Where We’ve Been: Movement I – the devastating portrait of death. Movement II – a nostalgic look into the past with a gentle dance. And now for a bit of quirky humour.
The last three movements are to be played one after the other without a break, so apologies that splitting this over three blog posts somewhat breaks that momentum!
This third movement is the scherzo of the symphony. A scherzo (Italian for “joke”) is generally a faster movement in the middle of a symphony that lets the composer write something that is fast, but not necessarily as big and grand as the first and last movements. As you’ve heard in his other symphonies, if you’ve been following along, Mahler liked to use the third movement to express irony or satire and this one is a perfect example of that.
At the time when this symphony was composed, and in the years before it, Mahler was a great fan of a collection of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). Two of these poems make an appearance in one form or another in this Second Symphony. The first one to appear is a song called “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (“St Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fish”).
The original poem is a rather cynical little tale about St Anthony who gives up preaching to his congregation because they don’t listen to him. So he goes down to the river and preaches to the fish. The fish are highly interested in his sermon and gather around to listen, but as soon as it’s over, they go back to being their same old selves and don’t pay any attention to what they heard . . . Mahler set this poem to music shortly before this symphony was completed for voice and orchestra and then decided that he liked his tune so much, he’d use it again in this symphony.
(0:00) With a opening “ba-bum” from the timpanis – which shocks a live audience every time, coming after the quiet ending of Movement II – the opening theme (the Anthony song) begins. This has some very elaborate instrument choices, with all sorts of strange sounds coming from all over the place. (For instance, listen out for the rute – a bundle of sticks which they beat against the side of the drums to make a clicking sound.)
Most of the opening tune is dominated by the woodwinds, playing all sorts of slinky, slidy melodies. In the original song, this represents the movements of the scaly, slithery fish, but in this symphony, it serves as a larger metaphor . . . In this movement, Mahler is telling us that life is often chaotic and endless.
(4:09) However, as we’ve seen, even in the middle of chaos, there is beauty. After a few minutes, the song theme gets interrupted by a loud brass section, and soon we hear a wonderful interlude: (5:10) over a billowing harp accompaniment, a trumpet quartet sings out a gorgeous melody. To me, it really is one of the most beautiful moments in the symphony.
(6:39) Alas, however, it ends, and the music starts getting more discordant, as if it’s lost its bearings and doesn’t know where to go. The slinky song tune starts up again.
(8:54) Again, a few minutes later, a loud brass section interrupts and for a minute, we think we might be lucky enough to hear the trumpet quartet again. But no . . . it’s far worse.
(9:14) The orchestra lets out a scream. The chaos of life is too much, and we hear it. The scream almost collapses the orchestral sound in on itself and the music wanders into a strange ethereal sound world on the other side of it. However, this new sound that comes from the orchestra after the scream has a hint of the fifth movement, and it gives us a glimpse of eternity – of a life beyond this one on earth.
(10:51) But then the slinky St Anthony song returns again, and the scherzo closes as it began.
If you liked that movement and you’re open to trying things strange and new, the Italian composer Luciana Berio used it in the third movement of a work of his called the Sinfonia, which features an orchestra and singers who don’t actually sing (they often speak, shout or whisper instead) all thrown in a strange post-modern mix. Have a listen on YouTube if you’re interested. It’s a trippy experience!