Here is another enormous movement–ironically, lying at the heart of this symphony, defying the traditional conception of the scherzo as a light-hearted respite. Of course, there is nothing small, and very little that is light-hearted about Mahler’s music in general or this piece in particular.
Another puzzling aspect of this symphony is that only the first movement of this symphony conforms to the stated key of the piece–a riddle for a later post, perhaps. The movement begins in D major with a horn call that introduces, as is Mahler’s way, some of the most important motivic material of the music that follows. The first three measures emphasize beat two of the three-to-a-bar meter. Clarinets and bassoons answer with continuing material that employs hemiola–a second important idea here. At the beginning of the second phrase, in m. 16, the horn again takes the lead with a figure that emphasizes the second beat of the measure.
The music moves to f-sharp minor in m. 40, with the first appearance of music that suggests a moto perpetuo approach. These two ideas–the waltz-like material and the moto perpetuo alternate through the rest of the movement. Imitation plays a role as well, with a motive introduced in the clarinets in mm. 43ff. This imitative figure appears at times with entrances spaced by a single measure, but at other times with a displacement of two or three bars, as in m. 84, between trumpets and bassoons.
The harmonic plan of this movement is highly complex, with key changes happening very frequently. By measure 150, the music is in B-flat major, a highly remote key, with melodic material derived from the original motives and a more relaxed melodic idea centered around sol. At m. 174, a direct modulation to D major is followed by a trio of trumpet, horn and trombone. The material is the opening themes. The moto perpetuo material returns, and leads quickly to F minor, and then to Ab major, keys as remote from D major as most composers would dare to go.
The relaxed sol-centered theme is combined with a motive derived from the opening notes in m. 252. This leads to a fascinating moment in m. 270 in which harmonic motion pauses on D minor with an interesting orchestral effect–horns on F, entering at two beat intervals, creating timbral interest in an otherwise static moment. This is followed by a low-voiced passage in the strings and woodwinds, interrupted by the solo horn, with the ultimate goal of D minor, which is reach in m. 308.
Slowly, the music returns to the tempo and textures of the opening, leading to the moto perpetuo material. In m. 402, there is an intriguing ensemble of flutes, clarinets and trombone. The full momentum of the music is reached by m. 448, with its key of G-flat major. The formal function of this section remains developmental, and the harmonic basis shifts quickly. Measure 486 shows the moto perpetuo material turned into thematic material that in its registral and motivic characteristics resembles the material that characterized the second movement (see second movement, mm. 9-11 in the violins, for example). The resemblance is more in character than otherwise, but the two themes play similar roles, and are somewhat spasmodic in nature–throwing listener expectations into sharp relief against the composer’s actual choices.
The music breaks off after this material to return again–for the third time– to the material of the opening in m. 490. This repetition is precise, not simply implied like the earlier return.
The moto perpetuo material brings the music now by m. 614 to a minor, in a section that had been in the more remote key of F-minor previously. This allows the music to return to the original tonic pitch, D, by m. 763, employing the same tightly-wrought construction of the two previous movements. A bass-drum solo begins the drive to the end of the movement, a coda of sorts, but more the final statement. D, only just established as the tonic, becomes the third of a diminished-seventh chord that opens up the moto perpetuo, combined with rhythmic motives from the more thematic ideas of the opening of the movement. The high point of this section is reached at m. 799, with the full orchestra presenting no fewer than five of the motivic ideas of the movement in a swirling, relentless assualt that leads to a final horn melody in m. 813, which strangely, abruptly, ends in D major, as though Mahler is in some hurry to get back to where he started.
Why the title “Scherzo” for this movement? The translation “joke” is not altogether accurate, as there seem to be few moments of outright humor. Perhaps a better idea would be “tall tale,” or “riddle,” both of which do a better job of describing the sprawling, playful-but-not-humourous nature of the piece.