The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: The Scherzo Movement

Mahler’s wife, Alma, described the Trio of this movement as “the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand”. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a powerful opening movement that contrasts a marching militaristic sound with a sweeping romantic second theme. We felt as though we had won the battle, but not sure if we were going to win the war.

Now, at this point, you would either head into the slow movement (if you’re part of the raft of modern scholars who follow the slow movement/scherzo order) as the second movement. Or, if you follow a lot of older recordings and my personal preference, this scherzo movement follows next.

(0:00) The scherzo is in the military style we’re familiar with from the first movement.

(0:56) Note the strange little off-kilter interlude here. This theme will turn into the Trio in a minute. The Scherzo continues on in a creepy way. Finishes with the decaying Major/Minor Seal (1:54) from the first movement.

(2:06) The Trio is a strange innocent-sounding thing with a rhythm that is all over the shop. Alma Mahler once described this arrhythmic sound as children playing and “staggering through the sand”. Given that one of Mahler’s daughters had died, this would make it quite a tragic sound to create with music. (Though scholars, of course, debate whether this is really what he intended.) Either way, the innocence of the Trio is a stunning contrast with the ominous sound of the Scherzo.

(4:33) The Scherzo starts again with the incredible sound of a mocking brass section, followed by a Halloweenish skeleton dance, and then back to the full-blown marching sound. (Notice the creepy xylophone again back from the first movement.) Listen out also for the Major/Minor Seal.

(7:04) Hesitating woodwinds introduce the Trio again, this time sounding even more innocent.

(9:23) The Scherzo, now starting to sound less monstrous and almost a bit comical. (I think of a cranky duck when I hear this music, but I’m pretty sure that’s my own impression, not Mahler’s …)

(10:57) The movement fades out with the sound of the toddlers, but listen in the background and you can hear that decaying Major/Minor chord, repeated over and over again from about (11:51) onward. Again, we are reminded of that tragic inevitability of fate that’s never too far away.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: Movement I

I can never hear anything other than a relentless military march in the opening of the Mahler 6. (Painting by Alexander Pock (Nutzungsrechte: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum Wien), via Wikimedia Commons)

So to listen to the first movement, a couple of things you might want to review because I’ll be referring to them throughout this post:

The latter are particularly important, because right near the beginning, Mahler introduces a motif (a musical idea) that consists of a chord (a group of notes) that starts in major. Then one of the notes slides down and converts the group into a minor chord. This particular motif is known around the traps as the Major/Minor Seal of the 6th Symphony. It all happens in a couple of seconds, but the slide makes the difference between a feeling of determination (the major chord) and a bad feeling that everything is going to go wrong (the minor chord).

And that is essentially the drama of the symphony right there, in a nutshell. The whole thing plays around with the idea of heroism (which is why I think the military sound is so prominent – warriors and soldiers continue to be held up as a symbol of heroism, even to this day) and the idea of an Inescapable Doom. While in real life, much tragedy is unexpected and shocking, if you think of the great tragedies of the past – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance – what makes them particularly poignant is that we can see the bad ending coming from a mile away. It is, in fact, the build-up that makes the sad ending work so well. And that’s what is happening here.

But let’s get started …

Exposition: Theme 1
(0:00) Marching theme, very military in sound. This symphony uses the largest orchestra of any of the Mahler symphonies, and you can hear it (especially in the Solti recording). The strings provide the tramping of feet, the woodwinds feel like pipers out the front leading the charge and the brass simply crush everything in their path. Listen especially for the Major/Minor Seal that I mentioned earlier (1:52).

(1:56) The march goes away but not the rhythm for this next bit, which is an awesome moment for the woodwinds and pizzicato (plucked) strings. This serves as a sort of transition into:

Exposition: Theme 2
(2:28) This theme is much more sweeping and romantic. Some people have called it a love theme for Mahler’s wife, Alma. I’m not 100% sure about that, but it’s definitely a bit Gone With The Wind. So Love Theme will do to give it a name. It’s a marked contrast to the first theme. It builds up to its own little joyous climax, but notice that elements of the first theme (especially the military beat) are never too far away.

Exposition: Theme 1 Repeat
(4:20) Back to the march again. It wasn’t uncommon in older symphonies to repeat the Exposition exactly note for note the way it was played the first time. Most of the time, Mahler never repeats anything without varying it. But in this symphony, he calls for an exact repeat of the Exposition as we’ve heard it. It thus clearly establishes this symphony as being very “classical” in form. The only other symphony that calls for a straight repeat of anything is his first symphony. It also increases the sense of inevitability.

(6:02) The Major/Minor seal.

(6:09) Pizzicato strings and woodwinds again.

Exposition: Theme 2 Repeat
(6:43) The Love Theme again, with its rapturous strings and big climax.

(8:35) The Development begins with the dum, dum, da-dum-dum-dum beat that’s so familiar to us now. Everything is quiet, but the mood is still sinister.
(9:12) AWESOME loud version of the March Theme on the brass. (This is why I picked Solti and the astonishingly precise brass of the Chicago Symphony  Orchestra!) There are mocking xylophones in reply, followed by a plaintive song from the strings above it all (9:38). The strings are playing in the style of Theme 2, while the rest of the orchestra is marching along in the style of Theme 1, which is just one more reason this development is so great.
(10:13) This is very clever. We still sound like we’re in the march, but the low strings are playing snippets of the Love Theme. Everything comes to a nasty head, and then fades out into …
(10:44) … another one of Mahler’s great mystical quiet moments (with the ever-present sound of the cowbells, which he always liked to break out in his most mystical sections). These moments are so well done, that they’re just luxurious to listen to. If you notice, the woodwinds soon begin to play a very beautiful, delicate version of the March. So if the opening of the development was the Love Theme being transformed into the March, this section is the March being transformed into the sound world of Love. It all builds into a beautiful song without words on the flutes (13:02), which is a close relative of the transition theme.
(13:34) Then we’re suddenly thrust back into the world of the marching, but slightly more intense and spiky, and re-orchestrated yet again and this all builds up …

Recapitulation – Theme 1

(14:37) … to a huge brass moment as the proper recapitulation begins.

(16:02) The Major/Minor Seal, followed by a varied version of the woodwind interlude, now with a slightly twitchy gait to it.

Recapitulation – Theme 2
(16:32) The Love Theme sneaks in a little bit quietly, but then slowly builds. It’s not quite as majestic as the last time we heard it.

(17:52) The March theme builds up slowly and then takes off. It’s like a recap of every marching idea we’ve ever heard and is so long that it almost counts as another repeat of Theme 1.
(19:57) A triumphant brass version of the Love Theme breaks through and leads into a rather upbeat ending. It seems like the dark side has lost this time. But for how long?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: In Defence of the Wrong Order

Screenshot 2015-11-01 at 4.32.51 PMSo if there was a bit of a nerdy debate that goes on in Mahler circles about which version of the 10th Symphony to use (assuming you even perform it), this is nothing compared to the amount of writing and scholarship that has been done about this question: what are the order of the movements in the Mahler 6?

By way of background, most classical symphonies of the 19th century had a standard set of four movements. Movement I was a fast opening movement. Movement IV was a slow closing movement. Of the two inner movements, they would generally consist of a slow movement (to contrast with the faster movements) and a scherzo (which we discussed earlier in the blog).

The standard order of movements was usually:

  1. Fast Movement
  2. Slow Movement
  3. Scherzo
  4. Fast Movement

And less often, but also not uncommon:

  1. Fast Movement
  2. Scherzo
  3. Slow Movement
  4. Fast Movement

So, for instance, if you look at the nine Beethoven symphonies (the most famous of all 19th century symphonies), Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 all have the slow movement in second place. The 9th Symphony (the famous “Ode to Joy” Choral Symphony) is the first one to have the scherzo in second place and then the slow movement. (Which works amazingly well, BTW.)

Now, you’ve probably already noticed with the Mahler Symphonies that we’ve heard so far, Mahler often plays fast and loose with his audience expectations about his movements and actually rarely follows either pattern. The 5th had an extra funeral march movement at the beginning. The 7th had the two night music movements instead of one slow movement. The 9th and 10th symphonies had slow movements at either end and the faster stuff in the middle.

But the 6th is a bit different, because while it is intensely “modern” in some ways, it is also the most “classical” in many ways as well. More than any of his other symphonies, Mahler very closely followed the patterns of his earlier predecessors. It was as if, standing at the opening years of the 20th century, he wanted to give his own twist on that great epic musical icon of the 19th century, the symphony.

So the Mahler 6 has four movements, first and fourth are loud and fast(ish), and in the middle is a slow movement and a scherzo. The vexed question is, though: is it the slow movement in second place and then the scherzo? Or scherzo first then slow movement?

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Surely, it says all this in the sheet music? Why can’t they just play it in the order written there?” This is a long and highly convoluted issue, but as I understand it, Mahler himself wasn’t sure which order he wanted the movements to be be in. He originally wrote the symphony to have the scherzo first, then the slow movement and this was the way it was first published.

However, he revised his thinking later, and we can see in his autograph (the original manuscript he wrote) that he had crossed out the III on the slow movement and written II and vice versa with the scherzo. And when he first performed it, he did the slow movement first and got a correction note put out with the sheet music.

But this was not enough to end all the confusion. After Mahler died, a conductor called Mengelberg wanted to perform the piece in 1919, wasn’t sure which order to use and telegraphed Mahler’s wife, Alma, to ask her. Alma replied that it was scherzo first, then slow movement. And the final nail in the coffin came in 1963 when the “critical edition” of the score was published (meant to be the definitive version for performing) and it had the scherzo in second place. This was all based on the work of one scholar who insisted that Mahler had changed his mind later in life and wanted the scherzo back in second place.

But he didn’t produce much evidence for this, so decades later, most scholars have now decided that it should be slow movement first and then scherzo. I’ve heard the piece live twice in the last 10 years, and both times it has been slow movement first. But if you started listening to older recordings from several decades ago (like the Solti recording we’re using), then you will be used to the scherzo first, then the slow movement.

So, you’re possibly asking – which order am I going to use?

Well, I’ll be up front here – while I’m all in favour of musical scholarship to help us understand what a composer’s original intentions are, and I appreciate all the work that these people do in understanding these things – at the same time, I’m also a music listener. And when it comes to listening, I’m not interested in listening as a dry academic exercise in hearing what a particular piece of music sounded like years ago – I’m actually interested in its effect on me, today, right now, while I’m listening.

And, for me, I’ve never really liked the slow movement first idea, even though I know it’s technically the “correct” way to hear it. It’s possible that I’ve just heard it too many times the other way around, and the correct version sounds too strange to me. But, for me, it’s about the pace of the overall symphony.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the first and last movements are intense and warlike. The scherzo, also, while not as full-on as the outer two movements, is also reasonably intense. By contrast, the slow movement is beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s one of those great slow movements that makes time stand still.

Also, in terms of running time, the first movement is around 20 minutes, the scherzo is about 13 minutes, the slow movement is 15 minutes and the last movement is close to 30 minutes.

So, if you do the scherzo last, that and the last movement add up to a fairly brutal stretch of around 40 minutes of intense music. Maybe it’s meant to be this intense, but I love the “calm before the storm” aspect of having the slow movement just before the final movement.

(There is also another argument that musicologists like to make about what key the music is in, which also has some bearing on the order, but this has never been as compelling to me as the overall listening experience.)

The upshot of all this is that I’ll be working through the Solti recording in its order, which is scherzo first, despite the fact that I’m technically introducing you to an incorrect version of the piece. If this totally grates, by all means, you can wait till the notes are up on both movements and then listen to it in whatever order you like. I promise not to be offended …

How can I go so blatantly against Mahler’s intentions? I don’t know – it just seems to me that once a piece of art is out there, while there is certainly copyright law, etc. to be observed, this doesn’t mean that the original artist owns the one and only take on a subject. You might like The Beatles’ version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” but Joe Cocker does a pretty mean rendition as well – possibly better. Mahler might have wanted his 10th Symphony burned, but who would not want to have that piece in circulation today?

So see what you think. Maybe try both orders? See you soon for the first movement.