Listening Guide – Movement 3: Purgatorio. Allegretto moderato


The so called Purgatorio movement is the shortest of any of Mahler’s, purely symphonic movements lasting little more than four minutes, wedged between two large and complex scherzo’s, this brief relatively uncomplicated movement seems nearly buried by them, its position as the central movement makes it kin to the middle movement of the Seventh Symphony, with which it has some elements in common, such as the prominence of scherzondo-like music, a phantasmagorical atmosphere, and a churning rhythmic underpinning that recalls Das irdische Leben, Mahler captures the same feeling of anxiety at the approach of death, that this Wunderhorn song so pointedly expresses, the creators of performing versions or realizations of the 10th disagree about whether Mahler withdrew the title Purgatorio from this movement before he died. Whatever the case may be the ephemeral eerie quality that pervades the movement, which fits in association with Andante’s masterpiece.
A dark cloud hovers over the principal theme, which anxiously winds its way around the strings as if weaving a web in which to ensnare a potential victim. Piercing outbursts that break the steady rhythmic flow have a chilling effect upon the atmosphere, as if foreshadowing catastrophe. At the end, everything goes up in a puff of smoke, giving the impression that the entire movement might have been nothing but a conjurers fantasy. Mahler’s inner demon lurks behind every turn of phrase like a ghostly specter, patiently awaiting its opportunity to wreck havoc upon the human spirit, as it will in the diabolical movement that follows. In this sense, the Purgatorio serves as a preview to the last two movements.

Henry Louis de La Grange conjectures that Mahler began work on the last three movements of the 10th after discovering his wife’s affair with Walter Gropius, in several places in the sketches for this movement, Mahler scrolls personal exclamations of profound grief and torment. One comes across such pain expressions as “erbarme“, have mercy, which also may have been intended as a reference to Parsifal and becomes a symbol for suffering. Also, we see Tod! Verk! probably an abbreviation of Verklärung meaning transfiguration, or as Colin Matthews suggests, Tod Verk (ündigung, a reference to the Annunciation of death seen in Wagner’s the Valkyries act two at one point the music itself alludes to the fate motive from Wagner’s Ring cycle.
Numerous thematic and motivic elements included here will reappear in the last two movements. The interval of the inverted morden figure from scherzo one is stretched from a second to a third, and then a fourth, Mahler’s favorite interval, producing a three-note motto that sounds like a shrieking Witch’s cackle and play it on woodwinds in their high registers. A cellular figure with trilled upbeat proceeded by two-sixteenths rising stepwise is contained in both the movement’s principal themes. A variant of the motive of the devil’s dance that had been heard in the first two movements appears here. The contrast of themes in major and minor keys connotes the harmonic version of the motive of fate and a descending dotted rhythmic figure that sounds like the cry of an inconsolable suffer, is also included.

The Purgatorio is a deceptively simple tripartite structure that recalls the Blumina movement, which is more or excised from the First Symphony, but it is much more advanced in this ground plan. Its thematic content and skillful integration and interrelation of musical material, impressionistic modal harmonies, and the soft churning rhythms of the accompaniment combined to create a mysterious atmosphere. The sharp contrast of the opening key B flat minor, with the F sharp major ending of scherzo one, has an even more disconcerting effect than had the F sharp minor beginning of that movement. Following the serene F sharp major ending of the first movement. The purgatorial opens quietly with a brief introduction on the churning moto perpetuo rhythm using the notes of a B flat minor chord minus the third, over this ostinato rhythm bassoons add a perky repeating double note couplet of staccato eighths, a clarinet, and muted violins embellish the quarter notes of the underlying rhythm oboes thrust out a wicked three-note figure consisting of a rising and falling fourth, echoed forcefully by bassoons. From the outset, a feeling of apprehension tanks the otherwise calm atmosphere and steady musical flow, relentless repetitions of the churning string figuration connote both the unremitting motion of time and its ceaseless revolutions, as well as eternal return.

Violins begin the principal theme with a four-note arching figure, and upbeat of two short notes followed by a two-note figure on a falling second, with the first note embellished with a trill. This will call motive A, like so many of Mahler’s demonic motives, this musical cell contains a forceful upbeat, followed by a suddenly soften downbeat. The main theme is constructed of fragmentary materials strung together, rising scalar runs played across the bar on a crescendo and the important anapestic three note figure from the introduction on a rising third motive B, the form in which the latter will appear throughout most of the movement, the motive B will return in the last two movements, always sounding like a wicked sneer from Mahler’s merciless inner demons.
The first theme closes by reversing the progression of its various elements, the rising scalar figures are inverted. The anapestic motive be falls instead of rises, and the opening demonic motive A that begins the theme now closes it.

Solo oboe follows softly, with an expressive second theme in B flat major. In contrast with the first theme, the second theme is initiating arch as a congenial rather than an acrimonious character. This pleasant rather carefree theme playfully tinkers with elements of the first theme, particularly motives A and B, thus weakening thematic contrast. After its initial statement, these two motives are repeated by first violins independently motive A played strongly and motive B played softly like an echo.

A flute varies the second theme by partially inverting it. Both motives A and B are excluded, even though they do appear after the flute finishes to prepare for a variation of the second theme, now in the tonic. Bassoons and low strings transform the character of this theme by giving it a dark sinister quality, forcing it to begin with a lugubrious downward turn figure. During this dismal variation of an otherwise amiable tune, the violins arrogantly a certain motive A while low strings covertly insert motive B, playing it on a rising second, which makes it sound like the inverted Morden motive from scherzo one. As this variation of the second theme gains momentum and become stronger, a grace noted eighth is inserted as an upbeat at the end of the rising and then falling figure that is part of this theme, transforming its character into that of the first theme. In fact, by the time motives A and B return at the end of this variation, the demonic first theme seems to have completely overtaken the milder second theme. Mahler has once again established a duality between a gentle aspect of the human spirit and its devilish destructive counterpart, embroiled in a skirmish that appears to be going badly for the former.

The middle section begins as the brass urgently propelled the music forward with a fierce outcry of the motive of a whoa, a falling minor second, with the cord on which the falling second of this motive resolves the key changes to D minor trumpets follow with a trilled variant of the devil’s dance motive, which includes motive B punctuated by the timpani on Mahler’s favorite drumbeat of falling fourths. Over this pounding rhythm comes a Wunderhornesque variation of the devils dance in trilled dotted rhythms that fall stepwise. This motivic variant will be transformed into a cry of pain during the middle section and will return in its original devilishly playful character as part of the finale scherzando subject.
Woodwinds follow with a bit of 16th note figuration that extrapolates upon the proceeding variant of the devil’s dance. A trumpet expands upon the new theme, with a phrase-based upon the second theme of the opening section. All of these elements are then strung together and developed first and violins and then flutes during the course of this development, the motive der Tag ist schön from the fourth song of Kindertotenlieder is inserted into the 16th note figuration for a single measure, and here it is.

This motive played an important role in the Ninth Symphony. As with the close of the first theme, motives A and B are added to the end of this segment. Let’s listen from the beginning of the middle section.

Motives A and B lead directly into a new theme played strongly the whole thing lead by violins. It begins with the same falling sequence of dotted rhythms that appeared in the preceding section, but here played in an expanded version with a turn figure added. At first, this new theme sounds sorrowful, primarily because of its downward pull and the somewhat holding tempo. But as it proceeds, the theme ascends with a mighty upward thrust as if pleading for relief from sorrow. Suddenly the new theme is cut short by motive A that tries to bring back the scherzando music of the first section. Once again, the new theme sinks to the depths chilling the atmosphere like an annunciation of death. The same thematic phrase that occurs at this potentials moment will return during the final two movements, where it will interrupt the melodic flow as a portent of doom. As it descends, a variant of motive B pierces the dark musical fabric like a rapier thrust, generating a cry of pain on a diminished chord in winds, foreshadowing the ending of the movement. But even this cold blast does not freeze the music for more than a moment. Bass strings add a turn figure from the new theme, as the powerful wind core diminishes. The turn then telescopes into a brief return of the first theme from the opening section in oboes. As they conclude, muted trumpet seem to sneer at them with motive B here made to sound more satanic than ever.

Oboes drive the pace forward on the devil’s dance to which clarinets and anapestic rhythms from the opening of the middle section, broken into snippets by muted trumpets, violins, pitilessly cry out the motive of falling down and rhythms heard earlier, here played in octaves, and weighed down by its own mournful character. Mahler scrolls at the top of this page of the sketches the word “erbarme” and at the bottom, Jesus tragic cry of despair:
O Gott! O Gott! Warum hast du mich verlassen? (Oh, God, oh God, why have you forsaken Me?)
After a short-lived attempt by fragments of thematic material to divert the music away from these increasingly intense tragic outbursts, the erbarme motive re enters in the full orchestra with overwhelming force. At this point Mahler wrote yet another Christ-like expression on the sketch page, Dein Wille geschehe!, (Thy will be done).
The depth of emotion evoked by this brief passage indicates how profoundly affected Mahler must have been by the discovery of Alma’s infidelity, a crushing blow from which he would never recover.

For yet the third time, the coupled motives A and B, cut off the tragic erbarme phrase can begin to bridge passage to the reprise of the movements opening section, using elements from that section played in succession by woodwinds. After the intensity of the proceeding, outbursts dissipate, calmed by this relatively brief transition, the first section returns in its original tempo, and in the tonic key. Violins restate the first theme, but when the flute takes it up, motive B appears as the centerpiece, it’s mocking character given a sharper edge by biting staccato’s plate at the upper limit of the flute’s range.

An oboe reprises the second theme in its original B flat major, but the flute variation that follows contains slight alternations the most significant of which is the extension of the falling variant of motive B. Another oboe enters with a fragment of the first theme that contains both motives A and B, and is played an octave higher. This time the first theme is not cut off by a variation of the second, but continues without interruption. As the music softens to pianissimo, a clarinet and bassoon spin off thematic fragments of the first theme, motive B is altered so that it rises by a fourth flicked by a grace note. Throughout the reprise of the first section, the winding ostinato continues keynoting the regularity and monopoly of everyday life. Suddenly a muted trombone defiantly blasts out the demonic motive of B, leading as it did earlier into a low diminished chord of an impressionistic hue, igniting this flash of chordal dissonance, motive B falls by an augmented fifth, as if plunging into the abyss. This spine-chilling chord is embellished with a long arching harp glissando that has the effect of waving off the gloomy chord. String basis then state motive B now sounding cold and heavy in the wake of the proceeding quarter outburst. With a soft tam tam stroke on the last note of this motive, the music vanishes and the movement ends as if having gone up in a puff of smoke. The tonal vagueness of the concluding chord offers no clear answer as to whether we’ve just witnessed a revelation or a conjuring trick. It does recall the mysterious German sixth chord that opened the finale of The Sixth Symphony. It is also akin to the orchestral outburst accompanied by waves of harp glissandos that break in toward the close of the third movement of the Third Symphony. That movement envisioned an Intermediate Realm between inanimate nature and God, just as this one may represent Mahler’s conception of the middle ground between heaven and hell, as depicted in Andante’s scenario. Our last excerpt begins from the return of the second theme and continues to the end of the movement.

By Lew Smoley

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