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?