A Witches’ Sabbath, painted by Cornelis Saftleven (via Wikimedia Commons)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Epic orchestral movement with tenorhorn, galloping and a trip to another world in the middle. Movement II – The first “Night Music” movement, with a swaggering procession around the city.

While this third movement doesn’t have a specific “night music” title like movements II and IV (in fact, its title is “Shadowdance”), it’s very “spooky” music (in a fun sort of way – not in a scary way), and so immediately draws visions of Witches’ Sabbaths and Halloween and other such things.

It is also,the Scherzo of the symphony, which you might remember from earlier in the tour, is the word used to describe a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that’s definitely not the slow movement, but nor is it as big-sounding as the first and last movements.

Scherzos frequently alternate between two main musical ideas – the outer sections, known as the “Scherzo” sections, and a contrasting theme known as the “Trio” (even though, for the most part, more than three instruments are playing). Sometimes Trios only appear once in the middle, but in this case, Mahler brings the Trio back twice, but each time the themes re-appear, they’re using radically different instruments and sound, so if it sounds like completely new music rather than a repeat of earlier themes, that’s part of the way Mahler composes things.

(Track 1 – 0:00) Dodgy-sounding bumps on the timpani, flighty woodwinds, single horn notes. A weird, weird opening to this one … But it easily conjures up images of ghosts and old-school Witches’ Sabbaths. (This Abbado recording is particularly fun in that area, because if you listen to the woodwinds, rather than coming out with the beautiful, smooth tones we would expect, they play with awkward squawks and howls). Continues in this vein for the next couple of minutes.

(Track 2 – 0:00) The Trio starts on the oboe, and at first it sounds like it’s going to be a nice contrast to the Scherzo, but gradually it gets strange as well. Finally it climaxes with two massive cymbal clashes (1:14), which to the audience of Mahler’s day would be instantly recognised as a rather crazy nod to Johann Strauss and his Viennese waltzes, before dying out.

(Track 3 – 0:00) Begins again, but varied. Lots of creepy pizzicato (plucked strings) in this bit (it really is a dance of shadows!), including a part where everything stops with a massive crack! (1:47).

(Track 3 – 2:04) Trio again, but this time with a big oom-pah-pah accompaniment from the brass (again, giving it a slightly trashy Viennese feel).

(Track 3 – 2:37) All this craziness gradually dies away, ending with the shifty sound of the original timpani.

So there you go – maybe the background music to your next Halloween party?

One thought on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 7: Movement III (Shadowdance)

  1. I think the first track of this is my favourite so far: it’s much more playful than the first part of S7; maybe I’m just ready for a Scherzo after all those songs.

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