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.