Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 5, a tempo


Mahler in Manchester


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 brisk and 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 slower, and “in three” instead of “in 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? Or was he actually worried that conductors would, as 90% of them do, treat the opening section of the Scherzo as a waltz. (Hint- Mahler is never wrong about the likely failings of conductors)

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 many conductors are still taking it too fast.

Of course, the Scherzo does include a very 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….

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. Well, isn’t that proof positive that the quick opening of the Scherzo is right, and that Mahler’s concerns were unfounded?

Is there ever a time when we intentionally adopt a performance approach that is not the most pleasing and ingratiating? Should music, particularly the performance of music, ever intentionally irritate and displease?

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 Mahler’s friend and pupil 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 you’re persuaded by the poem or by the stylistic evidence of the type of dance we’re dealing with, I think the lesson is that you can’t always make musical decisions based on what sounds or feels “best” in a given moment, 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” (“coy”) 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.”

If Walter and and Specht were right, and this movement is based on An Schwager Kronos, and it seems like it can even be considered a setting of that poem, then that puts the movement closer in spirit to a movement I’ve not really heard it compared to. The most obviously related movement in the Mahler symphonies is the Scherzo of the 1st, which is even based largely on the same waltz rhythm (dotted crotchet, quaver, crotchet).  However, perhaps the more apt parallel is in the first movement of Das Lied von der Erde, a song in which the poet finds a similar catharsis in oblivion.

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.”

*  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. From a purely technical point of view, many players report that Walter had a very hard time controlling and maintaining broad tempi.

Finally- A practical note about the Landler tempo. If one goes even one notch too slow in this opening, the music simply collapses. Waltz tempo is safe but possibly wrong, Landler tempo is possibly right and  disastrous- the margin for error in finding the right landler tempo is tiny. Trotting and plodding are two different things.

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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.

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8 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 5, a tempo”

  1. Peter

    Some fabulous insights Ken…it shows that knowing something about the background to this music can change how you perform it. Yes, the scherzo should have a slightly laboured, world-weary quality, so that when the Dionysian eruptions occur later on, they are bursts of wild energy which shatter the music’s otherwise meandering chatter.

    The idea of a seductive waltz later in the movement ties in well with the Seventh Symphony where the central waltz-scherzo portrays the darker aspects of human sexuality and the way fear leads to hedonistic abandon. This is very much akin to the drunkard in Das Lied von der Erde whose sensuality has been corrupted by his fear of life and death.

    If the Adagietto of the fifth is some kind of love offering to Alma, where does it stand in relation to the preceding Scherzo’s world-weariness and hint of sexual seduction? In the Nachtmusiken of the Seventh Symphony there are parallels. The first Nachtmusik suggests an Eichendorff poem “An eine Tanzerin” where a spanish dancer seduces the poet with her gyrating limbs and black ringlets. The music alludes to the habanera from Carmen at this point. Here woman is presented as promising sensual delight but, like Carmen, she draws her man from his duty in the world, leading him to emotional destruction or, just as likely, venereal disease. It’s in the sublimated poetic world of the second Nachtmusik that Mahler finds some restoration of his idealism and faith in erotic love. This anticipates the 8th Symphony’s hymn to the Eternal Feminine, where Eros becomes the healer of mankind. The text that closes that work is also Goethe of course, and these middle symphonies (5-8) are very like a Faustian journey with the Eternal Feminine waiting at the end.

    We can begin to see that after the fourth symphony, Mahler turned to explore the inner world of intimate feeling and Eros. Not suprising with his serious illness around 1900 and his decision to marry Alma. Commentators tend to say there is no hint of sexual love in Mahler’s music. I have always disagreed with that. It is perhaps more discreet and indirect than in Wagner or Richard Strauss, but true eroticism should never really be that explicit anyway. The evidence points towards the idea that the songs and symphonies of this period are very much concerned with the meaning of sexual love, the relationships between men and women (and their children), and also the role of the feminine in human creativity.

    Back to the Goethe poem which Ken has mentioned – there is an ambivalence in it which is worth exploring. Time is moving inexorably towards death. Experiences such as love and other fruits of life are only temporary. Before we know it, we are approaching the sunset of life, and the knowledge of that finitude robs us of the pleasure of the moment, filling us with melancholy. But death is release from this pain and freedom from time; the exact same sentiments that end Das Lied von der Erde. But this movement doesn’t end in blissful surrender to death and eternity, but with Dionysian wildness and angry defiance.

    And Hans Rott seems to haunt the movement too. Its main themes are derived from Rott’s symphony in a more explicit way than any of Mahler’s other Rott plagiarisms. When Rott is present, we know that melancholy, wordly-weariness and a sense of inner frustration are standing in the way of Mahler’s path to transcedence. It creates an aura of meaninglessness which Mahler wants to overcome. This time it is achieved with a stamp of his foot, and a peremptory “No – I want to know love and live life to the full”.

    It is such a vast movement in the symphony that it dominates it. What follows – a fleeting moment of erotic bliss and a defiant worldly triumph – is inevitably coloured by its bitter-sweetness. It doesn’t rob us of the joys of the symphony’s final movements, but it does raise a question mark. Joy is won in defiance of suffering – a very Nietzschean sentiment. It has been suggested the movement alludes to Nietzsche’s philosophy of Eternal Recurrence which concern exactly this idea that one must say “yes” to life, and if one does, it justifies the whole idea of creation. Mahler asserts his “yes to life”, but the melancholy does not really go away.


  2. Mike B.

    What really bothers me is when conductors race through the wonderful coda to the Scherzo. In the coda there are three or four melodic ideas from the movement stacked on top of one another, and it is great to hear these clearly. Also, in ‘speedy’ renditions the final repeated sequences of two eighth notes and a quarter note come out sounding like two quarter notes (i.e., the second eighth notes are almost not heard).

    In some respects the Scherzo’s coda seems to me to have served as a model for the coda of Scherzo I in the 10th symphony.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Mike

    Thanks for the comment- I have certainly heard performances with the issues you mention, and those are always hard things to get right when I conduct the piece. In a way, though, you are talking about another type of conductorial failing (there are an infinite variety of ways for a conductor to fail). At the beginning of the movement, an excessively fast tempo is really a problem of concept- it’s not too hard to make it work technically, and, as I mentioned, in some ways it is easier to make it sound “good” too fast. The problem is that it is the wrong mood.

    At the end, you’re hearing a problem of execution- It is certainly right to try to go like a bat out of hell. From the last Tempo I at bar 764, we have several tempo changes- Piu mosso, Sehr wild (very wild) at 772, Drangend (pushing ahead) at 779, Noch rascher (again faster) at 799 and Sehr drangend bis zum Schluss (pushing ahead a lot to the very end). When I conduct this, I want to push the envelope as much as Mahler seems to be demanding, but at the same time, every note is important. If it tips over into faking, that’s no good- the counterpoint is so interesting and intricate that it needs both textural and rhythmic clarity right to the end. It’s no wonder so many of us fail here- go too fast, and you just get mush. Go too slowly, and it lacks the Dionysan abandon and nihilistic catharsis that Mahler wants.

    Very interesting point, Mike!

  4. Mike B.

    Dear Ken, thanks very much for your insights from a conductor’s perspective. Of course you are right about the tempo markings at the end of the movement–a challenge indeed to get a good balance! An example of the slightly more deliberate approach to the coda that I personally favor is found in the Vaclav Neumann/Czech Philharmonic recording.

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  6. Peter

    Ken , well done on BBC Radio 4 this morning.

    You spoke a lot of sense. It was not exactly a genuine news item – but good that such things reach the mainstream.

    Your dulcet American tones rocked the airwaves – may they do so many times more in the future.

    all best,

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