Tempo in the 5th Symphony’s Scherzo- What Gustav Mahler Tells Me

“The Scherzo is a damnable movement. It will have a long history of suffering! Conductors will take it too fast for fifty years, and audiences—Oh heavens—what sort of faces will they pull at this chaos…..”

(Gustav Mahler, speaking of his 5th Symphony before the 1904 premiere. )

This quote of Mahler’s often appears in program notes- usually citied as a manifestation of his insecurity and megalomania, and also as a measure of the Herculean difficulty of the piece. But what of the specific musical concern he cites- that conductors will take the Scherzo “too fast for fifty years?”

Interestingly, for all that one hardly ever reads a review of a performance of the 5th that doesn’t include a timing for the Adagietto (“the maestro brought the Adagietto in at a worthy 8’ 20’’…” or “the maestro wallowed his way to a lugubrious 10’ 5’’…” are typical of the writing on that movement), I’ve hardly ever seen a conductor taken to task for taking the Scherzo too fast. I think this is mostly because we have a very vague idea of what Mahler meant by “too fast” when he wrote about this movement.

In fact, I’d say 90% of the performances of the Scherzo take the opening tempo in a comfortable “tempo di valse,” and that it does sound great at that tempo. A small minority, including Bernstein and Barshai, take it a bit slower, and in three instead of one. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single performance that went any faster than the 90% of conductors who treat the movement as a waltz.

So, was Mahler needlessly worried? Was he envisioning some sort of crazed, keystone-cops whirling dervish prestissimo that not even 100 years of other conductors were stupid enough to try?

Well- although many commentators refer to the Scherzo as a waltz, Mahler certainly doesn’t indicate Tempo di Valse or anything of the sort. Kraftig (“strongly” or “vigorously”). Nicht zu schnell (“not too fast”), and then just five bars in the movement- Nicht eilen (“unhurried”). The next tempo marking at bar 60? Nicht eilen, again! How about the next one? Bar 108- Nicht eilen, again!!! It’s not until 120 bars into the piece that Mahler tells us to get a move on “Wider flessender” or “again more flowing.”

In fact, it seems clear to me (and Donald Mitchell and Henry Louis de la Grange both seem to agree) that this opening section is not a waltz, but a Landler. The Landler, being a country dance, is slower than the waltz, and is felt in “three,” not “one.” If it is a Landler, and 90 % of my colleagues are conducting it as a waltz, then I think Mahler’s 50 year prediction was wildly optimistic- it’s 105 years since the premiere, and conductors are still taking it too fast.

Of course, the Scherzo does include a wildly seductive and sophisticated waltz- first heard as a slow waltz at fig. 6. This music eventually forms the basis of the wildly Dionysian climax of the entire movement. It’s a deconstruction of fin de siecle Vienna even more decadent than Ravel’s in La Valse. But that is all to come when the movement begins….

Surprisingly, one reason I think 90% of conductors take the opening in a waltz tempo is that it feels and sounds more elegant and natural than the slower version. In three, the music can sound frustratingly controlled, even awkward. You could easily make a case that the waltz tempo sounds and feels more pleasing and comfortable to the vast majority of musicians and listeners.

So is there ever a time when we intentionally adopt a performance approach that is not the most pleasing and ingratiating? Donald Mitchell * and and Constantin Floros may have also uncovered a key piece of evidence in understanding Mahler’s intentions with regard to tempo in the Scherzo. It turns out that both Richard Specht, who published the first study of Mahler in 1905, and Bruno Walter ** called attention to the influence of Goethe’s poem, “An Schwager Kronos” (“To Brother Time, Coachman”) on this movement. Walter went so far as to state that the entire Scherzo grew out of Goethe’s poem.

Take the opening stanza of the poem-

“Hurry on, Time, at a rattling trot!

The road runs downhill,

Your dawdling makes things swim before my eyes”

The writer describes not the “hurrying on” of time, but its “rattling trot.” It’s clear that things are very “nicht eilen,” to the annoyance of the narrator. If the opening of the Scherzo refers to the opening of the poem (something we can never know with certainty), it’s not supposed to sound breezy, natural, elegant and flowing. It’s supposed to test our patience—“your dawdling makes things swim before my eyes.”

Anyway, whether your persuaded by the poem or by the stylistic evidence of the type of dance we’re dealing with, I think the lesson is you can’t always go by what sounds or feels “best” because music isn’t always supposed to please and make us comfortable. Especially in the context of this symphony- the unease and impatience depicted in the opening of the poem seem a more logical fit with the torments and destruction of Part I, and a simple, carefree waltz.

What else does the poem tell us about this movement? Well, I can’t help but be reminded of the Alphorn calls at figure 10 when I read this stanza-

“High, wide and glorious the prospect of life rings us round.

The eternal spirit soars from peak to peak,

Full of intimations of eternal life.”

And then there is that sexy slow waltz- if our narrator has been trying to drive Brother Time on his way, this seems a welcome diversion…

“A shadowy doorway beckons you aside

Across the threshold of the girl’s house,

And her eyes promise refreshment….Take comfort! For me too, lass, that sparkling draught

That fresh and healthy look”

The sensuality of Goethe’s imagery matches so well with the decadence of the waltz theme, and the flirty, coquettish “schüchtern” oboe solo.

An then, there’s the answer to why the whole movement has, at it’s heart, a horn solo, when the poet implores Brother Time, as they descend, “blind and reeling through the dark gates of Hell”-

“Blow your horn, brother, clatter on at a noisy trot.

Let Orcus know we are coming,

so that mine host will be there at the door to welcome us.”

* Mitchell’s excellent essay on Mahler 5 is not exactly an easy read, but it is well worth the effort. However, there is one baffling and humongous error. On page 296 of the Mahler Companion in which the essay appears he says of the coda of the 2nd movement– “The only constant rhythmic feature is the unvaried triplet figuration of the divided first violins, a conflation of fourths, for which Mahler indicates artificial harmonics….” There are no fourths here- the 1sts have only 2 pitches, a natural and c-natural. The diamond shaped notes a fourth above the written pitch indicate to the player where they should lightly place their fourth fingers to achieve the artificial harmonic, which sounds 2 octaves above the written pitch. I don’t want to pick a fight with one of my favorite writers on one of my favorite composers, but I know some of my friends have been reading the Mitchell in preparation for this concert, and his mistake, a basic one but easy enough for a non-performer to make, completely confuses the question of what the harmony is in this passage. It is a diadic harmony- just these two notes, a and c. The sparseness of this harmony is key to the spooky mood of the coda, but there is a larger reason for keeping the harmony diadic.  Both the violin triplets and all the wind and harp interjections are limited to these two pitches, while the melodic material attempts to resolve the conflict between f and e which has gone on throughout the movement. It’s only with the tuba’s last note that e is established as the final point of stability in forming the tonic triad.

**  Interestingly, Bruno Walter’s recording of the Scherzo is one of the fastest and strangest on record. His basic tempo is on the fast side of a waltz tempo, but far worse, he stays in his Hauptempo for the slow waltz at fig. 6 and the parallel places. When writers call attention to his 7’ Adagietto, they seem to forget that his Scherzo was 2 minutes faster than any of Mahler’s performances of it. Walter’s performances of Mahler are often wonderful and are important to know, but where there is a divergence between Mahler’s text and Walter’s performance, I think it’s easy to know what must be regarded as the authority.

Finally- A note about the Landler tempo. If one goes even one notch too slow in this opening, the music simple collapses. Waltz tempo is safe but possibly wrong- the margin for error in finding the right landler tempo is tiny.

An Schwager Kronos
“To Brother Time the Coachman”
–by Goethe
translation by Norma Deane and Celia Larner
“Hurry on, Time, at a rattling trot!
The road runs downhill,
Your dawdling makes things swim before my eyes.
On at a brisk pace, over stick and stone,
Stumbling headlong into life!
Now once more toiling uphill, out of breath—
Up then, no slacking, upward striving and hoping …….
High, wide and glorious the prospect of life rings us round.
The eternal spirit soars from peak to peak,
Full of intimations of eternal life.
A shadowy doorway beckons you aside
Across the threshold of the girl’s house,
And her eyes promise refreshment.
Take comfort! For me too, lass, that sparkling draught
That fresh and healthy look.
Down then, faster down!
See, the sun sinks. Before it sets,
before the marsh-mist envelopes me in my old age, with toothless gnashing jaws and tottering limbs
Snatch me, drunk with the sun’s last ray,
a sea of fire boiling up before my eyes,
blind and reeling through the dark gates of Hell.
Blow your horn, brother, clatter on at a noisy trot.
Let Orcus know we are coming,
so that mine host will be there at the door to welcome us.”

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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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2 comments on “Tempo in the 5th Symphony’s Scherzo- What Gustav Mahler Tells Me”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Style and Range part II- the value of all that research

  2. Pingback: Review: Mahler, Alan Gilbert, NYPO, 4/27/11 « thousandfold echo

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