The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Scherzo Movement

Mahler’s wife, Alma, described the Trio of this movement as “the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand”. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a powerful opening movement that contrasts a marching militaristic sound with a sweeping romantic second theme. We felt as though we had won the battle, but not sure if we were going to win the war.

Now, at this point, you would either head into the slow movement (if you’re part of the raft of modern scholars who follow the slow movement/scherzo order) as the second movement. Or, if you follow a lot of older recordings and my personal preference, this scherzo movement follows next.

(0:00) The scherzo is in the military style we’re familiar with from the first movement.

(0:56) Note the strange little off-kilter interlude here. This theme will turn into the Trio in a minute. The Scherzo continues on in a creepy way. Finishes with the decaying Major/Minor Seal (1:54) from the first movement.

(2:06) The Trio is a strange innocent-sounding thing with a rhythm that is all over the shop. Alma Mahler once described this arrhythmic sound as children playing and “staggering through the sand”. Given that one of Mahler’s daughters had died, this would make it quite a tragic sound to create with music. (Though scholars, of course, debate whether this is really what he intended.) Either way, the innocence of the Trio is a stunning contrast with the ominous sound of the Scherzo.

(4:33) The Scherzo starts again with the incredible sound of a mocking brass section, followed by a Halloweenish skeleton dance, and then back to the full-blown marching sound. (Notice the creepy xylophone again back from the first movement.) Listen out also for the Major/Minor Seal.

(7:04) Hesitating woodwinds introduce the Trio again, this time sounding even more innocent.

(9:23) The Scherzo, now starting to sound less monstrous and almost a bit comical. (I think of a cranky duck when I hear this music, but I’m pretty sure that’s my own impression, not Mahler’s …)

(10:57) The movement fades out with the sound of the toddlers, but listen in the background and you can hear that decaying Major/Minor chord, repeated over and over again from about (11:51) onward. Again, we are reminded of that tragic inevitability of fate that’s never too far away.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: Movement I

I can never hear anything other than a relentless military march in the opening of the Mahler 6. (Painting by Alexander Pock (Nutzungsrechte: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum Wien), via Wikimedia Commons)

So to listen to the first movement, a couple of things you might want to review because I’ll be referring to them throughout this post:

The latter are particularly important, because right near the beginning, Mahler introduces a motif (a musical idea) that consists of a chord (a group of notes) that starts in major. Then one of the notes slides down and converts the group into a minor chord. This particular motif is known around the traps as the Major/Minor Seal of the 6th Symphony. It all happens in a couple of seconds, but the slide makes the difference between a feeling of determination (the major chord) and a bad feeling that everything is going to go wrong (the minor chord).

And that is essentially the drama of the symphony right there, in a nutshell. The whole thing plays around with the idea of heroism (which is why I think the military sound is so prominent – warriors and soldiers continue to be held up as a symbol of heroism, even to this day) and the idea of an Inescapable Doom. While in real life, much tragedy is unexpected and shocking, if you think of the great tragedies of the past – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance – what makes them particularly poignant is that we can see the bad ending coming from a mile away. It is, in fact, the build-up that makes the sad ending work so well. And that’s what is happening here.

But let’s get started …

Exposition: Theme 1
(0:00) Marching theme, very military in sound. This symphony uses the largest orchestra of any of the Mahler symphonies, and you can hear it (especially in the Solti recording). The strings provide the tramping of feet, the woodwinds feel like pipers out the front leading the charge and the brass simply crush everything in their path. Listen especially for the Major/Minor Seal that I mentioned earlier (1:52).

(1:56) The march goes away but not the rhythm for this next bit, which is an awesome moment for the woodwinds and pizzicato (plucked) strings. This serves as a sort of transition into:

Exposition: Theme 2
(2:28) This theme is much more sweeping and romantic. Some people have called it a love theme for Mahler’s wife, Alma. I’m not 100% sure about that, but it’s definitely a bit Gone With The Wind. So Love Theme will do to give it a name. It’s a marked contrast to the first theme. It builds up to its own little joyous climax, but notice that elements of the first theme (especially the military beat) are never too far away.

Exposition: Theme 1 Repeat
(4:20) Back to the march again. It wasn’t uncommon in older symphonies to repeat the Exposition exactly note for note the way it was played the first time. Most of the time, Mahler never repeats anything without varying it. But in this symphony, he calls for an exact repeat of the Exposition as we’ve heard it. It thus clearly establishes this symphony as being very “classical” in form. The only other symphony that calls for a straight repeat of anything is his first symphony. It also increases the sense of inevitability.

(6:02) The Major/Minor seal.

(6:09) Pizzicato strings and woodwinds again.

Exposition: Theme 2 Repeat
(6:43) The Love Theme again, with its rapturous strings and big climax.

(8:35) The Development begins with the dum, dum, da-dum-dum-dum beat that’s so familiar to us now. Everything is quiet, but the mood is still sinister.
(9:12) AWESOME loud version of the March Theme on the brass. (This is why I picked Solti and the astonishingly precise brass of the Chicago Symphony  Orchestra!) There are mocking xylophones in reply, followed by a plaintive song from the strings above it all (9:38). The strings are playing in the style of Theme 2, while the rest of the orchestra is marching along in the style of Theme 1, which is just one more reason this development is so great.
(10:13) This is very clever. We still sound like we’re in the march, but the low strings are playing snippets of the Love Theme. Everything comes to a nasty head, and then fades out into …
(10:44) … another one of Mahler’s great mystical quiet moments (with the ever-present sound of the cowbells, which he always liked to break out in his most mystical sections). These moments are so well done, that they’re just luxurious to listen to. If you notice, the woodwinds soon begin to play a very beautiful, delicate version of the March. So if the opening of the development was the Love Theme being transformed into the March, this section is the March being transformed into the sound world of Love. It all builds into a beautiful song without words on the flutes (13:02), which is a close relative of the transition theme.
(13:34) Then we’re suddenly thrust back into the world of the marching, but slightly more intense and spiky, and re-orchestrated yet again and this all builds up …

Recapitulation – Theme 1

(14:37) … to a huge brass moment as the proper recapitulation begins.

(16:02) The Major/Minor Seal, followed by a varied version of the woodwind interlude, now with a slightly twitchy gait to it.

Recapitulation – Theme 2
(16:32) The Love Theme sneaks in a little bit quietly, but then slowly builds. It’s not quite as majestic as the last time we heard it.

(17:52) The March theme builds up slowly and then takes off. It’s like a recap of every marching idea we’ve ever heard and is so long that it almost counts as another repeat of Theme 1.
(19:57) A triumphant brass version of the Love Theme breaks through and leads into a rather upbeat ending. It seems like the dark side has lost this time. But for how long?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: In Defence of the Wrong Order

Screenshot 2015-11-01 at 4.32.51 PMSo if there was a bit of a nerdy debate that goes on in Mahler circles about which version of the 10th Symphony to use (assuming you even perform it), this is nothing compared to the amount of writing and scholarship that has been done about this question: what are the order of the movements in the Mahler 6?

By way of background, most classical symphonies of the 19th century had a standard set of four movements. Movement I was a fast opening movement. Movement IV was a slow closing movement. Of the two inner movements, they would generally consist of a slow movement (to contrast with the faster movements) and a scherzo (which we discussed earlier in the blog).

The standard order of movements was usually:

  1. Fast Movement
  2. Slow Movement
  3. Scherzo
  4. Fast Movement

And less often, but also not uncommon:

  1. Fast Movement
  2. Scherzo
  3. Slow Movement
  4. Fast Movement

So, for instance, if you look at the nine Beethoven symphonies (the most famous of all 19th century symphonies), Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 all have the slow movement in second place. The 9th Symphony (the famous “Ode to Joy” Choral Symphony) is the first one to have the scherzo in second place and then the slow movement. (Which works amazingly well, BTW.)

Now, you’ve probably already noticed with the Mahler Symphonies that we’ve heard so far, Mahler often plays fast and loose with his audience expectations about his movements and actually rarely follows either pattern. The 5th had an extra funeral march movement at the beginning. The 7th had the two night music movements instead of one slow movement. The 9th and 10th symphonies had slow movements at either end and the faster stuff in the middle.

But the 6th is a bit different, because while it is intensely “modern” in some ways, it is also the most “classical” in many ways as well. More than any of his other symphonies, Mahler very closely followed the patterns of his earlier predecessors. It was as if, standing at the opening years of the 20th century, he wanted to give his own twist on that great epic musical icon of the 19th century, the symphony.

So the Mahler 6 has four movements, first and fourth are loud and fast(ish), and in the middle is a slow movement and a scherzo. The vexed question is, though: is it the slow movement in second place and then the scherzo? Or scherzo first then slow movement?

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Surely, it says all this in the sheet music? Why can’t they just play it in the order written there?” This is a long and highly convoluted issue, but as I understand it, Mahler himself wasn’t sure which order he wanted the movements to be be in. He originally wrote the symphony to have the scherzo first, then the slow movement and this was the way it was first published.

However, he revised his thinking later, and we can see in his autograph (the original manuscript he wrote) that he had crossed out the III on the slow movement and written II and vice versa with the scherzo. And when he first performed it, he did the slow movement first and got a correction note put out with the sheet music.

But this was not enough to end all the confusion. After Mahler died, a conductor called Mengelberg wanted to perform the piece in 1919, wasn’t sure which order to use and telegraphed Mahler’s wife, Alma, to ask her. Alma replied that it was scherzo first, then slow movement. And the final nail in the coffin came in 1963 when the “critical edition” of the score was published (meant to be the definitive version for performing) and it had the scherzo in second place. This was all based on the work of one scholar who insisted that Mahler had changed his mind later in life and wanted the scherzo back in second place.

But he didn’t produce much evidence for this, so decades later, most scholars have now decided that it should be slow movement first and then scherzo. I’ve heard the piece live twice in the last 10 years, and both times it has been slow movement first. But if you started listening to older recordings from several decades ago (like the Solti recording we’re using), then you will be used to the scherzo first, then the slow movement.

So, you’re possibly asking – which order am I going to use?

Well, I’ll be up front here – while I’m all in favour of musical scholarship to help us understand what a composer’s original intentions are, and I appreciate all the work that these people do in understanding these things – at the same time, I’m also a music listener. And when it comes to listening, I’m not interested in listening as a dry academic exercise in hearing what a particular piece of music sounded like years ago – I’m actually interested in its effect on me, today, right now, while I’m listening.

And, for me, I’ve never really liked the slow movement first idea, even though I know it’s technically the “correct” way to hear it. It’s possible that I’ve just heard it too many times the other way around, and the correct version sounds too strange to me. But, for me, it’s about the pace of the overall symphony.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the first and last movements are intense and warlike. The scherzo, also, while not as full-on as the outer two movements, is also reasonably intense. By contrast, the slow movement is beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s one of those great slow movements that makes time stand still.

Also, in terms of running time, the first movement is around 20 minutes, the scherzo is about 13 minutes, the slow movement is 15 minutes and the last movement is close to 30 minutes.

So, if you do the scherzo last, that and the last movement add up to a fairly brutal stretch of around 40 minutes of intense music. Maybe it’s meant to be this intense, but I love the “calm before the storm” aspect of having the slow movement just before the final movement.

(There is also another argument that musicologists like to make about what key the music is in, which also has some bearing on the order, but this has never been as compelling to me as the overall listening experience.)

The upshot of all this is that I’ll be working through the Solti recording in its order, which is scherzo first, despite the fact that I’m technically introducing you to an incorrect version of the piece. If this totally grates, by all means, you can wait till the notes are up on both movements and then listen to it in whatever order you like. I promise not to be offended …

How can I go so blatantly against Mahler’s intentions? I don’t know – it just seems to me that once a piece of art is out there, while there is certainly copyright law, etc. to be observed, this doesn’t mean that the original artist owns the one and only take on a subject. You might like The Beatles’ version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” but Joe Cocker does a pretty mean rendition as well – possibly better. Mahler might have wanted his 10th Symphony burned, but who would not want to have that piece in circulation today?

So see what you think. Maybe try both orders? See you soon for the first movement.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 6

So for our next stop on the tour, we’re returning to the “middle” group of symphonies (the 5, 6 and 7) and the last one that we haven’t yet listened to – the tragic and epic Symphony No 6.

You’ll be familiar with its style after having heard 5 and 7 – big, dense orchestrations, no choirs or singers or anything peripheral. It’s not quiet and introverted like the later ones, and it contains all sorts of music.

However, it is unusual amongst all the Mahler symphonies, because it contains (spoiler alert!) the only really solid unhappy ending. Mahler symphonies either end in huge explosions of sound (especially the ones we have coming up to listen to!) or find peace and acceptance and fade out, like Das Lied von der Erde and Symphonies 9 and 10.

But in some ways, the Mahler 6 is a different beast to the 5 and 7. Both of those symphonies had devastation and blackness, but it was also offset with beauty and uproarious celebration in the end. There’s none of that here. In fact, what I hear – and what some other commentators have noticed as well – is the sound of war and battle. The first and last movements have a persistent marching motif (i.e. a musical idea) that keeps returning over and over.

But, look, they say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Here is probably the best visual description that I could give you of the Mahler 6. Below is a clip from the Russian film of War and Peace, made in the late 60s in Russia. (Not to be confused with the American version with Audrey Hepburn made in the 50s.)

The scene is the battle of Schöngrabern and the Russian army is fighting against the French army, led by Napoleon. There are no subtitles in this clip, but that doesn’t matter too much. The Russians march from left to right. The French are either marching straight towards the camera or they go from right to left, so that’s how you tell them apart. But have a watch and then I’ll come back with some comments. (Note, due to restrictions, you’ll have to pop over to YouTube to watch this; it won’t play on my blog.)

BTW, the whole film – which runs for about seven hours – is completely worth watching. But what is striking about this particular clip is the way the sound and the visuals collide. We have the swirling mist at the beginning that suddenly clears to reveal thousands of French soldiers marching down the hill. In a similar way, there is a swirling misty feel at the beginning of the final movement to the Mahler 6, before a similar onslaught begins.

Likewise, there is the striking drumbeat to which the Russians march. It is relentless, driving the forces ever onwards, even though for many soldiers, it will mean certain death. There is the clash of music, the Russian music mixing with the rather chirpy tune of the French as they march. And, as the individual soldiers on the ground move, arcing over the top of them are the cannonballs, landing and causing such savage devastation among the forces.

I have always found that this sort of imagery comes to my head when I hear the Mahler 6.  Obviously, Mahler was dead long before this Russian film came out, so there is no indication that this was what he was thinking of, but it certainly provides a good analogy to the kinds of sound you will hear. (And, speculating wildly here, maybe Sergei Bondarchuk, the director of War and Peace, was influenced in his visual style by listening to the Mahler 6?)

However, one final inspiration which I can’t help but think also featured in this symphony was a song that Mahler composed in 1899. (The Symphony No. 6 itself was composed in 1903-04.) The song was based on another one of the old Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn) poems that Mahler drew on so much in his early symphonies. (You’ll remember that one of those poems appeared as the final movement of Symphony No. 4.)

This particular song is called “Revelge” (Reveille), and tells the tale of a regiment of soldiers marching to their death. They all die, but then the drummer-boy leads them in one last ghostly march. It too has a relentless marching element to it. This rendition is pretty bad video quality, but it has subtitles, and it’s sung by the always-awesome Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so it’s worth watching:

I think you’ll hear clearly elements of this song all through the movements of this symphony.

Speaking of movements, no introduction to the Mahler  6 would be complete without a bit of a spiel on which order the movements are in. (There’s a fierce debate that rages about this one.)  But this will take a bit of time to explain, so I’ll leave that to the next blog post.

Let me say to finish this one that the recording we’ll listen to is the always brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra, being conducted by the legendary Georg Solti. Solti’s box set of Mahler symphonies (everything except Das Lied and the Mahler 10) was the first box of Mahler symphonies I ever owned and listened to. Solti is not my favourite for a lot of them, but he opened my ears to the symphonies and if there’s one thing that Solti likes to do in a recording, it’s have an aggressive, sharp sound. It sometimes lacks subtlety, but for something like the Mahler 6, which has an awful lot of sharpness and aggression, it works really well. So that’s the one we’ll listen to over the next few weeks.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement V

Screenshot 2015-10-16 at 7.53.20 AM
“To live for you! To die for you!” and “Almschi!” – scribbled notes by Mahler on the final page of his Symphony No 10.

Apologies: Sorry for the gap between movements. I was on holidays. But here we go with the finale of the Symphony 10 …

Where We’ve Been: The 10th symphony is a symmetrical arc structure, so Movement I was a long slow movement, Movement II was a chaotic dance, Movement III was the quirky Purgatorio in the middle, Movement IV mirrored Movement II and so was also a chaotic Scherzo-type movement.

And, finally, Movement V mirrors Movement I. It’s another long, slow (but certainly not boring) movement. Again, it features an epic struggle, with calm resolution at the end, but this time with a much greater air of finality.

With regard to its structure, the easiest way to understand this one is to see it as a rather violent clash between two themes. After a rather extraordinary introduction, Theme I enters, which is absolutely beautiful, but it soon gets ruined by the dreaded “ha-HA-ha” motif (or musical idea) which has cropped up a few times in earlier movements. The “ha-HA-ha” motif takes over and becomes its own theme, which I’ve called Theme II. This then leads, via a few twists and turns, to another repeat of the horrific 9-tone-chord which we heard about in Movement I. But once the music gets through the crisis, finally we get peace.

(0:00) The sharp drumbeat that we heard at the end of Movement IV opens the fifth movement. (Some people believe that perhaps Mahler’s intention was just to have one drumbeat and that the fifth movement would then follow on seamlessly from the fourth, but most recordings – which split the movements into two tracks, of course – have two separate drumbeats.)  This is immediately followed by a string of low notes on the tuba rising darkly upwards.

(0:26) Within seconds, the “ha-HA-ha” motif has appeared, sounding ominous. It grows in strength and flocks in clusters, kind of like the creepy gathering of crows and seagulls from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Theme 1
(1:59) So it’s quite a relief when Theme 1 arrives with a gorgeous flute solo, with some nice harp moments underneath.
(3:12) All this is made even more beautiful with the arrival of the violins. This moment is so peaceful that it almost feels like this could be the finale. But Mahler is not going to let us enjoy peace that easily … It carries on building until it reaches a great climax at around (5:16). But at (5:25), shockingly, the drumbeat and the “ha-HA-ha” invade and the climax is ruined.

Theme II
(6:28) Now, a quicker second theme begins, slightly light and fluffy (which is surprising, considering that it’s build around the “ha-HA-ha”). If you have sharp ears, you might hear some bits that sound like the Purgatorio third movement and the big slow-down at the end is actually similar to the fourth movement. (Don’t worry if you don’t hear all these similarities. It took me quite a few listens to hear them all, and a lot of it is dependent on how easily you can remember themes and sounds from earlier movements. It’s enough to know that a) Mahler is tying everything together in this last movement and also that b) the more you listen to his symphonies, the more details you will hear.)

Theme I
(8:37) A blah version of the slow first theme, sounding really exhausted and tired on the brass, with the “ha-HA-has” flitting around like a swarm of mosquitoes.
(9:38) A slight moment of peace, and a beautiful trumpet solo.

The Crisis
(10:15) Theme II comes back again but soon collapses into the dreaded 9-tone-chord from the first movement, a truly diabolical sound, especially, with the “ha-HA-has”.

(11:30) A repeat of the unison viola theme from Movement I, this time on the French horns. Truly bleak part of the symphony. But the worst is over and the trial is behind us.

A Long Coda
(12:27) Theme I comes back, even more beautiful than ever. The rest of the movement is essentially one glorious coda, becoming more and more transcendent and strong. (18:22) In the Barshai version, the music returns one final time to the chamber music sound of just a few instruments, which is a really nice touch. (You don’t hear that in every version.)

In the sheet music that we have, near the end of the movement, we can see that Mahler scribbled “To Live For You! To Die For You!” (see picture above) and a little bit below that …

(20:o8) … at this moment, where the music does a solitary flare-up out of the quietness, he wrote his wife Alma’s nickname, “Almschi!” We know that their marriage was in serious trouble this by stage, and Alma was in love with Walter Gropius, the famous architect. So knowing this when you hear the music makes things even more poignant as the curtain closes on this, Mahler’s final symphony.

I find it a very simple yet moving ending, and I always come away feeling like I’ve had a cathartic moment at the end of the symphony. So I hope you enjoyed it as well. I think the biggest difficulty that the Symphony No 10 is up against (apart from all the issues to do with whether you should perform it and which version to use) is simply that Mahler’s 9th Symphony is also a symphony that begins and ends with two long slow movements and is also about turmoil, farewells and peaceful acceptance. And, if I had to pick, the No 9 does it better.

But, when you get a chance to hear it in isolation from the 9 (and not straight after – thus the reason I’ve been tackling this Guided Tour out of numerical order), it still has a lot to say. I am very glad that Alma decided not to destroy it.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement IV

A firefighter’s funeral inspired the ending of the fourth movement of the Mahler 10. (Photo by dbking, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been:  Movement I – A slow movement of melancholy that arrives at some peace, but only after a huge struggle. Movement II – a clash between nostalgia and chaos. Movement III – the strange repetitive world of the Purgatorio.

And that brings us to Movement IV, which is the companion piece to Movement II. So expect more dancing, more chaos. Apparently, another comment that Mahler wrote on the score is “The Devil is dancing with me”. That might go somewhere to explaining this movement and also remind us of the incredibly strange second movement of the Mahler 4, which was based around the idea of Death playing the fiddle.

This movement is a Scherzo, so it features two sections – a Scherzo and a Trio, which alternate with one another. I like to think that the Scherzo represents the chaos of life’s troubles and the Trio represents the trivial ways we ignore that hard side of life. And like all trivia, it takes your mind off things for only a short while before real life interrupts again. I may be stretching things, but if you listen, the Trio, lovely as it is, always seems to come back in smaller and smaller doses, sounding more trivial with each return, while meanwhile the Scherzo theme is becoming wilder and more chaotic. But have a listen and see what you think:

(0:00) Scherzo: Nasty waltz – angular string sound, obnoxious woodwinds and annoying brass. (Okay, I might be being a bit harsh here, but it’s meant to be unsettling.)

(1:13) In this next stretch, gentle moments interrupt – but only for a bit. Things quickly get back to even more irritating and discordant than before.

(2:20) Trio: Quite beautiful and Barshai has really nailed Mahler’s “chamber music” feel in this section …

(2:59) Scherzo: … to set it off against the full orchestral force of the scherzo part.(3:33) I quite like this bit here where the strings get caught in a worried little rut.

(3:59) Before the brass sweep in …

(4:10) … and then everything drops back to a Viennese café for a moment.

(4:19) Then ramped back up. It’s a totally ear-catching moment.

(4:42) The Trio part again, but it’s a different melody than last time. But it has the same light, carefree feel. Listen carefully to a brief blink-and-you-miss it three-note “ha-HA-ha” sound from the trumpet. (4:49) (This goes on to play a big role in the final movement.) Eventually this Trio gets agitated again. (There’s not a whole lot of easing of agitation in this movement.)

(5:34) There’s a little bit of a dreamy moment at the centre here where you can almost escape the chaos.

(6:01) Scherzo: Then back to the mad waltz. This is pretty much the pattern for the rest of the movement – the waltz will get more and more chaotic, have a mini-climax, which will die down to the very simple Trio dance sound. But this never lasts very long before getting swept back into the noisier scherzo sound.

(7:42) Like here: the Trio returns again but then at (8:06), the “ha-HA-ha” motif barges in quite loudly and shatters the peace.

(8:19) Things then turn truly weird, with a strange, limping moment on a solo violin and guitar (8:19), which is actually a transition back into a slightly more quiet version of the Scherzo. There are too many of these moments to describe, where Mahler has an astonishing lurch of tone and Barshai has used some really unusual combos of instruments to make them stand out. One can only wonder how Mahler would have orchestrated them himself if he’d gotten to it.

(9:24) Like this comic sliding trombone that Barshai puts in here, which briefly hints at the Trio theme for a moment. It quickly gets interrupted by a huge discord, with the “ha-HA-ha” right behind it. (9:36) Then everything collapses. I haven’t heard another recording that really makes this movement so weird, which is part of the debate about completing someone else’s symphony. Has Barshai overstepped the mark with the craziness or  is he onto something? I’ll let you decide. (Myself, I think that even if it’s not Mahler’s original vision, it’s amazing what he’s done with it.)

(10:30) The music dies out with a bizarre discussion between cymbals, timpani and woodwinds with a nasty drumbeat right at the end which brings everything to a grim ending.

Mahler’s wife, Alma, tells the story of this finale and its strange drumbeat. When they were living in New York, they heard a noise outside the window and looked out to see a funeral procession for a firefighter who had been killed while fighting a blaze. The public were gathered, speeches were made, but the only thing which could be heard from the Mahlers’ window was the muffled beat of the drum that accompanied the funeral procession. It moved Mahler to tears, this simple funeral ceremony, and so he then used the drumbeat at the end of this movement (and it also opens the fifth movement) with instructions that it should be played “completely muted”.

And if you’re a bit overwhelmed by all this chaos and are desperate for things to settle down and peace to return, then you’re not alone – this is exactly where the final movement will take us, as it makes one last struggle for peace and meaning.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement III

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Mahler’s handwriting on the score of the third movement of the Mahler 10. You can he has written Erbarmen!! (“Mercy!!”) at the top and a bit lower, O Gott! O Gott! Warum hast du mich verlassen? (“O God! O God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a slow, melancholy journey. Movement II – a dance with crazy rhythms.

And now we arrive at the rather strange little movement (less than 5 minutes!) sitting in the middle of the symphony. It will form the peak of the arc shape of the five moments and then the following two movements mirror the first two – so the fourth movement is a sort of scherzo and the fifth movement is another slow movement.

This movement was given the name “Purgatorio” by Mahler, so presumably it’s some sort of riff on the idea of Catholic purgatory, but exactly what that might be is difficult to tell. It features two main ideas, one is an endless sort of movement sound (I’ve called it a perpetual motion idea) and the other is a bit more chaotic.

The perpetual movement idea might be based on a song Mahler composed a lot earlier called “The Earthly Life” (this video is of pretty bad quality, but it has subtitles), which was a sort of companion to “The Heavenly Life” song that finished off the Mahler 4. It is a rather dark song that features a child perpetually asking his mother for food. The mother keeps telling him to wait till later. Finally, at the end of the song, the kid is dead. (Yeah, I know. All those times you’ve said to your kids, “You won’t starve …”)

There is a bit of similarity between the accompaniment of that song and the woodwind idea that opens this movement, so it’s possible.

But let’s have a listen:

(0:00) The movement begins with a constant perpetual motion idea going in the woodwinds with the strings providing the melody on top.

(0:36) Then a switch and the woodwinds are on top with a gentler tune.

(1:30) Starts to get a little bit darker here and more chaotic. In the score (see the picture above), Mahler wrote all sorts of things in the score like “Death!” and “Mercy! O God! O God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” We’re not entirely sure what this was about, but this was happening around the time he found out his wife, Alma, was keen on Walter Gropius, the architect. His health was in decline. So there are all manner of reasons why he may not have been in a great headspace …

(1:56) Melancholy, sighing pause, with interruptions from the perpetual motion woodwinds.

(2:21) There’s this interesting thing that happens where the perpetual motion turns into a three-note idea. A kind of nasty “ha-HA-ha”. This idea is only hinted at but I point it out because it features heavily in the fifth movement.

(2:56) Back to the beginning.

(4:01) Dies down with a final nasty smack from the low instruments.

And there you have it, in all its weirdness. It’s difficult to say whether it’s likeable or not, and it’s so short you never really feel it has a chance to make it’s presence felt, unlike some of his other movements. I’m still not sure whether I like it or not, myself. What did you think?