A Minute of Mahler From His Great Horn Dance (Symphony 5 Scherzo)

As I’m preparing the Mahler’s Symphonic World Pt. 2 talks, I am struck how I keep changing focus back and forth between the gestalt of an entire Mahler symphony and many unexpected and unforgettable moments that we seem to stumble on amidst all that immensity. Those unforgettable moments sometimes crystalize the entire work themselves. A perfect example is the moment when four horns echo each other in the scherzo of Mahler’s 5th symphony…

Sonically shattering those horns, but also psychically shattering. They bring the symphony to a halt at dead center—the middle of the middle of five movements, the eye of the storm. And then a solo horn intones its intimate, ghost story, haunted by the ghost of Beethoven. The haunting started right at the opening of the symphony when a trumpet intones the famous motive from Beethoven’s fifth symphony—a reference to the legendary “fate knocking on the door.” But it’s actually Beethoven’s Eroica symphony that seems to be on Mahler’s mind.

The Eroica was Beethoven’s “hero” symphony, originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte. The first movement of Mahler’s symphony is in fact a funeral march, very much in reference to the titanic funeral march in the Eroica. But beyond that, Beethoven used the French horn to represent Napoleon. Well, actually he used three French horns, rather unusual scoring for that time. Mahler clearly picks up and runs with this idea, using six horns in his fifth symphony, doubling Beethoven’s three.

This moment at the heart of the symphony with the four horns echoing each other is like a powerful spotlight on this relationship with the Eroica. It triggers a cascade of associations that Beethoven’s music established—the symphony as psychological biography (or autobiography), the struggles in life, and the struggle of mortality. This layering, or psychological counterpoint, is part of what makes Mahler’s music so compelling. And an equally powerful layer is that these horn echoes have another association— a kind of symphonic translation of sounding of the Shofar that announces the Jewish new year and with it, a trial of the soul. It is no accident that Mahler’s music fits these ideas so tightly. Or that musical and psychological counterpoint invite us—well, even addict us—to listen to this symphony again and again.