Listening Guide – Movement 3: Scherzo. Schattenhaft


Scherzo’s movement of the Seventh Symphony is Mahler’s dance macabre, a ghost-like nightmarish fantasy that contrasts a spiderweb of weaving and bobbing triplets and strings, punctuated by darting wind tones that seem to come from every direction. With happy-go-lucky waltz that overflows with exuberance and vitality. A whirling ghostly tarantella set in a nocturnal shadowy atmosphere alternates with what Derek Cook called savagely distorted popular music waltz. Major to minor shifts abound but are completely dissociated from the chordal motive of fate to which such harmonic shifts would otherwise relate, as they do for example, in the Sixth Symphony. Instead, these chordal shifts seem but a playful, even prankish aspect of Mahler’s self-parody, the D minor scherzo subject contains a D major motive that anticipates the D major trio to come. Tonal ambiguity is as prevalent as it was in the first nacht musique, like that movement and the finale, the scherzo juxtaposes, and sometimes even conjoins radically different musical subjects. Both the spectral treatment of a tarantella in the scherzo section and the audacious waltz trio are permeated with grotesquerie use of woodwinds shriek and trombones how strongly accented notes burst out from their eerie stillness, like unearthly phantoms. Huge intervallic leaps distort the musical line, exaggerated string glissandos plunge to the depths a huge drum stroke on an enlarged timpani, legends the music to a dead stop, and a progressive five forte pizzicato stroke shatters the ghostly nocturnal atmosphere. These strange noises make the scherzo section sound demonic, while wild shrieks and grotesque mutilations distort the walltz. This relatively brief scherzo is probably the most tantalizing example of Mahler’s affinity for diabolical parody. His treatment of popular viennesse Waltz music in a grotesque and farcical manner anticipates Berg’s little waltz Woyzeck.

However, far from being frightening, the music seems more like a caricature of Berlioz, Dream of a Witches Sabbath, a Halloween Night to Remember. It is certainly one of the most original of the five movements and anticipates similar demonic scherzo’s in the ninth and 10th symphonies. Mahler also parodies traditional scherzo trio formed by inserting long developmental sections, he contrasts the dark scherzo music with a light trio in keeping with the day-night symbolism that runs through much of this Symphony. Contrary to the opinions of several commentators, the scherzo does make reference to other movements, the Verdi and death motto from the first movement intrudes into the dance music, and the second part of the trio is based upon a motif from the first movement that oscillates between major and minor on a Phrygian thematic figure. The latter is yet another example of Jewish melodies occasionally found in Mahler’s music. The oboe is a bright folk tune that appears in the trio recalls the post-horn solo from the scared so movement of the third Symphony, as well as the second trio from the scared so of the Fifth Symphony. Mahler marks this simple tune by transforming it into a hollow cadence-like theme for the wall segment.

In Waltz Mahler continues to parody traditional music and make fun of his own traits by contrasting a spooky scared so subject against a carefree wall. shades of darkest night envelop the opening section. The movement begins with the briefest of motific figures are two notes sell in iambic rhythm short long, consisting of a timpani stroke on an upbeat, followed by a low string pizzicato note. At first, it is played softly and repeated after short silences, but then it is followed by pinprick staccato notes in horns and low clarinets that conjure up the image of a gruesome figure gradually approaching with hesitant hobbling steps. A fluid adds a dotted rhythmic figure that leads into and combines with the two notes sells now on scherzo themes in this manner by fusing together little musical cells during the introduction. The first subject consists of swirling triplets that gradually string together combined with the dotted rhythmic figure from the intro, this triplet figuration rises and falls on exaggerated swells that accent the weak third beat of the measure, weaving a mysterious web of sound through the string section, first and violins and then centered in low strings, punctuated by isolated staccato notes. Falling minor seconds the motive of Whoa, anticipating the second subject, descending chromatics in the triplet figuration grotesque super octave plunges and modal harmonies further embellish this eerie music.

The first subject moves directly into the second by the English horn and flutes churning on the opening triplet figure until it hits upon a new theme in flutes and oboes. Still in D minor, and marked klagend plaintively is melancholy little tune, emphasizing the falling second of waltz as a Slavonic quality engendered by clipping the first note in its second measure. It is accompanied by squirreling triplet figuration from the first subject, while accents on weak beats keep the theme of balance.

Expressing sorrow as well as mystery the first two subjects are thus compatible, but they differ markedly from the third that enters after the swirling trip has disappeared. Following a two-bar introduction that will appear as part of the third subject, that stresses the second beat, an unexpectedly bright and lively wall steam enters and violins in D major, and in a somewhat brisker temper. The grace noted leaping sixth on which this third theme begins, shows it up for what it truly is a silly caricature of the waltz from the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony. Mahler seems to revel in tweaking the Viennese for their presumed sophistication by his perverse distortions of waltz music. Here he indulges himself even more brazenly by juxtaposing the Waltz theme against the ghostly tarantella that proceeded, super octave leaps and long plunges to form this theme while exaggerating, it’s ebullience. They’re flipping playfulness recording molars early song Scheiden und Meiden.

As we heard at the end of the last segment, suddenly a long dive in violins cuts off the third subject, and we are unexpectedly hurtled back to the first section, with its quirky scraps of music on the opening two-beat sell. In this development section that follows Mahler inserts a sonata form element into what is basically a scherzo trio structure. A bass solo plays with a turn figure, and a descending chromatic scale, picked up and expanded upon by bassoons. And stressing weak beats. The bobbing and weaving triplets of the first subject reappear, jockeying back and forth between different string sections, spooky outbursts, and darting thrusts on nervous as they pierced the spectral atmosphere.
Oboes and English horn wail out the second theme against muted violas swirling triplet figuration, the elongated falling dotted rhythm of the second theme third measure is taken from the opening figure of the first move in second theme. When the Waltz theme reappears, it is played an octave lower making it sound rougher than before, and is accompanied at first by swells in low strings followed by a two-bar rhythmic phrase that responds to the waltz theme. The leaping six with which this theme begins soon becomes a super octave. As the theme grows more and more grotesque, its intervals stretched to the limit, the plaintive second theme briefly intercedes, only to be shunted aside by a discourteous wave of the hand from the leaping Waltz theme, once again long plunges warp this dotty music, woodwinds shriek out wildly on an expanded version of the eighth note figure from the second measure of the theme, pulling it downward until it reaches the contrabassoon, which bumps right into the opening triplet of the first subject in bass strings. The next excerpt begins from the return of the waltz theme.

The scherzo development section comes to a close on its whirling triplet figuration, and finally winds down and moves directly into the trio. Without any preparation, the D major trio begins on a simple little tune, played movingly by the oboes. It recalls the theme from the early song, Nicht wiedersehen and as well as the trio section from the Fifth Symphony scherzo movement. It’s linear childlike lyricism is spoiled, however, by an ungainly A natural that ends the antecedent and is mimicked by insertions of scraps of frighty waltz like figuration played much faster, recalling the rapid volleys of sixteenths that rudely interrupted the minuet theme during the trio of the sixth Symphony scherzo movement. This may well have been intended by Mahler as self-parody. After the second of these piu mosso interjections are falling dotted rhythm cell from the second part of the first subject, borrowed from the second theme of the first movement, returns meekly and violas and cellos.

This rhythmic figure leads to a hint of the scherzo’s Waltz, the third theme, suddenly brushed aside by a single measure of the flippin piu mosso figuration. As before, the dotted rhythmic figure, played to a wall speed, tries to work its way into the waltz theme, only to be halted yet again, by a single measure of rapid figuration. When the dotted rhythm expands, trying once more to bring back the Waltz, the intercession of the rapid figuration fails to dissuaded to a waltzing phrase the recall is the first tio of the second movement, the falling dotted rhythm begins to take hold. The waltzing phrase rises by an octave and leads into a single measure of nothing but three strokes played heavily but with bravura of marvelous pun on the waltz rhythm. The trio closes on its strangely distorted theme in horns and cellos against chordal figuration in clarinets and bassoons, four measures of fragmented figuration and Waltz beats bring the tonality back to D minor, in order to lay the groundwork for the scherzo second development, which immediately follows here is the entire trio section.

The spooky first theme returns with its flitting and darting triplets, played by a chamber group consisting of strings a few winds, and timpani. Soon woodwinds bring back the second theme and E flat minor, accompanied by waves of triplet figuration from the first subject. Suddenly, the leaping figure from the third theme intercedes, only to disappear in a long downward plunge in the brass, which ends on a tremendous timpani thud. The music stops dead in its tracks.

After brief pause, the introduction returns with its isolated strokes, and two note rhythmic figures on timpani and pizzicato lower strings, descending chromatic pizzicato’s, with strong accents on each entrance, give the impression of an apparition darting in and out of the scene. Soon the first subjects weaving triplets return in craggy violas accompanied by nothing but stabilizing punctuation in low strings, the turn figure and the falling chromatic phrase that were added to the reprise of the introduction at the beginning of the movements development section, by a solo string bass, now return in the tuba, sounding even more monstrous than before.

After further development of the first subject, the second theme enters in flutes and oboes while the triplet figuration of the first subject accompanies them in bassoons, violin sing this sad little folk tune, expressively as woodwinds keep the triplet figuration going so that the theme will not completely lose its composure by overindulging in sorrow. As earlier 4/8 notes from the Waltz theme, reintroduce it in the full orchestra, again in D major, and in a more fleeting tempo. The upward thrusting leaps that begin this theme, keep rising higher and higher until they fall loosely on dotted rhythms into the second theme. Now in B flat minor, wider intervallic stretches and harmonic twists further distort this poor little theme.

One huge upward thrust on the rhythmic figure that begins the Waltz theme leads to a rapidly descending chromatic scale played staccato by violins. At first, they bump into a strong dissonant chord and then continue to the accompaniment of a falling dotted rhythmic figure played by the horns in dissonant intervals. The last of these figures fall by a vulgar-sounding minor seventh. After the chromatic scale continues to descend in low strings, shrieking woodwinds burst in with a silly eighth note figuration that ended the waltz theme. It also descends as if seeking firm ground, the last time we heard this figuration it ran smack into a powerful timpani stroke. This time it is cut off by a monstrous pizzicato below strings plucked with such enormous force 5 fortes that the sound reverberates off the fingerboard it is repeated with a dynamic marking reduced to three fortes. Some conductors play both pizzicato notes off the fingerboard others only the first one these enormous pluck tones usher in the reprise of the scherzo section. Let’s listen to this segment from where the Waltz theme enters.

Scherzo’s section’s reprise begins with three measures of the to-beat figure from the introduction and then goes right into the first subject. The spectral triplet figuration of the first subject now returns, weaving its magic spell. This time an arch-like phrase on dotted rhythms accompanies a similarly shaped configuration of triplets on a strong swell. violins go right into a bit of the second theme, while woodwinds keep up the whirling triplet figuration. A reprise of the Waltz theme marked wild, follows directly in the entire orchestra in maniacal profusion, its musical elements apparently confused as to where they belong.
How grotesque the theme sounds, when played by the trombone and tuba, with his off-key E sharp sounding even more distorted than ever. Of all things, the waltz is now interrupted by the inane piu mosso figuration that broke up the trio theme. Then the waltz theme itself becomes confused with a clog in the second theme until it emerges unaffected in the violins. The piu mosso figuration again intercedes to mark the walls as frivolity as the music reaches a full cadence. Here the coda begins, a waltz beat in broken cord pizzicato’s supports the three-node falling down and rhythm from the waltz theme, which is played arrogantly by an English horn in stretto, with the contrabassoon this three-node figure combines with the opening of the Waltz theme in English horn clarinet, but the piu mosso figuration keeps interceding, trying to prevent the walls from getting started again. When it seems that this annoying interruption has finally succeeded in shunting aside the walls, a trio theme enters in the cellos, Mahler makes this contorted theme sound even more grotesque by changing the falling interval that ends its antecedent to a diminished fift, the notorious diabolus in music.

As is characteristic of Mahler’s scherzo movements, the musical material begins to break up into scattered fragments, played by a reduced orchestra. At one point, woodwinds rear up and give out a loud and raucous whale and the horns make one’s hair stand on end with a chilling swell from an E major chord into an icy D major chord that is immediately smothered with a stopped tone.

From here, the music dissolves on fragments of the flitting piu mosso figuration, the following dotted rhythm, and the waltz speed into a perfect cadence to the tonic note in bass strings. Then a clarinet darts in with a scrap of the accompaniment to the waltz theme, and a lonely bassoon adds the 4/8 note figure from the second bar of that theme against the waltz beat. A moment of silence seems to await the conclusion of this theme. Could it be that the movement is actually over? Certainly not.

After the short pause, Mahler ends the movement with one last bit of furie allowed timpani stroke, followed by a chordal pizzicato note on a D major chord in violas, that seems to have been added, as an afterthought. It is as if Mahler leads us to the close of this movement, as it usually does in scherzo’s, and then anticipating our expectations makes fun of them by ending with this loud and absurd little two-node tag ending that emphasizes the second beat typical in a Viennese Waltz. It jolts us out of our assumptions, and into the recognition that he was only having some fun, after all. We begin our last excerpt from the reprise of the waltz theme, just before the coda.

By Lew Smoley

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