The Mahler 5 Scherzo - only slightly less crazy than being chased by playing card in Wonderland.
The Mahler 5 Scherzo – only slightly less crazy than being chased by playing card in Wonderland.

We’re now into Part 2 of the symphony (which just consists of Movement III). This is the shift from darkness to light, before the happiness of Part 3 (the last two movements).

In the last post we talked about scherzos. And, now we come to the third movement of the Mahler 5, which I can only describe as one of the weirdest of all scherzos. In the Mahler 5, the Scherzo is almost the key movement in the whole piece. It shifts the tone from darkness to light, and it is a neat balance between the brass (which dominate the first two movements) and the strings (which dominate the last two movements). But, most of all, it’s one of the most interesting pieces of writing for multiple instruments ever composed. Not because it’s huge and spectacular – though it has its moments – but mainly because it gives every group of instruments (not to mention a few people who get to become soloists) a thorough workout.

The weird part is in its length (nearly 20 minutes – at least twice as long as a regular scherzo) and what Mahler does with the themes. Normally, we would expect the scherzo and trio to be a simple A B A pattern, or occasionally A B A B A. But my theory is – and there are a variety of different ways that you can break this movement up, so this may be just the way I hear it – that this would have sounded like a normal scherzo for the audience up until the second B. Right then, at the moment, where you think things are going along fairly normally, and we expect a repeat of the first B theme, Mahler grabs us and drags us down Alice’s rabbit-hole into a strange and bizarre orchestral world. (Well, technically, it’s probably a Development section, but I prefer to think of it as a bit of a psychedelic orchestral trip.)

So, if you can, try to imagine that you’re listening to a regular scherzo for the first five minutes, and see if you can get that feeling of weirdness when Mahler detours off on his own path.

I know it’s complicated enough following a scherzo and a trio, but what’s potentially more confusing is that the scherzo has its own little sections as well which divide it up. There’s what I’ll call a1, which is a fairly happy dance. And a2 is more about the rhythm. It uses a special technique known as “pedal point”, which is essentially where every second note in a stretch of notes is the same note. This repeated note then provides a very strong rhythm. If all of that makes no sense, then you can check out this YouTube video where a guy explains this concept on an electric guitar. Or you can feel free to ignore all that and just notice that section a2 is more rhythmic, and a bit more intense than the waltz.

Let’s begin!

Scherzo (A)

a1. (0:00) Starts with a boisterous, joyful waltz in sections. There’s a leading part for the French horn, and in some performances, they even let the main French horn player stand out the front while they play this movement.
a2. (0:41) Down to the strings who play that rhythmic pedal point I was telling you about, with the woodwinds tooting like toy trains over the top. It makes a contrast for all of 20 seconds and then …
a1. (1:02) Back to a cute version of the waltz on flutes, which ushers in the Disney on Ice version of the waltz. (Hey, look, if Kenneth Branagh can go from Henry V and Hamlet to Thor and Cinderalla, there is no reason a composer like Mahler has to be ultra-serious all the time.)
a2. (1:26) Pedal point again – all sounding a bit ominous.
a1. (1:54) Cutesy version again. Until the French horns call everything to a halt …

Trio 1 (B)

(2:25) This is a nice little Austrian dance called a ländler with a long-short-short rhythm. It’s a very, very Austrian type of dance (proved by the fact that it made it into The Sound of Music, of course). So this is what a normal trio sounds like. A bit Austrian and nostalgic (which is another regular feature of Mahler symphonies), but normal. But that’s the last time anything sounds normal in this movement. Have a listen to this …

Scherzo (A)

(3:25) Back to the scherzo. You probably get the drill now – big waltz then into the pedal point. But somehow something goes wrong when they go into the pedal point moment. It keeps going and they never make it back to the waltz …

Development Section aka Down the Rabbit-Hole

(4:36) Everything goes a bit woozy and we head into orchestral no-man’s land in the middle. You’ll hear hints of the Scherzo and the Trio, but broken down into some seriously cool orchestra effects. My favourites include:

  • (5:09) The epic horn-sound off over trembling strings (an effect mainly for string instruments known as tremolo) followed by a series of beautiful brass solos.
  • (6:47) The quiet-as-a-mouse pizzicato (plucked) bit for strings and awkward woodwinds. This sets everything up for the next part, when the strings resume their normal mode of playing, which now sounds incredibly beautiful after all the plucking.
  • (8:47) The trumpet solo here over the strings. The sound is just a scattering of solo instruments from various sections of the orchestra. We have somehow moved from orchestra music to chamber music.
  • (10:04) The Trio returns, livens everything up, and the symphony turns into cinematic chase music. It’s about to climax when all of a sudden …

Scherzo (A)

(11:11) The Scherzo comes back again, as if it’s never been away. You’ll notice that the orchestration is subtly different with lots of little extra details. But all our old friends are there – crazy woodwinds, pedal point rhythm, and Walt Disney.
(12:27) Big joyous finale, you would think that we’re almost done …
(13:04) But no, elements of the chase music creep in.
(13:19) Strange Scottish-sounding woodwind moment? (Can anybody think of a better description than that? It might be just me, but I always think bagpipes on this bit.) Is he starting another development?

Coda aka Extra Development

(14:12) No, it’s okay, we’re back to the waltz. Kind of. By this stage, everyone’s given up trying to guess where Mahler is going with this thing.
(14:50) A bit of the horn sound-off again. (Which might be a good moment to say that the horns are awesome in this Chailly recording, aren’t they? Not many recordings get such a gorgeous singing sound out of those instruments.)
(16:15) The woodwinds, sounding somewhat awkward, lead into a cautious winding-down segment. Is it all going to die out quietly?
(16:55) But no! Here are the final moments which really don’t need much more description than “they’re awesome”.

So there you go. If you thought that was a marvelous feat of orchestral brilliance, or if you just thought it was long and rambling and all over the shop – you’re probably right on both counts. But hopefully you found it interesting.

6 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 5: Movement III

  1. Wow. Big finish!

    It’s certainly a rambling piece: feels like multiple movements for the price of one.

    I find that with a week between movements it’s a bit hard to see the unifying themes… are you going to do a wrap-up of each symphony when they’re finished?

  2. When I picked up the CD, the only copy available from the library was done by Symphonica of London -Wyn Morris (1993). As I listen, the timing reference points are different from your (very helpful) comments. The whole movement runs 20:09.

    I wonder how much liberty is usually taken by individual conductors to choose the overall tempo of a movement, and if conductors add/remove anything from the composer’s original work?

    As for the piece itself, I’m so grateful for your notes, Matt. Without them, I’d have a hard time enjoying this on its own merit.

    My kids (12 & 15) have been listening with me as a captive audience in the car…and compare Mahler to listening to music from the Barbie movies…a little bit of everything going on: fluff, intrigue, and drama.

    In order to track with your notes, I may splurge for the Spotify premium membership. Without it, the Spotify link only takes me to a Mahler shuffle play, I never know what’s going to play, but it’s usually not what I was hoping for. 😉

    Time for an upgrade!

    1. Thanks for that, Laura. And on the plus side, if you get a Spotify premium membership, you can then have the fun of trying at least a dozen other versions of the Mahler 5 just to see what you think of them!

  3. I did splurge…I decided that it was a minor “tuition” to pay in order to follow along with your class notes. Next, if you can just figure out a way to monetize this adjunct professorship that you’ve undertaken, you’ll be all set.

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