Explore the Score: Mahler 2, Movement III- Wit and weirdness

There is a strong relationship in Mahler’s 2nd between the first and last movement: in essence the finale resolves the questions posed in the first movement, both musically and spiritually. Likewise the 2nd and 3rd movements of the symphony form a pair. Both are dances, in three, and both are essentially intermezzi or diversions from the larger drama of the symphony. In fact, Mahler originally composed the symphony with the two movements in reverse order. As the last movement answers the negation of the first movement with hope and transformation, the 3rd movement presents something of a mirror image to the 2nd. Where the 2nd began and ended serenely, but traveled in between to progressively darker territories, the 3rd begins and ends in a more macabre sound-world, one that is interrupted by humor and mystery throughout.

This movement is actually based on a song that Mahler wrote only months earlier, “St Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish.” After the serene and quiet ending of the second movement, Mahler begins with a somewhat rude awakening in the timpani. These two notes form a perfect fourth, g-c, an interval which permeates the whole symphony. It is in fact the same two notes which begin the cello funeral march theme at the beginning of the symphony.

The first section ends rather abruptly as the timpani interrupt again rather rudely, again on the perfect fourth of g-c, and this leads us into a new section where the cellos and basses seem to be noodling away on a melody that actually just outlines a c major chord, the perfect fourth from g-c and the major third from c-e. This music doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere, after a few cycles Mahler, almost half-heartedly, moves to F major, still repeating the same theme.

Finally, as if he’s lost patience altogether, the brass interrupt loudly and abruptly, shifting the key all at once to D major. How do they do it? With a perfect fourth, of course, this time from a-d.Other episodes follow, including a very beautiful melody in the trumpet. Of all these scenes, surely the most dramatic is when the brass fanfare theme is interrupted by what must be the shocking harmony in the piece, b-flat minor over a c natural, a crisis that is only diffused when the timpani again interrupts with its opening perfect fourth. What can this music mean? As it turns out, we’ll learn the answer in the last movement.


In fact this movement is full of these questions. I’ve largely avoided talking about things like keys and intervals before this movement since I know they can be a stumbling block for people who are uncomfortable with musical terminology. Just remember, these are only tools for naming and describing musical ideas. At this point in the piece, some of these musical ideas have become some common and important that it’s helpful to have names for them. The perfect fourth, for instance, has been everywhere throughout the piece. By now, we’re starting to notice it- what does it mean? Why is he bringing it back over and over? We’ve seen a lot of certain keys, especially C minor, the home key of the symphony, and C major, its parallel major, but other keys we’d expect to see, like its relative major, E-flat, have hardly appeared. Why? You’d be right to feel a little disoriented and confused by the end of this movement.


In fact, disorientation was exactly what Mahler was after here. He explained the episodic and surreal nature of this movement to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner thus- “You must imagine that to one who has lost his identity and true happiness, the world looks like this- distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror. The Scherzo ends with the appalling shriek of this tortured soul.


You can continue on to the fourth movement, Urlicht, here.

c 2006 Kenneth Woods




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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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1 comment on “Explore the Score: Mahler 2, Movement III- Wit and weirdness”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » Movement II- Relief, Repose and Reflection

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