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ClassicsOnline Home » MAHLER: Symphony No. 5
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a work of huge emotional and structural range, was his first purely orchestral work since the First Symphony of 1888 (Naxos 8.550522), and his first orchestral work to dispense with both the human voice and overtly programmatic elements. The second most recorded of Mahler’s symphonies, it includes the ravishing Adagietto, a love-poem for the beautiful Alma Schindler, his future wife, and subsequently made famous by its use in Visconti’s film Death in Venice.
By John J. Puccio
By David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer
American Record Guide
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 5
Gustav Mahler has come to enjoy a unique position in the music of our own time. He was able to revivify the symphony of Austro-German tradition, creating in it a poignant expression of sorrow, a sense of Weltschmerz, but encompassing a much wider range of feeling. He was able to enlarge the symphony, not only by an expansion of form and an enlargement of the orchestra itself, but by the use of song, a logical extension of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, including and summarising a whole tradition of music.
Mahler was born in Bohemia in 1860 into a relatively humble Jewish family of no great intellectual or cultural pretensions. His father, at one time little more than a pedlar, came to own a successful business that included a distillery and several taverns. At the same time he read what he could, in an attempt to further his own intellectual interests. Mahler himself was eventually able to study at the Conservatory in Vienna and to enrol in other courses at the University.
It was as a conductor that Mahler made his name, with a series of appointments in resort opera-houses during the summer season. From these he moved to more important appointments in Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg. Finally, in 1897, he reached the summit of any conductor's ambition, when he was made director of the Vienna Court Opera. During ten years he revived the opera, particularly with his performances of Mozart and of Wagner. By 1907, however, he had aroused sufficient hostility to decide to resign. His high standards in the opera-house made him enemies, and the amount of time he was obliged to give to performances of his own music and his Jewish origins were enough reason for his critics to condemn him. 1907 brought not only Mahler's resignation from the Vienna Court Opera, but the death of one of his two daughters, a bereavement that deeply depressed him. There was further cause for anxiety when it was found that he was suffering from a weakness of the heart that made it necessary to avoid any physical exertion. His final years were spent partly in the United States where he conducted first at the Metropolitan Opera during a difficult period in its history and undertook to reform the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. At the same time he fulfilled a series of engagements as a conductor in Europe. He died in Vienna in May 1911. Although his music met opposition from some in his life-time, his subsequent importance has been incalculable, both as one of the greatest composers of his generation and as an influence on his contemporaries and successors.
Mahler's compositions include a number of songs and ten symphonies, the last incomplete, as well as Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a symphony in fact, if not in name. He began his Fifth Symphony during the summer of 1901 during his summer holiday at Maiernigg, composing first, it seems, the Scherzo and perhaps the first two movements, together with a group of songs, the latter including the song of the deserter, Der Tamboursg'sell (The Drummer-Boy), from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy's Magic Horn), von Arnim and Brentano's seminal collection of German folk-song, and some, at least of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the Death of Children), posthumously published poems by Rückert. He completed the symphony in 1902 during the summer following his marriage to Alma Schindler, a young woman of considerable and varied talents, daughter of the landscape painter Anton Schindler and later wife of Walter Gropius and subsequently of Franz Werfel. The symphony is scored for the expectedly large orchestra, with four flutes including piccolos, three oboes (one doubling cor anglais), three clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, double bassoon, six horns (one a solo part), four trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, gong, harp and strings. These instruments he used in new ways, exploring extremes of their range, the beginning of a new musical world. The work is in three parts, the first of which includes the first two movements. The second part is an extended Scherzo and the third includes the famous Adagietto, for long associated with Visconti's poignant film of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and a final Rondo to which everything leads.
The First Symphony had made use of a funeral march, ironically based on a minor-key version of Frère Jacques, suggested by a funeral of animals illustrated in an engraving by Callot. The Fifth Symphony opens with a C sharp minor Trauermarsch, a funeral march, introduced by a trumpet, in the manner of a melancholy military fanfare. This leads to a mournful melody offered initially by first violins and cellos, then taken over by the woodwind. This sombre music is interrupted by a cry of despair, a passionate outburst that subsides, as the trumpet fanfare heralds the gradual return of the dark-hued theme. This first movement, substantial in itself, serves as an introduction to the turbulent A minor second movement, thematically closely linked and marked Stürmisch bewegt; mit grösster Vehemenz (Agitated; with greatest vehemence). In sonata form, and recalling elements of the first movement, it is marked first by a repeated motif in cellos and double basses, interrupted by the cry of the woodwind, a motif of an ascending minor ninth, plaintively resolved, already heard in the first movement. The cellos introduce the F minor second melody, in the tempo of the opening Trauermarsch, now marked Bedeutend langsamer (Significantly slower). The complex development offers further reminiscences of the funeral march and the recapitulation brings only a brief reference to the first theme, which is then fragmentarily combined with the second, leading to a Brucknerian chorale that itself disintegrates before a stormy outburst, after which the movement dwindles to nothing.
The second part is the D major Scherzo, a substantial centre to the whole symphony. Unusually it includes in its instrumentation a corno obbligato, a solo horn, and while broadly including two trio sections, heard combined before the final coda, it is again a movement of subtle complexity, a cheerful and optimistic contrast to what has gone before. The first part suggests an Austrian Ländler, followed by a waltz, the first Trio, introduced by the strings and marked Etwas ruhiger (Somewhat quieter). The Scherzo returns, leading to a fugato passage, interrupted by the second Trio and a return of the waltz theme of the first. The Scherzo is heard again, and then a complex juxtaposition of ideas, before the dynamic climax of the coda.
The third part consists of an Adagietto recalling two of Mahler's settings of Rückert and a final Rondo that touches again on the world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The F major Adagietto, sometimes now heard out of its symphonic context, is scored for harp and strings and related to the Rückert setting Mahler had written in the summer of 1901, 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen'(I am lost to the world). Marked Sehr langsam (Very slow) and seelevoll (soulful) this is music of inexpressible beauty, a world away from sentimentality in its moving apparent simplicity. The magic is broken by the first horn, softly echoed by the first violins, the horn followed by a bassoon, quoting 'Lob des hohen Verstandes'(Praise of High Understanding), one of his Wunderhorn-Lieder, and an oboe, then an A clarinet in a short introduction to the last movement, after which the principal theme, marked Allegro giocoso, is heard. The cellos introduce a fugal section, succeeded by a return of the main theme, with a second fugal section started by cellos and double basses. A third theme, drawn from the heart of the Adagietto, is followed by a modified version of the second fugal section, enclosing a march-like passage. The Adagietto theme is heard again, followed by a third fugal section. A version of the first theme returns, enclosing a fourth fugal section, followed by the Adagietto-derived theme. The coda, to Alma Mahler's apparent disapproval, brings a brass chorale, and fragments of what has passed are heard again, as this monumental and highly innovative symphony comes to a close.
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MAHLER: Symphony No. 5