Mahler’s marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all christendom gone mad  … Mahler is German music multiplied by N

  • Leonard Bernstein on Mahler

The Scherzo is a devil of a movement…

  • Mahler on the third movement of the Fifth Symphony

Mahler still has one foot in the 19th century, and in musical classicism.  The next part of the classical symphonic cycle of movements should be the dance movement.  In Haydn and Mozart, this was a Minuet and Trio.   Beethoven had little use for a minuet, and fired up this dance portion of the symphony into a more intense Scherzo.  Mahler’s Scherzo here in the Fifth Symphony is like a Scherzo on growth hormone, caffeine, and whatever it is that turns Bruce Banner into the big green Incredible Hulk.  What is usually the shortest movement of a symphony, is here not just the longest movement of the work, but one of the longest single movements in any of Mahler’s works.  When Gustav divided this symphony into three large parts, the Scherzo is by itself the middle part of the symphony.

I had a professor in college, Lettie Alston, who I introduced to readers of the blog last summer.  According to Lettie, that which distinguishes modern music of the twentieth century is , “the twentieth century in music ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.”  By that standard, this Scherzo is certainly modern music, in fact, the entire Fifth Symphony would qualify.  This dance movement takes the German Ländler and Waltz and expands and distorts them to an intense outpouring of music.  The form is sprawling, and has been approached in a number of different ways.  I tend to view this movement through the lens of Scherzo form, as that is what Gustav called it.

LandlerA Ländler is a folk dance in triple meter (3 / 4 time), that was popular in Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and elsewhere in that region of Europe.  It is thought to have contributed to the development of the Waltz, along with a few other folk dances.  The Viennese Waltz, also in triple meter,  was incredibly popular in the 19th century.  (It is interesting to note that Mahler was born in a region of Bohemia, and was then working at the height of his career in Vienna.)  I am horribly unqualified to teach anyone how either of these dances looked, but Mahler’s music isn’t made for the dance-floor.

The third movement is actually a double Scherzo, which simply means we have two Trio sections that visit us between the main sections.  More music also means it will be a longer movement.  If we label the main sections of music “A”, and the Trio sections “B”, we can map out this form as an A-B-A-B-A structure.  What distorts the form of this music from being a well-behaved, if raucous Scherzo, is the degree of musical development at work.  Mahler rarely, if ever, repeats sections of his music without altering them to a degree.  Here in this third movement, “alteration” does not begin to describe the paces Gustav puts his material through.  This level of development is usually reserved for some sort of sonata form, not the dance movement of the symphony.  Theodor Adorno actually referred to this movement as a “development-scherzo”, which is not a bad description.

Viennese horn sectionThe first main section, our first “A” section, encompasses the first 135 bars and 2:36 of the music in the video below.  Four horns sound in unison, announcing our opening Ländler, that hopping-stomping rustic folk dance.  Make special note of some of the imitation in some of the instruments, where one line follows another with the same melody at a distance of a bar or two.  This sort of treatment will become important soon.

The first Trio section, our first “B” section is the Waltz music, and it is in a different key.  This music is a bit more refined, just like the Waltz is a more refined and smoother descendant of the country  Ländler.  It starts at bar 136 in the score and about 2:37 in the attached performance.  So far Gustav hasn’t done too much to prevent us from following the conventional Scherzo form.  We have had a lovely Ländler, and a polite little Waltz in our Trio section.

TrumpetA trumpet marks the return of the main “A” section music, with a pronouncement that echoes the opening horn fanfare of the very first measure.  This is bar 174 in the score and 3:44 in the video, but anyone with ears can hear it clearly.  Solo trumpet, familiar melodic figure, standing like a large print sign saying “Here is a new section”.  About halfway through this section, some of that imitation we noted in the first “A” section now evolves into a full fledged fugato.  A fugato is a passage in fugal style planted right in the middle of another piece which is not a fugue.  The fugue is one of the strictest contrapuntal musical constructions a composer could use, and here Gustav is applying that technique to our quaint Ländler music.  This is another clear sign that Mahler is about to get a little complicated.

The fugato transitions into the second Trio section, which I consider to start at bar 241 (4:57).  Now remember, the Beethoven vision of a Scherzo was an intensification of the old Minuet.  If a Beethoven Scherzo is Dr. Jekyll, we are about to meet Mr. Hyde in the form of our second trio section.  This overgrown child goes on for over 200 measure, roughly the length of the first three sections combined!  Mahler puts a great deal of compositional work and ingenuity in the material of this second Trio.

flowerbedSpeaking of overgrown, I remember a time years ago, when I first started tending the flower beds around my house.  I had removed some old bushes, and economically planted a mix of wildflower seeds that should have grown and bloomed at various times.  This would have given the side of the house a mix of colors through the entire summer.  Things grew, and I faithfully fertilized the young plants over and over.  I didn’t know how big they would grow, or when they would bloom, but doggone it these plants got all the attention and blue liquid plant food they could take.  Three months later, I determined I had fertilized some weeds to grow five feet tall, and when they never bloomed, I remorsefully had to cut them down.

Fortunately, Mahler’s second Trio does blossom, into a mature development section at bar 429 in the score, about 10:16 in the performance below.  This goes on for 60 measures or so, and is pretty unorthodox for a normal Scherzo.  Development like this usually is reserved for a sonata form movement.  Some analysts will call this development its own section, but I think of it as attached to the second Trio.

HornsThe return of the main section, the “A” section, is heralded again by the horns.  You can’t miss it at bar 490 in the score, about 11:29 in the video.  By this point, Mahler had gotten himself into a bit of a creative pickle.  A simple restatement of the music from the “A” section would be wholly unsatisfactory, and out of balance with what this second Trio has wrought upon us.  We can hear this is the music from the main section, but it continues greatly modified.  After a time, we get a visit from the Waltz themes of the first Trio, a showing of the second Trio material, and eventually close the last fifty bars or so with a closing Coda section.  This sprawling Scherzo has finally come to an end.

The third movement takes us through a variety of emotions.  I see this as a stage of healing, after the grief and sorrow of the first movement, and rage of the second. Robert Greenberg helps place the Scherzo in our journey through the grieving process by saying, “it confirms that as long as there is rhythm, beat, heartbeat, life can and will go on.”  Buckle up and take a listen to the ride.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement III, Scherzo

Up next, the super-famous fourth movement Adagietto.


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