The “Rondo” and the “Burleske” in Mahler’s Rondo-Burleske

2020 Society for Music Theory

2020 Music Theory SoutheastWinner: Irna Priore Prize for Graduate Research

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Titles speak volumes. For Eric Drott (2013, 4), titles serve “a ‘rhetorical’ or communicative function, in addition to a taxonomic one.” Gustav Mahler’s label for the third movement of his Ninth Symphony, “Rondo-Burleske,” establishes the work’s semantic and interpretive context, prompting the analyst to evaluate whether the movement is a rondo at all. Its title summons generic and formal expectations; yet, Mahler’s Rondo-Burleske is unlike any rondo before it. The most challenging interpretive issues concern the “rondo theme” itself and the long passage of suspended music at the heart of the movement. In this paper, I will approach a large-scale formal analysis in the spirit of James Webster’s (2009) “multivalent analysis.” I balance formal function and Sonata Theory, while foregrounding genre and the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin in an account of the movement as a unique formal hybrid distinct from standard sonata-rondo prototypes.

As a burlesque, the movement reflects several parodic tendencies. In terms of genre, the rondo eschews the normative light symphonic finale; rhetorically, the movement is more chaos than order, incongruous with its formulaic precedents. Perhaps of greatest significance is the movement’s paradoxical relation to the symphony as a whole: in formal layout and motivic content, it is eerily similar to the Adagio finale. While neither movement is expressly in rondo form, each is in dialogue with it. I envision the Rondo-Burleske as a functional finale, while the Adagio follows as a transcendent postlude, rectifying the false logic of its antecedent.