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mahler 9 – III. Rondo. Burleske.

What would a Mahler symphony be without a sprawling, hectic, and by turns achingly beautiful scherzo? Well, quite a bit shorter, for one. Mahler is often in the habit of taking a huge movement in cut time and making a huge journey out of it, and the Ninth Symphony is no exception.

Mahler is all about extremes, and in this movement, he seems to be playing the sacred against the profane. And wrapping it all up in typical Germanic fashion within a relatively rigid form – in this case, a rondo.

For those of you who are not familiar with rondo form it can be described rather like a rhyme scheme in poetry – a limerick follows the rhyme scheme of A-A-B-B-A, for example.

In the rondo, instead of a rhyme scheme, you have a theme or group of themes (in the case of the sonata-rondo) that begins the movement, which you call ‘A’, and it alternates with variations or elaborations, or outright departures, which each get their own letter.

So rondo form looks like this: A-B-A-C-A-D-A, and so on, until the composer runs out of inspiration, or the audience leaves, or the orchestra falls apart, etc.

Here’s the opening figure of the movement, which you can use as a signpost to help orient yourself as the movement goes along – you’ll hear this in many different forms, faster and slower, and all around the orchestra, for the next 12 minutes or so:


As I started the discussion of this movement, you may remember that I talked about my belief that this movement is really about a battle between the sacred and the profane. It is, but it’s also (as often is also the case in Mahler) a battle between order and chaos, and the two dichotomies are interrelated.

The sacred/ordered elements try to take over – the order factions are represented by the forces that keep trying to get the original theme to triumph, but it never really is allowed to take off – much like the finale of the Fifth Symphony, where the triumphant chorale tries to take flight twice, only to fully bloom and reach its full resolution on the final attempt.

In an ultimate expression of the (stereotypical) Germanic need for order, a fugue is repeatedly attempted, but always thwarted by various voices jumping in in the ‘wrong’ places and little motives fighting with each other for supremacy.


Here the opening theme tries to assert itself over the burlesque elements (represented by luridly sliding solo strings and the e-flat clarinet) that threaten its ordered existence.


As the movement progresses, we see the virtue of order beginning to take on the trappings of the sublime or sacred, while the lurid burlesque elements begin to lose their hold on power.

The sacred motive takes a couple of trial runs to take hold, but it does briefly hold sway before the forces of chaos (unleashed forces of order, ironically enough) sweep in to end the movement in a final, hyper-frenetic free-for-all).

Here is the final sacred moment (it takes several tries, with the order and chaos forces interjecting briefly, with the final sacred moment presented by, what else, the solo viola, after trial balloons by the oboe and trumpet, respectively):


So, there’s a thumbnail sketch of the sprawling Rondo-Burleske of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Tomorrow: the opening, and even more sprawling, first movement: Andante comodo.

The audio examples are from one of my favorite modern recordings of this piece, a rare live recording of Leonard Bernstein with the Berlin Philharmonic from 1979.

It is available for download from the DG Web Store.

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