The next movement of the Mahler 5 is in sonata form [link to last blog post], which I described a little bit in the last blog post. But that’s really just the technical framework. What’s more interesting to notice is that this movement, in terms of emotional content, is like a mirror image of the first one.
The first movement was mostly calm and elegant with some stormy passages. This one, meanwhile, is mostly off-the-wall psycho with some calm patches. And then a big Star Wars ending. (You’ll see what I mean.)
Disastrous Elephants and Elegant Tweets
(0:00) Exposition – The first theme is totally out of control. I find it a cross between the soundtrack from an old disaster movie and a tower of elephants, swaying back and forth, about to fall over. But regardless of whether you hear the elephants, you can probably hear how it is a cousin of the stormy music from the first movement. Surprise, surprise, the music collapses at the end of the theme.
(1:21) The second theme is introduced by a very cool tweeting on the flutes and oboes, and starts on the low strings (cellos and double basses). It’s very elegant and also reminds us of the funeral march from the first movement. So you see how it feels like the first movement but in reverse? The Elegant Tweets theme contains some awesome sound effects here, like when the tweets pass to the violins, who pluck it out (2:32), the massive Chinese gong (the tam-tam) which you can just hear in the background (2:47, for example). Again, you’ll notice that thing that I mentioned about Mahler’s music being remarkably clear so that you can hear all the details along the way.
Development – Into and Out of Darkness
(3:38) Development – This begins with the Disastrous Elephants theme of the opening which makes you think for a brief moment that you have gone back to the beginning. But, no, even the idea of a repeat falls apart (4:10) – I know I keep using words like “collapse” and “fall apart”, but there’s almost no other way to describe it. The tune disappears, and all the instruments die out as if they’ve just given up on playing whatever they were playing.
(4:24) Then, out of the darkness (well, the aural darkness anyway), a very quiet new idea begins on the cellos. I’m never quite sure if it’s sad or hopeful or some other feeling. To me, it just sounds lost and, in the Chailly recording, so bare. But this has actually been a long lead-up to …
(5:40) … the various tweetings of our second theme again, the Elegant theme. But like the first theme, it doesn’t get very far. Within a few seconds, something ominous appears on the horizon, as if Dorothy’s hurricane is blowing through. It continues to build and we brace ourselves for another a massive moment of chaos …
But it’s a trick … instead …
A Familar March and a New One
(7:03) … what nobody saw coming was the return to the funeral march from Movement I. It’s a brilliant special effect. It hints at where we have been and makes the symphony feel less like a disconnected series of tunes. (And I’ll be honest, I love that funeral march and am quite happy to hear the tune one last time.)
(7:52) Then a new sort of strident march begins on the strings. If you listen carefully, it feels as if it’s working towards a big brass finale (and it was, at about 8:25), but then it collapses again just at the last minute … Are you feeling the frustration yet? This, people, is Mahler’s view of the world – just when you think life is about to get good, something else comes along and it all falls apart. The reality is (spoiler alert) that the symphony is going to end with a massive brass happy ending and somewhat like a good movie director, this is Mahler’s way of foreshadowing the end. But it’s a way off yet.
For now, the orchestra sweeps us off into a chaotic linking moment that eventually takes us back to …
Recapitulation – Back to the Beginning
(9:06) Recapitulation – The crazy Disastrous Elephants again. (By now, if Mahler has been playing his cards right, you should start to feel exhausted.) Notice that when you get to the repeat of the Elegant music (10:23), it now feels more chaotic, as if elements of the storm have crept across from the first theme into the second theme.
(11:15) Ends with a particularly stressful moment where the strings are trying to climb upwards, but there’s a harsh trombone melody bearing down on them. But then … just when you think you’re going to be stuck in this world of struggle forever (it is becoming more and more like a quicksand) …
In A Galaxy Far, Far Away
(12:08) BOOM! … The Star Wars moment! Who saw that coming? Out of the blue, Mahler brings in a majestic brass moment (which will come back in its full glory in the final movement). This kind of thing is known as a “Mahler breakthrough”, where the music doesn’t transform or gradually change into something majestic – instead the new changes bursts in. It’s like a hero breaking through a wall.
(13:23) Coda – The storm rapidly reappears, interrupting the Star Wars bit. It’s the most chaotic appearance of the Elephants theme yet but it falls apart in the end, as if the rain has cleared up.
(14:12) The second theme, the Elegant theme, does reappear for a brief moment (mainly the tweeting flutes part), but in a very small form, almost as if it’s a small chamber music ensemble playing, not a full-blown orchestra. And it all dies out with a whimper, rather than a big bang.
All in all, a very strange and unsettling movement. As far as I’m aware, back in its day, audiences had never heard anything quite so musically violent and I’m not sure that it was immensely popular for a long while. But what did you think of it?