Mahler Symphony No.5

By Laurie Shulman © 2019
First North American Serial Rights Only

Gustav Mahler is associated with large orchestras, lengthy symphonies, and plenty of angst. His Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor delivers on all counts, yet it dates from one of the happiest times in his troubled life: his courtship of the young Viennese beauty Alma Maria Schindler, whom he married in March 1902.  Cast in five large movements, the symphony clocks in at well over an hour. And what a roller-coaster of an hour it is! The path is a gradual one from tragedy to triumph. Along the way, Mahler unfolds a series of marches, waltzes, Austrian ländler, and a chorale. His moods are chameleon-like: frenzied, tender, desperate, joyous.  The musical landscape is so varied that we are never bored. More often than not, we are riveted.


Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Gustav Mahler
Born 7 July, 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia
Died 18 May, 1911 in Vienna, Austria

Middle-period Mahler: instruments without voices
Mahler’s symphonies divide into two principal categories: those that are exclusively instrumental and those that employ the human voice. His First Symphony (1889) was instrumental; the next three incorporated soloists and chorus in varying degrees. For his Fifth through Seventh Symphonies, he returned to the concept of a purely instrumental symphony. The Eighth embrace voices again; the final two (including the unfinished Tenth) are instrumental.

Historians have traditionally regarded the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies as the culmination of Mahler’s middle period. The break from vocal resources in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was an affirmation of his commitment to absolute music, and he denied that any specific programme or extra-musical association applied to the music of the Fifth.

Whirlwind romance, passionate symphony
The background of the Fifth Symphony is intimately tied to Mahler’s romance with Alma Maria Schindler (1879-1964), whom he married in March 1902. Mahler began work on the Fifth Symphony during the summer of 1901. During the season he was exceedingly busy as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera, and he tended to do most of his composing during the summers. When he met Alma at the home of mutual friends in November 1901, he was 41; she was 22. She was the daughter of a prominent Austrian landscape painter. Well-educated, well-born and musically talented, Alma was also considered to be one of Vienna’s great beauties. Mahler was smitten, and the love affair developed rapidly. Barely four months later they were married. According to Mahler’s close friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Mahler proposed to Alma by sending her the Adagietto of this symphony. The movement is his love song to his bride, and one cannot help but think that the entire work is at least in part inspired by the passion Alma brought forth in Mahler.

The newlyweds spent their first summer together on holiday in Maiernigg, Austria, where Mahler continued work on the symphony. He completed the orchestration the following winter and conducted the first performance in Cologne in October 1904. Dissatisfied, Mahler began to revise. A letter to Alma the week of the premiere reads:

The Scherzo is the very devil of a movement! I see it is in for a peck of troubles!  Conductors for the next 50 years will all take it too fast and make nonsense of it; and the public–oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are for ever being engendered? . . . What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound?…Oh, that I might give my symphony its first performance 50 years after my death!

He was to continue the revision process for the rest of his life. The Leipzig house of C.F. Peters published the symphony in 1905, but Mahler wrote to Peters in June 1910 requesting more alterations. The version that is performed today was not published until 1964.

The conducting connection
Mahler’s extensive experience as a conductor gave him an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of the orchestra’s capabilities. He took pains to notate interpretive details. Like most of his scores, the Fifth Symphony is scrupulously marked. It indicates subtle changes of tempo and dynamics and the articulation of individual instruments, as well as descriptive adjectives intended to shape the musical character of a particular passage.

He was keenly aware of the Fifth Symphony’s technical difficulties. One of his champions was the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), who did much to further Mahler’s career in western Europe.   During preparations for the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Dutch premiere of the Fifth Symphony early in 1906, Mahler wrote to Mengelberg:

The rehearsals, as you have proposed them, are a bit on the short side. I definitely ought to have three rehearsals for the symphony! Would it not be possible for me to squeeze in one rehearsal somehow on the Tuesday? . . . Besides, dear Mengelberg, the Fifth is very, very difficult. Please hold thorough preliminary rehearsals, otherwise we shall have a shambles! I shall be hissed if the performance is not brilliant…Enclosed is the score with a multitude of revisions, all of which are extremely important.

The sound and shape of Mahler
The Fifth Symphony shares certain characteristics with all of Mahler’s work. First is the enormous orchestra, used with great imagination and often taxing the normal ranges of the individual instruments.  Second is Mahler’s harmony, which stretches traditional tonality to its furthest limits; it is no accident that Mahler’s most influential protegés were Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. A third Mahlerian trademark is the formal variety. Mahler’s score specifically designates three parts and five movements to the symphony. The first two movements are bound together in spirit and by their musical material; they constitute the first part.  The central scherzo is the second part. The last two movements are played without pause, thus forming the third part.

What makes the Fifth Symphony different from its predecessors? Mahler’s extraordinary use of counterpoint is a distinguishing feature of this symphony. We know that he had been studying the music of Bach. His composing cottage at the summer retreat in Maiernigg contained the literary works of Goethe and Kant and the music of Bach. Another unusual factor is its lack of reliance upon an extra-musical idea.

Musicians’ corner
Psychologically speaking, the Fifth proceeds from tragedy to triumph.  The work opens with a lone trumpet announcing a funeral march. Listeners familiar with Mahler’s music will note a strong relationship to the opening movement in his Fourth Symphony; the ensuing march derives from a song in his cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Mahler’s music wails with grief. He paints a huge canvas of cosmic emotion, using enormous brushstrokes of sound for the largest possible gesture.

The second movement grows directly out of the first, functioning as a huge development section. The tonality changes to A minor. (To designate the Fifth Symphony as being in C-sharp minor is something of a misnomer, for the work only begins in that key.) Its emotional climax occurs with a spacious chorale in D major, prophetic of hope and sunshine amidst the relentless clouds of the funeral music.

Mahler’s Scherzo marries the Austrian Laendler to the Viennese waltz, with a sprinkling of operetta for good measure. At sixteen minutes’ duration, it is one of the longest scherzi in the repertoire. One needs its spaciousness in order to fully emerge from the trauma of the first two movements. Sometimes flirtatious, often peasant-like, the Scherzo provides an opportunity for every section in the orchestra to shine; a solo horn is featured.

Tender and dreamy, the Adagietto completely alters the psychological makeup of the work. Mahler scored the movement for strings and harp alone, thereby creating an atmosphere of intimacy. The key of F major, traditionally associated with pastoral themes, underscores that feeling. With this slow movement Mahler took a significant step in a direction that was to characterize his later work:  more emphasis on strings, and a new lyricism not present in his earlier compositions. The Adagietto provides the transition, the catharsis through which the triumph and ecstasy of the finale become possible.

Affirmative finale: triumph trumps tragedy
D Major returns to conclude the symphony:  the key of both the second movement chorale and the Scherzo.  Mahler indicates that the key choice is no accident by quoting from the earlier chorale.  Formally it is a rondo. Through its several sections it binds together the energy of the first two movements, suffusing it with the positive warmth of the Scherzo and the tenderness of the Adagietto.  Mahler opens the finale with singable melodies that he later merges with the transcendent chorale of the second movement. Rather than restating one idea after another in retrospect, Mahler weaves the musical strengths of his symphony all together into a larger, stronger fabric. The effect is electrifying:  brilliant polyphonic writing and a magnificent orchestral sonority. The dramatic weight has shifted from the first movement to the last movement. The emergence of triumph over tragedy is complete.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is scored for a huge orchestra of flutes, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, tam-tam, harp, and strings.

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