Where We Have Been: Movement I of the Mahler 9 was a massive trip through Mahler’s mixed emotions about death – peaceful farewells, heroic dreams of overcoming that die away to nothing, and ferocious inner turmoil. We arrived – but only just – at a moment of peace.
Which is then shattered by the next two movements, which can be somewhat grating – and, in fact, they’re deliberately constructed that way. One conductor I heard suggested that the middle two movements are where Mahler is testing the peace that he arrived at in the first movement to see if it can last. You might find that a helpful way to think about it.
Another way I like to explain it to myself is that he is looking over his life and realising how much of it is just meaningless and trivial grind. (And don’t we all have moments like that?) And so Movement II resembles the trivial and Movement III is most definitely the grind. But have a listen and see what you think.
The second movement, to listen to, is like a slightly crazy throw-back to the old minuets of the past (those early movements that later became scherzos), in that it features quite distinctive dance forms.
(0:00) Dance 1 – Who says that bassoons can’t be funny? It’s a fussy sort of dance that has the rest of the orchestra join in (0:18) to create a sort of big, galumphing country dance. (Or as Mahler says in his description: “Rather Clumsy and Very Coarse”.) It’s deliberately designed to sound unsophisticated and peasant. (Like the constant flicks on the French horns, as if they really only know how to play two notes.) It’s worth noting the little run-up that the bassoon begins with, because it recurs throughout the movement, almost indicating that the bassoon is going on a journey.
(2:33) Dance 2 – This is a much more vigorous thing that starts on the strings. It has a kind of strange, leaping quality to it. “DA. Da. Da-da.” (3:43) Especially fun is the raucous brass oom-pah that kicks in. (4:07) With a slightly cartoony effect, you can hear the little opening run-up from Dance 1, trying its best to keep up with the wildness of Dance 2. It reminds me of that bit in Fantasia where the little mushroom can’t keep up with the bigger mushrooms.
(5:10) Dance 3 – much mellower. But listen carefully, and you will note that it features the two-note Farewell motif from Movement 1, as a subtle nod to where we’ve been. (Lest you think Mahler has completely forgotten what this symphony is about.) (5:40) A positively cutesy moment in the middle with a ridiculous amount of trills.
(6:40) Dance 2. But it never quite gets back to the raucous brass part, which is a bit sad.
(8:01) Dance 3 again.
(9:44) Dance 1 again with even more woodwind silliness. This is also the chamber music bit because everything gets stripped down to just a few instruments.
(10:42) Things start to speed up and we sneakily segue into Dance 2. (11:50) Which gets more rude and brassy … because who doesn’t love cymbals?
(12:50) … until we somehow sneakily end up back in Dance 1 again. I can’t put my finger on how Mahler does it, but the dance just sounds a bit more worldly-wise. (14:18) It collapses in a strange little heap and then dies out in a strange nether-world somewhere in the region of a low bassoon and a French horn. (It’ll make sense when you hear it.)
(15:09) And then, like a determined little adventurer arriving home from a big day at town, but having learned a lot about life, the little Dance 1 ends gracefully and humorously.