Classical V: Mahler 5
Mahler’s epic Fifth Symphony is a dazzling orchestral masterpiece. The symphonic journey begins with a mournful funeral march and ultimately arrives at jubilation. The famous fourth movement, Adagietto, is known as a love letter for Mahler’s wife.

Gustav Mahler
(July 7, 1860-May 18, 1911)
Symphony No. 5 in C# minor
(1902)
 

The oldest of six surviving children born to a tavern owner in what is now the Czech Republic, Gustav Mahler was reputedly brought up in an abusive, loveless household. He was largely self-taught as a musician until the age of 15, when he entered the Vienna Conservatory. There he studied piano and composition and also took courses at the University of Vienna. His true ambition was to be a conductor, and he composed only part-time, during summers. His first stint as a conductor came in 1880 at a small, underfunded summer theater, but he parlayed the experience into a better position the following year in Ljubljana, the present-day capital of Slovenia. Slowly he won ever more prestigious postings in Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest and Hamburg before landing the job he coveted, in 1897, at the Vienna Court Opera, conducting operas as well as symphonic works with the Vienna Philharmonic.His programming was often adventurous, even controversial: The first opera he conducted at the Vienna Opera was by Czech composer Bedřich Smetana; he tried, in 1905, to stage Richard Strauss’s Salome, but the licentious opera was rejected by the state censors. Worn down by petty scandals involving disgruntled singers at the Court Opera, anti-Semitic attacks in the press and myriad run-ins with imperial censors, Mahler chose to “escape” for a few months each year, beginning in 1907, to New York City. He considered moving to the United States permanently but died in 1911 before any such plans could come to pass.

As a composer, Mahler was caught in a transitional time, challenged by a new understanding of musical logic and order that shook music’s foundation and re-defined musical expression. By the time Mahler began writing symphonies in the 1880s, what began with Mozart and Haydn as an opportunity to explore the expressive possibilities of orchestral music had become symbolic of the full depth and breadth of human existence. Mahler professed being influenced by the music of Anton Bruckner, the noted symphonist who was one of his teachers at the University of Vienna, as well as that of Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms, ironically cast as musical opposites in the late 19th century. Mahler was very passionate about Wagner’s music, and, rather than worship him from a respectful distance as others did, he plunged into Wagner’s music, giving it lavish performances. The expressive aspects of Wagner’s orchestration and the clarity of Brahms’s formal structures found their way into Mahler’s musical vocabulary, allowing him to construct symphonies that he saw as “worlds”—deep, personal statements of life experience.

It also is important to remember that as Mahler wrote his symphonies, Schoenberg and Bartok had begun their experiments in new music (with others not far behind). This inevitably caused a crisis, not only for audiences struggling to make sense of these developments, but also for composers like Mahler and Richard Strauss who found more meaning in the music of the 19th century. In Mahler’s case, this led to music that exhibited remarkable contradictions, seen most clearly in his symphonic works. In the time leading up to the Fifth Symphony, Mahler experimented with all sorts of textural possibilities, culminating in his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth is unique and signals a new direction with two ends: exploring possibilities in handling simple melodies (emphasized by adding a vocal soloist in the last movement) in relatively simple formal structures, and attempting to achieve intensely personal, intimate sounds and feelings in a large orchestral context. What is particularly interesting, however, is that rather than using the enlarged orchestra simply to increase the sheer volume, Mahler more often uses the larger forces simply for a wider palette of timbres.

Composed in the summers of 1901 and 1902, the Fifth Symphony, however, is a complete about-face. In it, he seemed to have returned to the extroverted and more complicated Post-Romantic expression that was the “other side” of his first three symphonies, and decided to reserve the intimate, tender side for his orchestral lieder for voice and orchestra. He wound up reworking the Fifth Symphony several times after its initial completion, which created several publication difficulties. These were finally resolved by the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft with a definitive version published in 1964.

The symphony has a somewhat unique format, with three large sections comprising five movements. The first movement, with its intense solo trumpet opening, is a Funeral March with two contrasting, sentimental trios. The stormy second movement borrows materials from the first, culminating in a beautiful chorale melody and a gentle fade. The third movement constitutes the entire second large section and is one of the longest individual movements he ever wrote. As a Scherzo, it has a light-hearted, forthright character even in its more sentimental sections, and it features an amazing obbligato horn solo. The final large section begins with the famous Adagietto for strings and harp alone. This moving, intimate movement is in direct contrast to the previous movement, introspective and intensely personal. The Finale begins gradually but optimistically, and it incorporates material from the second and fourth movements, including a great deal of counterpoint and an expanded version of the chorale melody heard previously, to bring this monumental work to a triumphant close. As a whole, the work succeeds like a huge, walled city—self-contained, consistent in its themes and overall design, yet rich in interesting, colorful details that proceed in an unhurried manner until their possibilities are exhausted.

Mahler broke from the norms of conventional four-movement symphonic composition by including folksong borrowings, unusual instruments, radically dissonant harmonies, and solo as well as choral singing. He opened up the boundaries of symphonic form and expanded it to enormous, encyclopedic lengths. Like Beethoven before him, Mahler dispensed with the notion that a symphony should comprise instruments alone. No fewer than half of his symphonies are scored with voices in different combinations. He also was able to obtain very personal, intimate moments in the middle of these massive structures—clearly related to song. In the Fifth Symphony, however, he returned to instrumental conventions associated with symphonic compositions, yet still expanded all of the possible resources available to him in unconventional ways, making this work one of the most beloved and admired of all orchestral music.