09 Oct 2015

Mahler – Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Gustav Mahler (1860 — 1911): Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Instrumentation: 4 flutes, 2 doubling piccolo, 3 oboes, 3rd doubling English horn, 3 clarinets, 2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 3rd doubling contrabassoon; 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, bass drum, bass drum with attached cymbals, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam tam, triangle, whip, harpsichord; strings

Performance time: 1 hour, 12 minutes


Today we know Mahler primarily as a symphonist — some would say the pre-eminent symphonist since Beethoven. But during his lifetime, his reputation rested mainly on his success as a conductor, particularly of opera. Public acceptance of his symphonies was mostly grudging, and while his cycles of art songs placed him within in the lineage of the foremost German-language art-song composers, they somehow did not establish him as a composer of greatness. As a conductor, on the other hand, Mahler was a giant of his day, with a reputation that made him perhaps the first modern celebrity-conductor. As a conductor of opera he was a penetrating musical analyst with a tremendous sense of theater. All of these factors helped shape Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and helped make it a turning point in his symphonic composition.

Mahler biographer Henri-Louis de la Grange writes with painterly detail about the summer and fall of 1904, when Mahler was shaping a new production of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio while also preparing for the premiere of his own fifth symphony. The composer’s simultaneous focus on his Symphony No. 5 and on Fidelio seems fateful. He considered it the greatest of all operas, the “opera of operas” that most fully realized the form’s potential for exploring humanity’s highest concerns. These are the concerns that pervade Mahler’s music: His symphonies and songs explore the fragility of beauty, the brevity of life, the mystery of death and the purpose of corporeal existence.

In his first four symphonies, these subjects were not just embedded in the notes, but expressed verbally through the inclusion of vocal elements based on songs. His fifth symphony, by contrast, is purely instrumental — progressing from an opening funeral march to a triumphant fifth movement, the finale that is his most emphatic affirmation of life. Is the ghost of Beethoven’s Leonore, the heroine of Fidelio, lurking in this symphony? Leonore’s faithfulness to her imprisoned husband Florestan delivers him from false imprisonment, vanquishes a tyrant, and strikes a blow for human freedom; Mahler, identifying with her story, crafted a historic production that transformed the way we see Fidelio. And De la Grange reveals that 1904, when Mahler was working on this opera and his Symphony No. 5, was a period of joyful closeness between Mahler and his wife, whom he idolized — the formidable, captivating Alma.

What to Listen For

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 makes a breathtaking transition in the course of its five movements. It opens with a funeral march that captures us with an arresting trumpet call and a fanfare of trumpets expressed in quick, urgent triplets. The textures are brilliant, but the mood is one of frightening portent that gives way to despair as the brass-heavy march subsides into elegiac contemplation dominated by strings. Mahler’s expansive development, with each element repeated, leads the movement to a mysterious close that suggests something different is coming — as indeed it is.

The second movement seems to embody a kind of rebellion against the portentous announcements of the first movement. Even larger in scale than the first movement, this one — Mahler marked it stürmisch, or turbulent — conveys a sense of defiance through its steady accretion of layer after layer of sound, rapid string figures, and angry, complex chords (particularly diminished sevenths). Astonishingly, the contending forces in this movement — do they represent our struggle against the dictates of fate that we heard in movement one? — culminate in a chorale. Keyed in D major, an ascent from the C-sharp minor that prevails earlier in the movement, it suggests the possibility of eventual triumph.

Scherzos are not unusual in symphonies, but the scherzo that comprises the third movement of Mahler’s fifth stands alone — the symphony’s longest movement, and one of the longest Mahler ever composed. Sometimes called the “hinge” of this symphony, it is the turning point in a work that was itself a turning point for its composer. Continuing in the earlier chorale’s key of D major, this movement seems more rooted in the everyday world than those preceding it; it is built in seven sections rooted in the rustic Ländler dances that Mahler loved and that he often associated with happy memories. Mystery and resolution seem to alternate as he layers and develops these themes, but the movement ends on a note of perplexity. Is resolution really possible?

Yes, resolution comes in the fourth movement, with its long, singing lines and sense of serenity. Heard as an expression of love, the adagietto makes the ultimate triumph of the final movement possible, moving with a quality of ecstatic timelessness until it diminishes to a single, poetic note — an “A” — in the horn. The final movement unfolds from this note without a pause, and leads to one of the most tumultuous expressions of triumph in music: a deliriously energetic rondo that eventually fulfills the promise of the chorale we heard in movement two.

We know from contemporary reports by Alma Mahler herself and by Gustav Mahler’s good friend Willem Mengelberg, the brilliant Dutch conductor, that the symphony’s fourth movement — that achingly lovely adagietto — was a very personal message to Alma, delivered wordlessly to her as a gift. When you listen to the adagietto, what do you hear? A dirge, or a love letter? A rumination on the universality of death, or an expression of the beauty of human love? While Leonard Bernstein cemented the tradition of playing it as an elegy — first in tribute to his mentor Serge Koussevitzky and later at a memorial for Robert F. Kennedy — it was likely an expression of Mahler’s undying love for his wife. For many listeners, including this one, the sense of timeless ardor that pervades this movement is what makes the symphony’s triumphant finale convincing.