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Gustav Mahler: The Fifth Symphony

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Gustav Mahler
1st Symphony | 2nd Symphony | 3rd Symphony | 4th Symphony | 5th Symphony
The Adagietto from the 5th Symphony | 6th Symphony
The Order of the Middle Movements in the 6th Symphony | 7th Symphony
8th Symphony: Part 1 | 8th Symphony: Part 2 | Das Lied von der Erde
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Here is absolutely no room for the human voice. Everything is said musically, the word is not needed.
Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor, for large orchestra.
  • 1st movement: Trauermarsch (Funeral March)
  • 2nd movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz (Stormy, animated, with the greatest vehemence)
  • 3rd movement: Scherzo - Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Forceful, not too quick)
  • 4th movement: Adagietto - Sehr langsam (Very slow)
  • 5th movement: Rondo-Finale

Musical Form and Outline

With the Fifth Symphony, we enter a new phase in the development of Gustav Mahler's symphonic output. Together with the Sixth and the Seventh symphonies, it forms a middle period of three purely instrumental works1. We leave behind the song-centred world of the earlier Wunderhorn symphonies and enter a world in which the new dominant feature is counterpoint2. Although Mahler did not realise it immediately, a direct consequence of this use of contrapuntal lines was that he had outgrown the orchestration techniques that he had employed so successfully in his previous symphonies. Much later, he would write, 'I cannot understand how I could at that time have written so much like a beginner'.

The late Mahler scholar, Kurt Blaukopf, has pointed out3 a second developmental way-marker, in that by the time of the Fifth symphony Mahler had completed a shift that had been in progress for some time. His normal practice was to compose during his summer holidays, producing a short score that was playable on the piano, albeit with indications of the intended orchestration. He would then work out the detailed orchestration during the following winter months - as far as his busy work schedule would permit - to produce the full score. The shift complete, from now on he composes without significant resort to the piano, conceiving the woven threads directly in terms of the musical colours of the instruments of the orchestra. This is not to imply that Mahler wrote out the complete full score as he composed; rather that the conception was dressed from the start in specific orchestral garb.

Mahler divided the symphony's five movements into three parts: Part I comprising the 1st and 2nd movements; Part II, the 3rd movement Scherzo; and Part III, the 4th and 5th movements - the famous Adagietto and the triumphant Rondo-Finale.

There is ample scope in this work for the brass section of the orchestra to enjoy themselves, but it can turn into a nightmare in the third movement for the principal horn player if he or she is having a bit of an off day; a hero one minute, they can be left frightfully exposed the next.

First Movement

A solo trumpet ushers in the Funeral March, executed with a slow measured tread, as in a funeral procession. It is soon joined at the climax to the opening phrase4 by three further trumpets, six horns, three trombones and a tuba - a formidable brass fanfare - as well as the woodwind, strings and percussion sections of the orchestra. The march is carried forward and shortly taken over by the strings before returning to the measured tread of the beginning. The material is reworked a second time, after which the introductory triplets on the trumpet appear to be the start of a third cycle, but they are suddenly interrupted and instead usher in the first of two contrasting sections in the movement. This first one, in B flat minor, marked Suddenly quicker, passionate, wild, is an expression of grief and despair. The trumpet cries out whilst the strings wring their hands. The passage reaches a climax before returning to the fanfare of the opening, although the ensuing Funeral March music is now less solemn and more reflective than it was at the beginning. At the very close of this passage, Mahler quotes the short signature motif from the first song of his Kindertotenlieder5 (Songs on the Death of Children), which he was composing more or less at the same time as the symphony. Following this, the fanfare motif is played quietly by the timpani, which introduces the second contrasting section, this time in A minor, a yearning passage initially for strings alone, then supplemented with brass and woodwind punctuation. A despairing climax collapses, returning for the last time to the fanfare motif that rises in pitch, passing from trumpet to flute as it fades away. The movement ends quietly on a single pizzicato note of C sharp on the strings.

Second Movement

Difficult to believe though it is, Mahler regarded what we call the first movement as an introduction to precede the first movement proper, that is, what we refer to as the second movement. In his manuscript copy of the symphony, this (second) movement bears the title Hauptsatz (Main movement), although this never appeared in any of the printed scores. It is also the reason why, when his publisher, CF Peters of Leipzig, queried it, he told him he did not want the title page to carry any key signature, merely the inscription 'for large orchestra'. The two movements share a great deal of material; more accurately, material from the first movement tends to intrude into the second, and in the same way, as we shall see below, material from the fourth movement intrudes into the fifth.

The 'second' movement begins in the key of A minor with an agitated passage in the same mood as the first B section of the first movement, over a minute of anxiety-stricken confusion. This suddenly collapses - the first of three such collapses that are to occur in this movement, and leads to a re-appearance of the main theme from the second Trio of the first movement, played on the cellos accompanied by chattering woodwind figures. The agitated opening then returns, only to collapse again. Out of this, the cellos slowly emerge, playing a variant of the main theme of the Funeral March. This builds to a brief climax followed by a sudden recall of the second contrasting section, also from the first movement.

The extended central march section leads to a triumphal sounding chorale for the brass section. Just as this seems to have won the day however, it collapses yet again. The agitated passage appears for the last time, after which the movement dies away slowly and quietly.

Mahler's score now specifies a 'long pause' between Part I of the symphony and the great Scherzo movement that follows it.

Third Movement

Immediately after the first rehearsal before the Cologne première, Mahler wrote to his wife:

The Scherzo is a devil of a movement. It will have a long tale of woe. For the next fifty years, conductors will take it too fast and make nonsense of it. And the public - oh heavens, what are they going to make of this chaos, which is constantly giving birth to new worlds, only to be destroyed a few moments later; at these sounds of a primeval world, this rushing, roaring, raging sea, these dancing stars, these glittering, gleaming waves...If only I could give my symphonies their first performances fifty years after my death.

So what are we, the public, to make of it? Firstly, although it is complex, the listener does get the feeling that this was fun to write. It is difficult to describe the movement, other than by formal musical analysis which would not be appropriate here, although even that is not straightforward. We can however look at the components of which it is literally composed.

Uniquely within Mahler symphonies, it features an obbligato6 horn part for the section principal, highlighting the instrument in a concertante role, rather than that of a concerto soloist. The key is D major, an unexpectedly early pointer to the principal key of the last movement, and of its spirited conclusion. As with the second movement, and as we shall see again in the fifth movement, counterpoint is the principal structural element.

The Scherzo is traditionally a dance movement. Here, the dance, or rather the dances employed, are the Ländler, a traditional Austrian country-dance in three-four time, and its more sophisticated cousin, the Viennese Waltz. Mahler, however, treats the waltz roughly, in a manner that foreshadows by nearly 20 years what Maurice Ravel will do in La Valse. With a Scherzo, you would expect a central trio section and Mahler provides one, or is it two trios? It is by no means easy to judge which.

In addition to the usual instruments of a large orchestra, there are appearances by the glockenspiel and a Holzklapper (or slapstick), a percussion instrument comprising two pieces of wood joined by a hinge at one end, that are slapped together to produce a sharp whip-like sound.

Overall, the mood of the movement is celebratory although there are darker moments, often in minor keys. An opening flourish on four horns is a motif that recurs throughout the movement and finally brings it to a triumphant conclusion. Although one is not marked, it is clear that another shorter, though definite pause, is appropriate before the start of Part III.

Fourth Movement

The third part of the symphony starts with the famous Adagietto. This little movement, scored for strings and harp only, is in F major and comprises a single theme with a varied middle section in which the theme is explored in three other keys (G-flat major, E major and D major), before returning to F. In this middle section in particular, the theme seems to be searching, but ultimately failing to find. The choice of a major key here, and the continued use of the major mode throughout, is interesting - many composers might instinctively have chosen a minor key. The movement is marked Sehr langsam (very slow), but also bears directions at various places such as Nicht schleppen (do not drag) and Drängend (more urgently), instructions that often seem to be overlooked7.

After the previous three movements, the Adagietto, a song without words, comes as a point of repose, a brief and welcome respite before the coming Rondo-Finale that it secretly foreshadows. Although the theme is 'sung' on the strings, the harp provides gently rolling arpeggios to accompany it. The movement ends with a descending phrase that dies quietly away, and leads immediately into the concluding Rondo-Finale. Just as the first movement was an introduction to the second, so the fourth movement is a prelude to the fifth, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

Fifth Movement

Although essentially in the key of D major, during its course this movement explores many other tonalities, all of them in major mode; a parallel with the preceding fourth movement. It opens with a cryptic quotation from one of Mahler's own Wunderhorn songs, 'Lob des hohen Verstandes'. This song tells the story of a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale. Since his large ears appear to give him an advantage, they ask a donkey to judge between them as to who is the better singer. The donkey rules clearly in favour of the cuckoo, reasoning that he cannot memorise the tune of the nightingale, and that the cuckoo's intervals of thirds, fourths and fifths are harmonically superior. The donkey here represents the critics of the musical press who had been hostile to, and failed to understand Mahler's earlier symphonies.

Mahler adopts in this movement one of the most classical musical forms, the Rondo, with its inherent opportunity for elaborate counterpoint, however his offering does not conform to the classical model of this form. Following the statement of the main theme, several fugato8 passages occur, interspersed with three appearances of the famous Adagietto theme from the preceding movement. Here, the theme is played at a much faster tempo than it was in the fourth movement, and at each reappearance of the theme it is rather more distorted than at the previous. Here Mahler is parodying himself, whilst at the same time demonstrating his mastery in writing counterpoint - an art viewed by the musical establishment of the day as a primary measure of competence in a composer.

The last appearance of the Adagietto theme leads ultimately to a magnificent D major chorale for the whole brass section, supported by repeated rising and falling semiquaver scale passages on the strings. This is the beginning of the movement's - and the symphony's - coda. After the chorale, the whole orchestra gathers pace as the strings and woodwinds scamper furiously towards the presto conclusion, on the way giving the singing contest song from the beginning of the movement the counterpoint treatment. At the very end, there is the briefest of pauses before an emphatic and triumphant downward cadence to a unison tonic D.

Composition and Première

1901 was a year of mixed fortunes for Mahler. During the night of Sunday, 24 February, he suffered a major haemorrhage arising from the haemorrhoids from which he suffered for most of his adult life. This event almost killed him, causing him to lose a third of his blood - and although he continued to work, he spent many months recovering. On the positive side, the new villa he had had built by the lake at Maiernigg was complete, at least to the point of being able to use, and he arrived there on 5 June. The summer of 1901 was to prove to be a high point in his compositional calendar. No sooner had he settled in than he began work on a number of Lieder, completing (according to Natalie Bauer-Lechner9) seven in a fortnight, composing each one day and scoring it the next; an eighth song, 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen', was completed at the end of the summer holiday. During this summer he also started work10 on the Fifth Symphony, completing at least two movements, and substantially completing the large scale (third movement) Scherzo.

Completion of the new symphony had to wait until the following summer. In the intervening period, Mahler met and married Alma Schindler, so this would be their first summer together. He resumed work on the symphony in late June, 1902, shortly after the triumphal première of the Third Symphony at Krefeld. Immediately on arrival back at Maiernigg, he buried himself in the new work, following his familiar regime of rising at 6am and working in his composing hut until midday. He completed the draft score no later than 23 August.

Given proposals for the first performance of the new symphony from Amsterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Mannheim and Prague, at the end of March Mahler decided to accept an offer to stage the world première in the Gürzenich Hall, Cologne, on Tuesday, 18 October, 1904.

Legal wrangles

The performance came close to being cancelled because of a petty squabble over fees for performing rights11. In 1897, to be able to get his work published, Mahler had joined the Austrian Society of Authors and Composers (AKM). At the start of 1902, a law was enacted in Germany giving composers copyright protection for their works until 30 years after their death, copyright being applied retrospectively; no form of copyright protection had existed previously. To fulfil the task of recording performances and collecting royalty payments, a new unofficial organisation was formed in Berlin, the Genossenschaft Deutscher Komponisten. This met with opposition from some concert promoters and Philharmonic Societies, including the Gürzenich Society, who feared that the costs of their subscription concerts would rise. In 1903, Mahler found that he could not belong to both societies and resigned from the AKM to join the Genossenschaft, thereby transferring the performing rights for all his symphonies to them. Mahler advised Fritz Steinbach, President of the Cologne Conservatoire and conductor of the Gürzenich concerts, that there were some difficulties agreeing the performance fees, but that he would personally request an acceptable figure for the Cologne première. The Genossenschaft were not however prepared to co-operate; Steinbach requested further assistance, which Mahler said he was unable to provide and that unless the matter could be resolved, the performance would have to be cancelled12. The matter was somehow resolved and the performance was allowed to proceed.

Problems with the Orchestration

During the second half of September, in preparation for the première, Mahler held two reading rehearsals with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in order to check the orchestration. To his surprise and chagrin, he discovered that his compositional style had outgrown his accustomed practice of orchestration, necessitating a number of significant alterations, primarily to lighten the texture13.

On 12 October, Mahler took the overnight train from Vienna to Cologne, changing trains the following morning at Frankfurt. It had been planned that Alma would accompany him, but she was ill when he left and agreed to follow on later - in the event she remained too ill to travel, to Mahler's fury. Despite this, the composer was reasonably satisfied both with the rehearsals and with the dress rehearsal on Monday, 17 October, attended by amongst others, Bruno Walter.

At 7pm the following day, Mahler raised his conductor's baton to start the first movement of the Fifth Symphony in its première performance. At the end of the movement, the reaction of the audience in the hall was lukewarm, with some audible hissing, but by the end of the performance, Mahler seems to have been sufficiently satisfied to write to his sister, Emma, Yesterday evening went rather well. The audience was at first put off... but by the end went along with it. The success of the Krefeld première of the Third Symphony however, was not going to be repeated in Cologne. One of the two local newspapers, the Kölnische Zeitung, was enthusiastic, and suggested that the audience needed to hear the work again, before trying to judge the whole. The Kölner Volkszeitung on the other hand, thought the symphony would benefit from being given a programme, having its harsh cacophonies toned down, and the whole thing being shortened. It did, however, find the Adagietto beautiful.

As well as the Cologne press, the daily newspapers in Berlin, Leipzig and Munich also carried reviews of the latest Mahler symphony. The Berlin and Leipzig writers were, as always, highly critical; but the Munich correspondent recognised that although the audiences of the day might find it 'absurd and bizarre', this was a symphony for the future.

Three further performances14 of the symphony early in 1905 were also received poorly. Not until Mahler's second performance of the work in Hamburg on Monday, 13 March, 1905, did the symphony achieve its first real success.

1Although they are frequently grouped together, apart from their being purely instrumental, the three symphonies have little truly in common.2The art of having multiple melodic lines sounding at the same time and having these lines interact with each other. Examples of contrapuntal forms are the fugue, the canon and the round. The entry of successive melodic lines may be overlapped, and the lines themselves may be reversed, inverted or otherwise modified versions of each other.3Kurt Blaukopf, Mahler, trans. Inge Goodwin, Futura Publications, 1974, pp 182-3.4This phrase had appeared as the 'Little Summons' in the first movement of the previous symphony, the Fourth, but now appears in very sombre mood.5The Kindertotenlieder is a set of five songs to poems by Friedrich Rückert (1788 - 1866), who wrote more than 400 poems grieving the death of his son Ernst.6Obbligato is an Italian word literally meaning obligatory, or compulsory. In the modern musical context, it means an essential part of the composition, ranking only second in importance to the principal theme.7See the accompanying Entry, The Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony.8Italian meaning piece in the style of a fugue, although not necessarily adhering to conventional fugal rules.9Natalie Bauer-Lechner, Recollections of Gustav Mahler, Cambridge University Press, 1980, p173.10Some sketches may have existed prior to this, which he took with him to Maiernigg. See Donald Mitchell's comprehensive and illuminating chapter on the Fifth Symphony in The Mahler Companion, ed. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson, OUP 1999, p300 ff.11A subsequent planned performance of the Fifth in Leipzig, conducted by Bruno Walter, was indeed cancelled for the same reason.12Mahler's Unknown Letters, ed Herta Blaukopf, Victor Gollanz, London, 1986, p193.13The symphony is more polyphonic than its predecessors, hence the inadvertent thickening of the texture. Mahler was however, never fully satisfied with the orchestration of the Fifth Symphony, and continued making alterations to it throughout his lifetime.14At Dresden: conducted by Ernst von Schuch; at Berlin: conducted by Arthur Nikisch; and at Prague: conducted by Leo Blech.

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