm, Mahler converts its usual martial character, as in one of Mahler’s earliest military songs Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz into impish playfulness, possibly giving them to the songs anti-war subtext in a humorous vein.
An even more related source of this march is its diminutive cousin from the first movement introduced as the second subject of its introduction. Timpani pound out the three-node dotted rhythm at the end of the refrain, giving us a jolt. Could this sudden and forceful interruption on a dotted rhythm be intended to mimic the opening dotted rhythm of the first movement second theme? A little march to them then shifts to the base with the tapping rhythm played by horns and pizzicato violins. It serves as a bridge passage to the return of the principal theme.

Now the principal marching tune in upper strings is set in canonic imitation with low strings and then horns, and is accompanied by the tribute figuration of the introduction. Mahler enhances the march theme with arpeggiated chords and chordal grace notes, and the added emphasis on upbeats. Low strings play the answering call of the introduction has a counter theme to the second part of the main theme, played with verve by violins. A solo string bass quietly states the little marching tune that had played earlier and solo viola follows with the falling dog rhythm that opens the second theme of the first movement. It is repeated in the bass to the tapping March rhythm, faintly played on the timpani.

Cellos in their high register begin the first trio, the B section with a dreamy lyrical theme in a flat Major. At first, it sounds like a waltz, although set in common time, because of the accompanying um pah pah rhythms and the horns. This new pseudo waltz theme recalls Mahler’s early music and its simplicity and charm. It expands on a rhapsodic rising phrase from the third theme of the first movement, which thereby relates it to the Alma theme of the sixth Symphony. As this theme continues in violins, woodwinds enter on a marching figure reminiscent of a pan march from the third Symphony. These countervailing walls and march subjects are so interrelated, that they virtually become one melody as the music reaches a full cadence. Thus, does Mahler conflate his two favorite popular music’s walls and march? After settling down comfortably to a more measured pace. The little March tune combines with the cellos wars theme, the former transforming the latter into a full-fledged March, in which dotted rhythms are bound in gay profusion. As this march Militaire proceeds, it begins to sound much like the Pan march from the third symphonies first movement, with a hint of the main theme from the finale of the sixth symphony, when it flutes and oboes play the march two.

The march parades through an extended development, during which orchestral forces grow to full strength, embellished with trills on repeated falling fourths and the timpani. The oboes create a turn figure out of the tapping rhythm heard earlier, clarinets and bassoons at a march-like with an Excel taken from the second subject of the introduction of the first movement.

Soon the march fades out as the orchestra pairs down two cellos and a single bassoon. A brief reprise of the intro Options horn calls and answers follows in C minor, now accompanied by distant cowbells as the call and answer proceed they take on characteristics of the previous march two, two of which horns add a hint of the second part of the first theme against the cellos counter theme based upon the original answer. bass strings bring back the Revelge march figure that they had initially introduced as the second part of the first theme. In Rondo-like fashion, the first theme quietly returns in horns to begin an abbreviated reprise of the A section, with flitting triplet rhythms from the introduction in low strings, decorated by Morton’s, and occasional flickers of the tapping rhythm in upper strings. The themes march-like second part returns in first violins, concluding with the first theme, the orchestra dwindles down to the bass strings on a combination of the call and answer motif. When the key changes to F minor, the second trio begins with multi-octave C’s flickering in harp, and second violins against the sustained octave C in first violins, decorated by swirling grace noted trills. These twinkling and fluttering sounds produce a spooky atmosphere, recalling passages in the first movement of the Third Symphony, and the spirits of the fourth flutes and oboes softly and tone a new version of the main theme in melting thirds, and then sixth.

This thematic variation has a good ashore gypsy light quality, it turns into a light marching tune when horns enter with the tapping rhythm. A few measures later clarinets add triplet figuration from the introduction, anticipating the return of the profusion of countervailing marching rhythms with which it ended, when trills and trill triplets begin to take over, leaving the trio tuned behind. Other elements of the introduction reappear now in C minor, and build up in the same manner as they had earlier as an approach to the first theme, this time trombones add the rising notes of the first theme, to the increasing profusion of countervailing rhythms, when this rhythmic confluence becomes extremely agitated, it bursts apart on a powerful C major chord for full orchestra with rising harp arpeggios. But trumpet and tuba spoil this joyous choral outburst by playing the rising coal motive from the first theme in the minor key, as if they have not noticed that the rest of the orchestra is holding a major chord. Of course, before they do so, muted trumpet and trombone, as well as solo violin had already played this phrase in the minor, as had been done during the orchestral build-up earlier. But then played fortissimo at the height of a crescendo, making us wince at its dissonance, just that much more.

If there was any doubt about Mahler’s humorous intentions here, they would have had to have been dispelled by this passage. Rest of the orchestra gives into the minor mode by turning it C chord from major to minor, a few beats too late to avert the disaster that mingled what might have been a marvelous climax, thereby making a mockery out of a chordal motif of fate. The long descending chromatic scale that concluded the introduction now flickers downward in the strings with some obvious embarrassment. Mahler will recreate a similar situation at the close of the first subject of the finale, where a wayward chord undercuts a glorious welter of military signals before it reaches a climax. We will begin our next excerpt from the opening of the second trio.

Interrupted before it concludes the second trio continues woodwinds and cellos in their high registers play with its theme in beater Meyer style. against the tapping rhythm in horns and tattoo-like horn signals and clarinets. Mahler directs that the double reads, play the marching tune, grell, shrilly to enhance its spectral character. The first clarinet arrogantly interjects a descending volley of triplet figuration from the introduction, sending the theme away, and leaving behind only the tapping rhythm and the variant of the theme, with a turn figure in bass, clarinets, and bassoons. Two plucks on the heart against the sustain trillion violins bring back the marching tune of the first subject, second segment in low strings, scraps of the introductions, tribute figuration, and short flickers of harp Tremeloes give the music an impish character.

Suddenly, the trumpet clears the air with a strong military signal on a rising dotted rhythmic figure, which is an inversion of the second theme from the first movement, played assertively on a G major triad. And oboe answers meekly with the same dotted rhythmic figure, but in B flat, as if trying to imitate the call and answer sequence of the introduction, but only succeeding in sounding like a meager echo. The trumpet then expands on its coal with the three repeated notes of the answer, not at all as shy as the oboe, a clarinet, arrogantly imitates the earlier trumpet call, which is taken up by a flute, to usher in the reprise of the A section.

It is all great fun. One can imagine the smile on Mahler’s face as he wrote this wickedly witty transition passage. And so the first theme rears back on its upbeat and enters in the entire orchestra. Its exhilaration sweeping aside the devilish pretensions of the preceding section, trumpets set a rising variant of the Marshall rhythm, the clip daughter rhythmic figuration, against the ascending part of the theme, set against the main themes descending phrase, without much ado, a little marches fashion from the introductions call and answer in horns and strings, also emphasizing the Marshall dotted rhythm accel, and like the first theme, beginning on a rising fourth. Once again, the music recalls the Pan march of the Third Symphony with its light and care free gate. violins enthusiastically add a variation of the first theme that emphasizes the last beat of each measure, and shifts from minor to major. The simple marching tune that formed the second part of the first theme also returns stated as quietly as before in low strings, accompanied by the answer motive in violins. At about the same time, the falling phrase from the first part of the main theme appears in the horns, occasionally decorated by the tapping rhythm. We pick up the music from the Pan march like string theme that follows the reprise of the A section.

This tapping rhythm leaves a different impression with each instrument that plays it, trumpets make it sound like a military signal, harps like glistening filigree, violins like skeletal clinking. Soon the triplet figuration from the introduction combines with all of these thematic and rhythmic elements to recall the little procession from the first A section. As before, this puckish parade fades and falls into the base to bring back the music of the first trio section in a flat major with its confusion of March and waltz rhythms. This time the tapping rhythm remains for a time and woodwinds play a counter theme based upon the A sections principle theme. As orchestral forces increase, the trio theme expands in strings, with its countersubject and woodwinds, leading to a full regular cadence. tapped out by the timpani, mimicking the march beat. woodwinds enter softly, with the same little marching tune played earlier that resembles both the Pan march of the third Symphony and the main theme of the sixth finale. Such a curious combination, yet it is the high spirited frolic of Pan to which the doomed march of the sixth succumbs, soon triangle, and glockenspiel joined the procession has counter-rhythms become increasingly complex, with the addition of timpani trills and the turn variant of the tap and rhythm. Once again, the light-hearted march music slowly dies away, left alone a muted horn sounds the answer, which ushers in another March, this one from the second subsection of the first theme group. Now in the relative major E flat of its original C minor.
Clip dotted rhythms in the bass are juxtaposed against Alegato dotted rhythms in woodwinds and violins. Yet again, Mahler wittily confuses march and dance, making one sound like a variation of the other. As before a dotted rhythm makeup beat is emphasized. The section concludes with a fanciful interplay between English horn and bassoons, in which the march tread of the first subject second part is set against the tapping rhythm. Our next excerpt begins from the march theme of the B section that leads to the return of the A sections marks.

The coda that follows is nothing more than an abbreviated version of the introduction, beginning not with the call of what the answer in the first horn, bass clarinet, and flute play the second call in stretto. Then the triplet figuration begins with trills and the tapping rhythm in oboes. And it all builds up in much the same way as at the beginning of the movement, and anxiously moves toward the A section’s first theme. This time, however, the first call never reappears. trumpets are left without it. When they intone the dollar is major to mine or fate motive against a long stream of descending pizzicato triplets that creates a hollow harmony against the low C held by cellos and basses. When the cellos take over the descending triplets from the violins in pizzicato they descend to low C with a thud to soft cymbal strokes with accompanying tam tam clear the air, one is reminded of the way the second Symphony scherzo movement ends. But Mahler adds one last touch, and emphatically plucked G natural on the harp made to sound more reverberant by doubling it with a high flagelatto G on cellos. With this resonating ping, sounding like a little bell, the fantastic dream world of nacht musique 1 vanishes.

By Lew Smoley

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