15 Oct 2015

Mahler Listening GuideSymphony no. 5 in C-Sharp Minor / D Major


by Bettie Jo Basinger

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler


Work History:
On 24 February 1901, the onset of severe hematochezia caused Gustav Mahler to lose a significant amount of blood. Recovery from this incident required two operations (the second intended to prevent a relapse), as well as several weeks of hospice care at a sanitarium. The seriousness of the hemorrhage—which the composer described on the following morning as a near-death experience—deeply impacted his psyche, and the concept of human mortality consequently surfaced in the music Mahler wrote over the next few months. For example, he shaped the Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) tale of a drummer condemned to the gallows into the funeral march “Der Tamboursg’sell” (“The Drummer”) by August 16; by the end of the summer season, he also completed three of the five songs that would combine in 1904 to form the song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), a piece in which Mahler memorializes his eight deceased siblings while simultaneously expressing an increasing desire to have a family.

Ich armer Tamboursg’sell!
Man führt mich aus dem G’wölb!
Wär ich ein Tambour bleiben
Dürft ich nicht gefangen liegen!

O Galgen, du hohes Haus,
Du siehst so furchtbar aus!
Ich schau dich nicht mehr an!
Weil i weiß, daß ich g’hör d’ran!

Wenn Soldaten vorbeimarschir’n,
bei mir nit einquartier’n.
Wenn sie fragen, wer ich g’wesen bin:
Tambour von der Leibkompanie!

Gute Nacht! Ihr Marmelstein!
Ihr Berg’ und Hügelein!
Gute Nacht, ihr Offizier,
Korporal und Musketier!

Gute Nach ihr Offizier!
Korporal und Grenadier!
Ich schrei’ mit heller Stimm:
Von Euch ich Urlaub nimm!
Gute Nacht!

I, poor drummer boy!
One leads me from the vault
If I had remained a drummer
I would not lie imprisoned!

Oh gallows, you high house,
You look so terrible
I won’t look at you any more!
Because I know I belong there!

When soldiers march by,
That are not quartered with me.
When they ask who I was:
Drummer of the first company!

Good night! Marble rocks!
Mountains and hills!
Good night, officers,
Corporals and musketeers!

Good night, officers!
Corporals and grenadiers!
I cry with a clear voice:
I take leave of you!
Good night!
“Der Tamboursg’sell,” a folk poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Author unknown.

Because work commenced on the Fifth Symphony during this same period of time, it too concerns the grave.  Of the composition’s five movements, the first addresses this topic most directly.  Designated by Mahler as a Trauermarsch (funeral march), several details of its primary theme recall “Der Tamboursg’sell, ” and the first song of Kindertotenlieder, “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” (“Now the Sun Will Rise as Brightly”), also makes a brief appearance in the movement.

Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn’
Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn.
Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein,
Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein.

Du mußt nicht die Nact in dir verschränken,
Mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versneken.
Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt,
Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!

Now the sun will rise as brightly
As if no misfortune occurred this night.
The misfortunate struck only me alone,
The sun , it shines on everyone.

You must not entangle the night within you.
Must let it sink in eternal light.
A little lamp went out in my tent,
Healthy is the joyful light of the world!
Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell augehn'” of Kindertotenleider, a collection of 423 poems from 1833-34

Nevertheless, the third movement of Symphony no. 5 reveals that the piece as a whole desires to contrast life with death. A preliminary program for the Fourth Symphony [sic] dating from 1896 reveals Mahler’s intention to write a scherzo in D major entitled “Der Welt ohne Schwere” (“The World without Severity”), and it seems that the composer finally realized this movement in 1901.  Although it lacks the appellation that Mahler considered in 1896, the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony retains the D-major tonal center proposed five years prior.  The movement also exhibits a temperament consistent with the mood implied by the planned “Welt ohne Schwere” appellation. As Mahler explained to his friend and confidant Natalie Bauer-Lechner (1859-1921) on 25 July 1901: “Every note is full with life, and the whole thing whirls around in a dance . . . .  There is nothing romantic or mystical about it; it is simply the expression of unheard-of energy.  It is a human being in the full light of day, in the zenith of life.”

During the summer months of 1901, the composer had drafted this scherzo, as well as the first two movements of the Fifth Symphony.  However, on November 7 Mahler met Alma Schindler (1879-1964), the attractive, intelligent, and self-confident daughter of landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-1892). The couple announced their engagement on December 27, despite his seniority of nearly twenty years; they married on 9 March 1902, and their first child, Anna Maria, arrived on 2 November 1902.  These events caused tremendous change in Mahler’s personal life, dispelling the dolorous retrospection that accompanied the illness of February 1901.  Consequently, the remaining movements of Symphony no. 5 reflect the composer’s renewed outlook.


Alma Mahler, ca. 1902.  Photographer unknown.

Mahler’s conducting duties generally did not afford time for composition during the Vienna concert season, but he may have penned the symphony’s fourth movement in November or December 1901. According to an annotation on a score used by Joseph Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951)—a Dutch conductor who gained renown for his performances of Mahler and Richard Strauss with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra—the composer crafted this Adagietto as a love letter for Alma during their courtship. Given Mengelberg’s personal relationship with the composer, scholars generally accept this remark as factual rather than anecdotal, especially since the aforementioned score maintains that Alma verified the information (though her copious diaries do not confirm the claim). Thus, Mahler likely had written four movements of the Fifth Symphony by the start of 1902. The composer had, in fact, told Bauer-Lechner on 25 July 1901 that he was planning a “rule-abiding symphony in four movements, each of which exists for itself and is self-contained.”  But the music that Mahler had thus far assembled lacked a dynamic finale, and he therefore appended such a movement to the Fifth Symphony sometime between July and August of 1902.

The completed five-movement work demonstrates a tripartite structure, with Mahler identifying the three subdivisions on the score.  Part I consists of the first and second movements, a slow-fast pair linked through shared thematic materials and disconsolate affect.  The fourth and fifth movements comprise Part III, and this optimistic dyad counterbalances Part I through its own slow-fast coupling and common motives.  Between them, the third movement scherzo, as Part II, acts as a fulcrum allowing the symphony to pivot from dark to light.

Regardless of the Trauermarsch’s evocation of the Knaben Wunderhorn Lied “Der Tamboursg’sell”—not to mention the bassoon’s quotation of Mahler’s setting of another Wunderhorn poem, “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (“In Praise of High Understanding”), at the start of the finale—Symphony no. 5 represents a departure from the compositional style of the so-called “Wunderhorn” Symphonies, or Mahler’s Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies.  The composer himself considered Symphony no. 5 something novel, even if his continual modification of the work’s orchestration (which Mahler repeatedly refined for the remainder of his life) indicates dissatisfaction with the work.  The hallmarks of the new sound include a decreased use of ironic tone, simultaneous presentation of multiple motives, and greater integration of the diverse instrumental colors.  These traits persist in the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, which—like the Fifth—eschew the addition of voices (as heard in of the “Wunderhorn” Symphonies) to the orchestra.

RadioWest’s Doug Fabrizio speaks with former Associate Conductor of Utah Symphony Ardean Watts & scholar Paul Banks to talk about Mahler & his connection to Utah Symphony.

More information: www.radiowest.kuer.org

Approximate Time in Performance:
70-75 minutes


4 flutes, with 2 players alternating on piccolos
3 oboes, with 1 player alternating on English horn
3 clarinets, with 1 player alternating on bass clarinet
3 bassoons, with 1 player alternating on contrabassoon

6 French horns
4 trumpets,
3 trombones

Bass drum
Side Drum



Listening Guide for the First Movement:

A solo trumpet announces the start of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5.  Its solemn call comes from an Austrian military signal. Haydn previously employed the figure in the “Military” Symphony in G Major (Hob. I: 100), while Mendelssohn based one of his Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words)—specifically the funeral march published as Op. 62, no. 3—on the same fanfare.  Traces of Beethoven similarly echo in Mahler’s opening, since the trumpet’s rhythms resemble those of the famous motto that opens the former composer’s Fifth Symphony.

Yet the orchestra soon envelops the trumpet, and the violins introduce the main melody of the movement.  Although its pitch content closely relates to the trumpet’s call, this theme also originates in another piece of music: Mahler’s setting of the Knaben Wunderhorn poem “Der Tamboursg’sell.” Like the lied from which it draws its material, the symphony movement proceeds as a Trauermarsch or funeral march. Thus, the two-beat meter, soft dynamic level, C-sharp minor tonal center, and downward melodic motion create an atmosphere appropriate for a funeral procession. Nevertheless, the mood has actually brightened somewhat. This stems from the composer’s decision to highlight the string section in a manner that evokes a nineteenth-century dance orchestra.  Moreover, a wind band—complete with cymbal punctuation—will later reinforce the qualities of the ländler latent in the march’s main theme.

Despite the lyricism briefly elicited by a violin passage reminiscent of “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgeh’n” (the first song in Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder), the ironic tone of stopped horns, as well as gestures associated with the trumpet signal, reinstate the bleak mood with which the movement began. However, a “Plotzlich schneller. Leidenschaftlich. Wild” (“Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild”) trio interrupts the progress of the cortege, and amidst the din of chromatic descending figuration in the violins, a solitary trumpet emerges with a new tune.  Both of these ideas circulate through various instruments, and other materials—including motives associated with the military signal and sweeping lines in the French horns that recall Mahler’s First Symphony—weave through the orchestral fabric.

Ultimately, the trumpet sounds the movement’s opening call to herald the return of the Trauermarsch.  The main melody resurfaces with its distinctive mixture of march-like and dance-like characteristics, though Mahler varies its presentation by reversing the order in which the string orchestra and wind band scorings appear.  He likewise alters the lyrical violin melody that rounds off the section: this time, the composer literally quotes “Nun will die Sonn'” before moving into the subsequent trio.

The thematic content of this second trio comes from the “Leidenschaftlich. Wild” section, yet Mahler now embodies it with increased optimism.  For example, the rising scales heard throughout the passage indicate aspiration or hope, while the restrained tempo holds back the frenzy heard in the “Leidenschaftlich. Wild” trio. But the incremental addition of instruments—and corresponding increase in volume—builds in intensity, which the composer dispels at a “klagend” (“plaintive” or “wailing”) climax.  As this highpoint dissipates, the military fanfare recurs before gradually fading away.

Listening Guide for the Second Movement:

The expressive indication appearing at the head of the second movement promises a continuation of the Trauermarsch’s stormy mood: “Stürmisch bewegt.  Mit grösster Vehemenz” (“Violently agitated. With greatest vehemence.”)  Yet in actuality, Mahler alternates—in the arrangement of a loose sonata form—between a violent atmosphere and a contrasting elegiac temperament.  The movement opens with the former, which the composer creates by means of motivic fragments (as opposed to complete melodies), descending lines, harsh dissonances, and a loud dynamic. This ultimately evaporates, however, and a lyrical cello melody enters “im Tempo des ersten Satzes Trauermarsch” (“in the tempo of the first movement’s funeral march”).

Despite its “molto cantando” (“very singing”) marking, the new cello theme tends to descend.  This imparts a sense of melancholy to the passage, as do the minor key and accompanying sighs of anguish retained from the “Stürmisch bewegt.” Further confirmation of an elegiac character resides in the cello melody’s resemblance to the trios of the Trauermarsch—a detail that simultaneously conjoins the two movements that comprise Part I of the symphony.

Within the sonata scheme of the movement, the “molto cantando” melody represents the statement of the second theme within the exposition.  The passage therefore cedes to the development section, at which point Mahler reintroduces the turbulent mood of the “Stürmisch bewegt,” as well as its associated motives. Nevertheless, the composer abruptly cuts off these gestures for a return of the “cantando” tune, now assigned a “klagend” indication and placed above an ominous timpani roll.  The music that follows varies this melody, combines it with materials —as well as direct quotations—from the Trauermarsch, and builds tension.  But rather than culminating in some kind of climax, the composer brusquely switches to a faster-moving march in a major key.  This too gains in intensity, and ultimately the march broadens into a brass chorale resounding over a ringing triangle and dramatic punctuation in the timpani.

Because so many peaks and valleys precede this climax, it proves unable to sustain itself, and the stormy motives that began the movement intrude, thereby initiating the recapitulation.  The “cantando” melody functioning as the second theme also returns, but thicker orchestration and louder volume convey greater urgency.  Once again tension waxes and wanes, but Mahler never impedes its progress by moving to sharply contrasting ideas (as he does in the development section). For this reason, the movement can now reach an extended peak in the guise of a chorale in D major—a key that has significant implications for the rest of the symphony.

The composer nonetheless set the movement as a whole in A minor, and the chorale must dissipate for this reason. The “Stürmisch bewegt” motives now resurface as the coda begins. They prove short lived, however.  Mahler gradually removes individual motivic fragments to thin his orchestral fabric only the anguished sigh remains; the composer then silences this melody as well.

Listening Guide for the Third Movement:

The third movement proceeds in D major.  Although the climax of the second movement anticipated this tonal center, it remains an unconventional choice for a work that begins in C-sharp minor. The major mode, quick tempo, and light orchestration also seem unexpected; together with the triple meter, they characterize this scherzo as a lively dance. Although commentators do not agree upon whether this dance constitutes a ländler or a waltz, all find the movement’s atmosphere dramatically diverges from the tone of the Fifth’s Symphony Part I.

The opening section consists of a playful tune (whether described as a ländler or a waltz) delicately tossed between a solo French horn, the woodwinds, and the first violins.  After three varied statements of this melody, Mahler starts to manipulate its basic components basic: He modifies its pitches, shifts the theme into minor keys, and darkens its timbre, though at times the original lightness of the melody reemerges.  Ultimately, however, a solo French horn will sound a darker fragment of the tune to signal impending change.

The movement’s first trio follows the horn’s pronouncement. A clear waltz, this relaxed passage provides a temporary relaxation of tempo.  Trumpets and solo French horn nonetheless bring back the scherzo’s sprightly melody all too soon.  But now the scherzo leads to a brief yet brisk fugue, which, in turn, ushers in a second trio.  Unlike the waltz-like first trio, the second receives extended treatment.  Mahler explores its rocking theme—most prominently in an unaccompanied French horn solo—through variation and fragmentation; sometimes the composer sets the melody against itself, and at others, he places it amidst materials from the first trio. All of this occurs in a variety of tempos, with the section ending at a slow pace in order to contrast with the inevitable return of the scherzo material.

Once again the solo horn announces the start of a new section. At this point in the score, Mahler distorts the scherzo melody by placing it in a minor key, gradually increasing its tempo, requesting a loud volume, and thickening the orchestration; its melodic shape also takes on the contours of the first trio’s waltz. Yet this comes to a sudden halt, and the composer starts to recapitulate the scherzo’s material as in the form heard at the movement’s outset.  Nevertheless, the return of the first trio departs from the course of a straightforward recapitulation.  Even though the composer now places it in the home key of D major (as required in recapitulations) and retains its abbreviated length, he uses the scherzo-waltz hybrid from the center of the movement; moreover, the passage possesses a sweeping grandeur that the first trio lacks.  Similarly, the prevalence of brass timbres imparts a new brilliance to the ensuing statement of the second trio’s rocking theme.

A lengthy coda now rounds off the movement.  Its numerous sections vary in tempo, as well as in thematic content.  All of the movement’s basic materials recur, including the rocking theme in another lengthy horn solo. Following this, a sudden increase in tempo will then hasten the scherzo to its end.

Listening Guide for the Fourth Movement:

Although the critics of Mahler’s day received this Adagietto poorly, the movement immediately attained public acclaim. As the most famous music Mahler composed, its appeal now goes unquestioned, though the Adagietto has taken on connotations that the composer did not intend.  Since Leonard Bernstein conducted it (independent of the Fifth Symphony’s other four movements) at the funeral for Robert Kennedy on 8 June 1968 (as well as at the funeral of Bernstein’s mentor Serge Koussevitzky in 1951), the movement has become linked with funerals in the minds of audiences, and Luchino Visconti’s use of the Adagietto in his 1971 film adaptation of Death in Venice further cemented the association.

Yet Mahler reportedly wrote this music in order to profess his love for Alma Schindler, the woman he would subsequently marry.  For this reason, the composer crafted a song without words, though his music does draw upon the poetry of others.  In center of the Adagietto, the love-glance leitmotiv from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde appears multiple times, and the melody accompanying the text “In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” (“In my love, in my song”) in Mahler’s setting of Friedrich Rückert’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I Am Lost to the World”) of 1901 closes the movement.  Further reinforcement of this lyricism comes from the intimacy of the reduced instrumentation of strings and harp, as well as performance indications like “espress.” (“expressive”), “mit Empfindung” (“with feeling”) and “mit Wärme” (“with warmth”) scattered throughout the score.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben;
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sie gestorben!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel,
Und ruh’ in einem still Gebiet!
Ich leb’ allein in meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied!

I am lost to the world,
With which I formerly wasted so much time,
It had heard nothing from me for so long,
It may well believe I am dead!

To me it means nothing whatsoever,
Whether it considers me dead,
I can say nothing whatsoever against it,
Because I am actually dead to the world.

I am dead to the world’s turmoil
And rest in a still area!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love, in my song!
Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” of 1821

Mahler also conducted the Adagietto at a faster tempo than heard in modern interpretations: While contemporary performances of the movement run between ten to fourteen minutes in length, under the composer’s own baton—as well as those of other turn-of-the-century conductors—it averaged seven to nine.  The faster tempo would impart a greater amount of rhythmic motion to the Adagietto, which seems appropriate for music that commemorates an individual’s passionate feelings for another human being.  On the other hand, slower speeds minimize the movement’s rhythmic activity by elongating each note; this, in turn, produces a pensive mood that would allow the music to serve in a funeral context. Such adaptability, together with the Adagietto’s inherent beauty, reveal why this movement retains its popularity with general audiences more than a century after its composition.

Listening Guide for the Fifth Movement:

Mahler labels the last installment of his Fifth Symphony a “Rondo-Finale,” and this designation acknowledges the many appearances of the folk-like “giocoso” (“jocular”) theme first played by the horn section over drone harmonies shortly after the movement begins.  Other levels of organization inform the layout of the finale, however, with fugal process chief among them.  In fact, whenever the “giocoso” melody recurs—in the manner of a poetic refrain—it precedes fugues involving the wind motives taken from the movement’s introduction.

Together, the introduction and “giocoso” sections contain the majority of the finale’s melodic content, though none of their motives originate in this movement.  Mahler instead extracts his themes from outside sources.  For example, the bassoon fragment heard only a few seconds into the movement derives from the composer’s setting of the Wunderhorn text “Lob des hohen Verstands” (“In Praise of Lofty Intelligence”); likewise, the “giocoso” refrain resembles this same lied, as well as the D-major chorale of the symphony’s second movement.  Even the Adagietto surfaces after the second statement of the refrain-fugue pair, though transmuted into a “grazioso” (“graceful”), flowing dance.

Einstmals in einem tiefen Tal
Kukuk und Nachtigall
Täten ein’ Wett’ anschlagen.
Zu singen um das Meisterstück,
Gewinn’ es Kunst, gewinn’ es Glück!
Dank soll er davon tragen.

Der Kukuk sprach: “So dir’s gefällt,
Hab’ ich den Richter wählt,”
Und tät gleich den Esel ernennen.
“Denn weil er hat zwei Ohren groß,
So kann er hören desto bos,
Und, was recht ist, kennen!”

Sie flogen vor den Richter bald.
Wie dem die Sache ward erzählt,
Schuf er, sie sollten singen!
Die Nachtigall sang lieblich aus!
Der Esel sprach: “Du machst mir’s kraus! I-ja! I-ja!
Ich kann’s in Kopf nicht bringen!”

Der Kukuk drauf fing an geschwind
Sein Sang durch Terz und Quart und Quint.
Dem Esel g’fiels, er sprach nur:
“Wart! Wart! Wart! Dein Urteil will ich sprechen,
Wohl sungen hast du, Nachtigall!
Aber Kukuk, singst gut Choral!

Und hältst den Takt fein innen!
Das sprech’ ich nach mein’ hoh’n Verstand,
Und kost’ es gleich ein ganzes Land,
So laß ich’s dich gewinnen!”

Once in a deep valley
Cuckoo and nightingale
Struck a wager.
To sing the masterpiece,
To win by art, to win by luck!
Acknowledgements would he carry away.

The cuckoo said: “If it pleases you,
I have chosen the judge,”
And he immediately named the donkey.
“Since he has two large ears,
Thus he can hear all the better,
And will know what is right!”

They soon flew before the judge.
When he was told the matter,
he He decreed they should sing!
The nightingale sang out sweetly!
The donkey said: “You make me confused! Heehaw! Heehaw!
I can’t get it into my head!”

Then the cuckoo quickly started
His song through thirds and fourths and fifths.
It pleased the donkey, he said only:
“Wait! Wait! Wait! I will speak your verdict,
You have sung well, nightingale!
But, cuckoo, you sing a good chorale!

And hold the beat keenly internal!
I speak from my higher understanding!
And if it cost a whole country,
So I will let you win it!”
“Lob des hohes Verstands,”a folk poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Author unknown. Mahler may have musically referenced this lied in the finale of Symphony no. 5 as a commentary on his critics.

With the exception of the refrain section, the finale’s music exists in a state of constant flux. Mahler continually manipulates and varies his motives, especially in the fugues, and over the course of the movement, seemingly new ideas periodically emerge.  A good example of this exists in the developmental passages immediately following the initial hearing of the Adagietto transformation.  Here a variant of a motive first assigned to the solo French horn in the movement’s introduction gradually expands into a climatic fanfare in the trombones.

The modified Adagietto follows promptly on its heels, and it, in turn, leads to another fugue.  Tension builds again, and it culminates in an even higher peak.  The aforementioned fanfare returns at this point, brilliantly proclaimed by the brass section, before the “giocoso” refrain resurfaces once more.

This statement of the “giocoso” melody has broader rhythms, increased volume, and a more stately character than its previous incarnations. The prevalence of brass timbres in the ensuing fugue similarly imparts a more celebratory temperament, at least until some unexpected harmonies throw the movement off track.  Thus Mahler must again increase the music’s intensity—even as he recalls the dance-like modification of the Adagietto—before the finale can end.  This time, a chorale reminiscent of the second movement, yet still deriving from the introduction, materializes at the high point to bind the finale to the remainder of the piece, and a gradually accelerating coda brings the Fifth Symphony to a dramatic close.

About the Author

Bettie Jo Basinger has been teaching at the University of Utah since 2007. She has both a Master’s Degree and PhD in Musicology—as well as a Bachelor’s in French Horn Performance—from UCLA. Although her research interests include the entire symphonic repertoire, Dr. Basinger specializes in the orchestral program music of the nineteenth century, particularly the symphonic poems of Franz Liszt.