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Gustav Mahler
Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor

Gustav Mahler

  • Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia
  • Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria


Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor

  • Composed: 1901-02
  • Premiere: October 18, 1904 in Cologne, conducted by the composer 
  • Instrumentation: 4 flutes (incl. 4 piccolos), 3 oboes (incl. English horn), 3 clarinets (incl. E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drums, bells, crash cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, wood block, harp, strings
  • CSO notable performances: First: March 1905, Frank Van der Stucken conducting (US Premiere). Most Recent: May 2019, Louis Langrée conducting. Other: December 1990, Iván Fischer conducting. 
  • Duration: approx. 73 minutes

“Oh, heavens! What are they to make of this chaos, of which new worlds are forever being engendered only to crumble in ruin a minute later? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent and flashing breakers?” So Gustav Mahler wrote during the rehearsals for the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in Cologne to his wife, Alma, in Vienna. He was concerned that this new work, so different in style and aesthetic from his earlier symphonies, would confuse critics and audiences just when his music was beginning to receive wide notice. Deryck Cooke, in his study of the composer, noted the ways in which this Symphony and its two successors differ from the symphonies nos. 1 through 4: “Gone are the folk inspiration, the explicit programs, the fairytale elements, the song materials, the voices. Instead, we have a triptych of ‘pure’ orchestral works, more realistically rooted in human life, more stern and forthright in utterance, more tautly symphonic, with a new granite-like hardness of orchestration.”

What brought about the radical change in Mahler’s symphonism in 1902? Heinrich Kralik’s comments typify the bafflement among many scholars: “Nothing is known of any outward experiences or inner transformations during that period, which could account for the new mode of expression. There was no outward struggle which could have threatened the composer’s career [which also included directing the Vienna Opera] and shattered his peace of mind. Mahler’s music provides us with the only indication that his inner life underwent a change at that time.” With a rare unanimity, commentators have ignored the central biographical event in Mahler’s life during the time immediately preceding the composition of the Fifth Symphony—he fell in love, a condition not unknown to alter a person’s life.

In November 1901, Mahler met Alma Schindler, daughter of the painter Emil Jacob Schindler, then 22 and regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Vienna. Mahler was 41. Romance blossomed. They were married in March and were parents by November. Their first summer together (1902) was spent at Maiernigg, Mahler’s country retreat on the lovely Wörthersee in Carinthia in southern Austria. It was at that time the Fifth Symphony was composed, incorporating some sketches from the previous summer. He thought of this work as “their” music, the first artistic fruit of his married life with Alma.

But more than that, he may also have wanted to create music that would be worthy of the new circle of friends that Alma, the daughter of one of Austria’s finest artists and most distinguished families, had opened to him—Gustav Klimt, Alfred Roller (who became Mahler’s stage designer at the Court Opera), architect Josef Hoffmann, and the rest of the cream of cultural Vienna. In the Fifth Symphony, Mahler seems to have taken inordinate care to demonstrate the mature quality of his thought (he was, after all, nearly twice Alma’s age) and to justify his lofty position in Viennese artistic life. Since neither Mahler nor Alma explained the great change of compositional style of 1902, the question can never be securely answered. Mahler’s renewed musical language seems too close in time to the vast extension of his social and emotional life engendered by his marriage, however, to have been unaffected by it. In an 1897 letter to the conductor Anton Seidl, Mahler confirmed the symbiotic relationship of his music and his life: “Only when I experience do I compose—only when I compose do I experience.”

The musical style Mahler initiated with the Fifth Symphony is at once more abstract yet more powerfully expressive than that of his earlier music. In his book on the composer, Egon Gartenberg noted that the essential quality differentiating the later music from the earlier was a “volcanic change to modern polyphony,” a technique of concentrated contrapuntal development Mahler had derived from an intense study of the music of Bach. “You can’t imagine how hard I am finding it, and how endless it seems because of the obstacles and problems I am faced with,” Mahler confided to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner while struggling with the Symphony’s third movement. Free of his duties at the opera between seasons, he labored throughout the summer of 1902 on the piece at his little composing hut in the woods, several minutes’ walk from the main house at Maiernigg. So delicate was the process of creation that he ordered Alma not to play the piano while he was working lest the sound, though distant, should disturb him (she was a talented musician and budding composer until her husband forbade her to practice those skills after their wedding), and he even complained that the birds bothered him because they sang in the wrong keys (!). Every few days he brought his rough sketches to Alma, who copied them over and filled in some of the orchestral lines according to his instructions.

The composition was largely completed by early autumn, when the Mahlers returned to Vienna, but Gustav continued to revise the orchestration throughout the winter, daily stealing a few early-morning minutes to work on it before he raced to the opera house. The tinkering went on until a tryout rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic early in 1904. Alma, listening from the balcony, reported with alarm, “I heard each theme in my head while copying the score, but now I could not hear them at all! Mahler had over-scored the kettledrums and percussion so madly and persistently that little beyond the rhythm was recognized.” Major changes were in order, Alma advised. Mahler agreed, immediately crossed out most of the percussion parts, and spent seemingly endless hours during the next seven years further altering the orchestration so it would clearly reveal the complex musical textures. Hardly any two performances of the work during his lifetime were alike. The premiere in Cologne brought mixed responses from audiences and critics. Even Bruno Walter, Mahler’s protégé and assistant at the Vienna Opera and himself a master conductor and interpreter of his mentor’s music, lamented of the first performance, “It was the first time and, I think, the only time that a performance of a Mahler work under his own baton left me unsatisfied. The instrumentation did not succeed in bringing out clearly the complicated contrapuntal fabric of the parts.” It was not until one of his last letters, in February 1911, that Mahler could finally say, “The Fifth is finished. I have been forced to re-orchestrate it completely. I fail to comprehend how at that time [1902] I could have blundered so like a greenhorn. Obviously, the routine I had acquired in my first four symphonies completely deserted me. It is as if my totally new musical message demanded a new technique.” Mahler had indeed solved the problems of the work with its final revision, according to Bruno Walter. “In the Fifth Symphony,” Walter wrote, “the world now has a masterpiece which shows its creator at the summit of his life, of his power, and of his ability.”

* * *

Though there have been attempts to attribute extra-musical dimensions to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (one, a 23-page analysis of the work’s musico/metaphysical aspects by one Ernst Otto Nodnagel of Darmstadt—“What an eccentric!” Alma noted of him—appeared soon after the premiere), this is “pure” music. “Nothing in any of my conversations with Mahler and not a single note point to the influence of extra-musical thoughts or emotions upon the composition of the Fifth,” wrote Bruno Walter. “It is music—passionate, wild, pathetic, buoyant, solemn, tender, full of all the sentiments of which the human heart is capable—but still ‘only’ music, and no metaphysical questioning, not even from very far off, interferes with its purely musical course.” For his part, Mahler, who once thundered across a dinner-party table, “Pereant die Programme!” (“Perish all programs!”), did not create any written description of the Symphony, as he had for his earlier works, but determined to let the music speak unaided for itself. He insisted that the audience have no program notes for the premiere or for later performances in Dresden and Berlin. The only quasi-programmatic indication in the score is the title of the first movement—Trauermarsch (“Funeral March”)—but even that is only an indication of mood and not a description of events. It is with this work that Mahler left behind the mysticism, mystery and symbolism of Romanticism and entered the modern era. It stands, wrote Michael Kennedy, “like a mighty arch at the gateway to 20th-century music.”

Mahler grouped the five movements of the Fifth Symphony into three parts, a technique for creating large structural paragraphs he had first used in the Third Symphony. Thus, the opening Trauermarsch takes on the character of an enormous introduction to the second movement. The two are further joined in their sharing of some thematic material. The giant Scherzo stands at the center of the Symphony, the only movement not linked with another. Balancing the opening movements are the Adagietto and Rondo-Finale of Part III, which have the quality of preface and summation.

The structures of the individual movements of the Symphony No. 5 are large and complex, bearing allegiance to the classical models but expanded and re-shaped, with continuous development and intertwining of themes. The Trauermarsch is sectional in design, alternating between music based on the opening trumpet summons and an intensely sad threnody presented by the strings. The following movement (“Stormily moving. With great vehemence”) resembles sonata form, with a soaring chorale climaxing the development section only to be cut short by the return of the stormy music of the recapitulation. The Scherzo juxtaposes a whirling waltz/Ländler with trios more gentle in nature. The serene Adagietto, perhaps the best-known (and most often detached) single movement among Mahler’s symphonies, serves as a calm interlude between the gigantic movements surrounding it. The closing movement (Rondo-Finale) begins as a rondo, but interweaves its principal themes with those of the episodes as it unfolds in a blazing display of contrapuntal craft. The triumphant chorale that was snuffed out in the second movement is here returned to bring the Symphony to an exalted close.

Dr. Richard E. Rodda