I keep thinking of non-Mahler topics I would like to tackle here, but things have been busy. I have some time over the next few weeks, so perhaps they will pop up, but for now, here are some observations on the Scherzo from the Sixth Symphony.
The first time I ever heard this piece, in April 1995, as performed by the Cincinnati Symphony, I heard the Scherzo as a sort of reimagining of the first movement. I feel less and less that this is true, but the opening bars of each bear a striking similarity with their pedal A and melodic figures that rise toward the meat of the piece–a Schenkerian inital ascent, as it were.
What is really interesting about the first section of the Scherzo is that it seems to be related to a device that Mozart and Hadyn used from time to time in their menuetto movements–the spot that later composers used for the Scherzo. In a few of their minuets, Mozart and Hadyn employ a strict canonic construction, and if Mahler’s use of canon isn’t strict, it is at least suggested–very clearly in places like mm. 7-9, in which motives are repeated directly, and in Mahler’s use of invertible counterpoint. It is, really, the same old trick that Zarlino teaches–using invertible counterpoint, write two sections of music at the same time. Again, Mahler isn’t strict, but his motivic choices allow him to layer and relayer his material.
Orchestrationally, there is a great deal of sort of “standard” writing, with mixed scoring that is effective, but not particularly colorful. Lutoslawski, with his single movement symphonic plans, criticized the Romantic composers for making two large statements in their symphonies–typically the first and last movements. He had Brahms in mind, but surely Mahler is no less guilty, if not more so. In the Sixth, the last movement is by far the most significant, with the first movement probably next so, if not least for beign the most memorable. Where, then, does that leave this piece, the middle child?
In constructing a piece of this length, is it possible to fully engage the audience for the complete duration of the symphony? It is difficult to imagine the audience not becoming slightly fidgety at some point. In Shakespeare, there is frequently a pause in the dramatic arc at the beginning of the last act–some ceremony, or comic relief. In the same way, Mahler has moments of intense drama that are contrasted with moments of thoughtfulness and repose–even, moments that are simply “vamp” that have us waiting patiently for a scene change or to let us relax. Is it lazy to think of Mahler in this way? He was a man, not a god.
This movement spends a great deal of time on the subdominant of its various keys, for example, in m. 44ff. There is also a fair amount of sequential motion, although generally up or down by second. This aids in getting to more remote keys, as at m. 62, which sees a modulation to C-minor.
The concept of key is beginning to feel a little stretched in some places, as in the long “D-major” section beginning in m. 273, which never arrives at a tonic chord (although, characteristically for this movement, it lands on the subdominant in m. 299). At the same time, there are more meter changes in this movement than in any of Mahler’s work so far. While the outer sections are somewhat canonic in structure, the frequent meter changes disrupt this by throwing a simple-meter wrench into a compound-meter machine.
The major-minor motto of this piece makes its appearance at some of the crucial formal junctures, but most importantly in the coda, beginning at m. 419. The harmony moves down by step, with AM-am, GM-gm, FM-fm in the trumpets and flutes. The motto returns again in A, and is repeated several times against motivic material from this movement.
Berlioz and Tchaikovsky brought such motives into their symphonic writing; in a way, Mahler’s concept of the symphony owes a great deal to Symphonie Fantastique. Mahler has been self-referential before, but this is the first instance of a “motto” in any of his symphonies, and so there can be little wonder about the attachment of such importance to it by musicologists. As a composer, though, I am more interested in the musical effect–what does the listener with no knowledge of Mahler’s biography or any explicit or implicit “program” to the symphony make of this device? It is a unifying element, certainly, but its application seems slightly ham-handed at times. The motive itself, as I mentioned in my previous post, is clear and direct, and distinctly unconventional–a relatively rare occurence in tonal music. Could Mahler have dealt with it in a way that is not so obvious?
Another month with this symphony, then, so another month to ponder such questions.
Tags: "vamp", audience engagement, Berlioz, Brahms, canonic minuets, Cincinnati Symphony, dramatic arc, Hadyn, invertible counterpoint, key without tonic, large musical statements, Lutoslawski, Mahler, major-to-minor motive, meter changes, mixed scoring, motto, Mozart, scherzo, Shakespeare, subdominant, Symphonie Fantastique, Symphony No. 6, Tchaikovsky, Zarlino