Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 5

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.

performed by the Chicago Symphony under Georg Solti

This piece was written between 1901-1902.

This is the second week in a row I have been able to write about a piece after having seen it live. The previous week’s post (not the Mozart one) was brought about because I decided it would be convenient to do the Rach symphony in preparation for my attendance of the piece that Wednesday night.
I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to attend the Mahler piece or that there would be tickets left the day before. Bruckner 7 was being performed the night before and I thought about attending that one along with or instead of the Mahler, but I decided to stick with just one, and to hear the one I was (only slightly) more familiar with. When I bought my ticket Wednesday, I immediately began to listen to this somewhat intimidatingly long piece. It’s convenient and easy enough to listen to one of these early Mozart symphonies five or six times before writing (obviously not a ton) about them. This one, however, demands not only time, but a clear understanding and appreciation of structure, direction, form, and feeling.
It is not ONLY this symphony that requires it; the Rachmaninoff piece was also a very large-structure work, although not quite as long as this one. I would venture to say that Mahler 5 is more “famous” than Rach 2, but maybe only among those not super familiar with classical music. I had always thought it was one of the more famous symphonies. Even people who are only tenuously familiar with classical music can name Beethoven’s 5th (and/or 9th), Tchaikovsky’s 5th, Dvorak 9, etc. as some of the ‘big’ well-known works, and I thought Mahler 5 was in there. Among true Mahler devotees, however, it seems that numbers 2, 3, 8, and 9 overshadow number five. I don’t know.
I have always had an impression of Mahler of being
super (dare I say unnecessarily) long-winded, and that rather annoyed me. Having not studied or learned much of anything about his music, I just assumed he was kind of full of himself and overly dramatic and pompous. Even the beloved Rachmaninoff tested my patience a bit with symphony no. 2.
That being said, coming into Mahler’s fifth symphony, that clocks in at 70-something minutes, I would need to set aside time for the few listens I could manage to get in, and was looking forward to an opportunity to hear it live, and hopefully appreciate it more. I gave it a few listens at work, and it was stop-and-start, as one would imagine with a symphony over an hour long. A few things stuck in my mind:
The first movement, the Trauermarsch, was fantastic and dramatic and enjoyable.
The rest of the movement, however, did not keep with that same dramatic, tragic, dark theme. I don’t know why this disappointed me, but I expected this to be a dramatic or tragic piece, and this presented some problems for me, which I will address later.
The second movement clearly ‘fits’ with the first movement to make up the first section of this piece, regardless of which one “should” come first. They still go together.
So my first impression was good, but those first awesome ten minutes were over, and I was challenged to make sense of the rest of it as a contiguous piece. There were some challenges here:
It’s long.
It’s complicated.
I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to feel, or what this piece was supposed to say. I looked multiple times online (not very studiously) for program notes or an analysis or something of what the contiguous piece as a whole was “about”… or what its point was. It felt a bit to me, and still does, that it’s a collection of (very long and developed) shot stories bound together and read from beginning to the end without a ton of relationship between them. (Again, I can see how the first two play off of one another, and I do hear echoes in the third movement of motifs from the first and second movements, but) As a whole, I am just not sure what Mahler is trying to get across here. There’s so much going on in the piece, and I take the blame that even after three or four listenings of the CSO and Solti performing it, one of Farberman and the LSO, and the performance by the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra under Gernot Schmalfuss (whose hand I shook after the performance), I still may not have digested the entire thing as a whole yet. Let’s take a look at the individual movements and see what could be going on here.
Mvt 1: Trauermarsch- the famous trumpet introduction and dramatic introductory bit here is almost impossible to dislike. It’s a great dramatic entrance. There is some talk that this movement makes up what is generally the second movement of a piece, but put first by Mahler. It has that very dramatic tragic theme, but it’s juxtaposed by a lighter, almost (why do I say) Semitic, Jewish-sounding theme like a part of his first symphony that is anything but tragic and dramatic and dark. This movement ends almost ominously with a dainty pluck of strings.
Mvt 2: Stürmisch Bewegt- Also kind of aggressive and loud and dramatic, but less tragic and more energetic, and this movement plays a bit of compare/contrast with the first, as they make up the first section of the work. Together, these two take up about 28 minutes. This movement also ends in small pizzicato blips that tell you to hold on for more.
Mvt 3: Scherzo (the names of these movements are actually much longer; I’m just taking the first label or tempo marking that’s there)- This is where it starts to throw me. This movement alone makes up the second section of the symphony and stands alone at about 17 minutes in the CSO recording and over 20 on the LSO version. It’s a big one, and I have come to LOVE this movement. It is clearly extremely pastoral, and I feel the changes of motifs and scenery and emotion are almost like scenes of a play out in nature. The French horn takes precedence here, and there is lots of activity and solo and Q&A in the brass. It’s generally happy and uplifting and joyous, which kind of confused me because the former two movements were much heavier in nature. It’s nice to have a contrast; I was not hoping for a 70-minute funeral march or dirge, but I wasn’t quite sure how this fit. It gets harder later, trust me. Apparently at the time, Mahler had moved out to a summer home and was pretty chuffed about his success as director of the Vienna Court Opera and principle conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. You’d be chuffed too if you were able to buy a summer home of your own in Carinthia because of your job. He had apparently had some very serious health problems and a brush with death due to a hemorrhage. Perhaps this explains the drama and tension of the first few movements, but something else comes later. It may be coincidental, but Mahler’s love of nature and his joy at finding a summer home sound out here in the third movement. It really is stupendously pleasant. My only gripe with it is that I feel it has a number of subplots or tangents that come and go. I absolutely LOVE the pizzicato bit in strings toward the middle of the movement; it sounds extremely Asian to me, and when I heard it, I was hoping that would develop, but it came and went. A delightful little passage, but it felt like a tease. All in all, beautiful stuff here, as well as a noticeable appreciation and talent for counterpoint that started to creep up in Mahler’s music around this period (says the Interwebs).
(The interwebs also say that this piece is the start of his middle period, one in which he was more mature, had moved away from vocal symphonies [unlike his second, third and fourth, which all had vocal parts], and where nostalgia crept more and more into his music as a composer with more experience. I find this interesting). There was still one thing missing from this happy, newly successful composer (his music was also gaining more and more recognition at this time) and conductor and director, and we see it in movement 4. The end of this movement is the first one that feels like a true end. It’s amazingly satisfying.
Mvt 4: Adagietto- Aside from the funereal trumpet introduction in the first movement,this is likely the other most famous part of the symphony. Our dear Mahler had success and fame and fortune (relative to his humble beginnings), but was still alone. Enter Alma Mahler (nee Schindler), who would make Mahler an even happier man (and historians very irritated at her penchant for changing history and obscuring so much information about the composer). By the time he returned to his summer home in 1902, he was married and with child. This very beautiful movement feels like repose from all the emotion from the first three movements. We get a chance to breathe here, as I suspect Mahler himself did when he felt maybe he had all he could ever want in life, at least for a moment. I read somewhere this movement is a love song dedicated to his dear wife, and it is mushily beautiful. It makes up the shortest movement of the symphony (at least of the CSO recording, and I assume of any others as well) at just under 10 minutes (with CSO, twelvish with the LSO). Harp and strings and all things pretty go on here, and just as I start to get restless and “we get it, G-Mahl,” we move attaca into the final movement.
Mvt. 5: Rondo-Finale- A horn returns to bring us to the rondo and finale. The beginning of this movement sounds very much like the pastoral, springy niceness of the third movement, with horn, bassoon, clarinet, oboe, all kind of dancing with each other before the strings swell in for a really beautiful beginning, and it’s somehow a relief. This writing is astoundingly contrapuntal. One would talk about influence from Bach, but he never wrote anything this large-scoped and epic. It was a different era then. One knows that from seeing the setup of the stage as soon as you walk into the concert hall. Tons of people up there, and lots of brass (trumpets and horns and trombones and bass trombone and a tuba) and percussion. One could imagine if Bach had lived to be a few hundred years older, he may have written this kind of counterpoint. This movement helps the listener (or at least me, eventually) make more sense of the symphony, or at least put the listener at ease. It feels like closure. The dramatic tension and intensity of the first section (mvts 1 and 2) is solidly in the past, there was the full exploration of joy and playfulness and verdant spring in the third movement, and in the whole scheme of things, the love song of the fourth movement feels like a period of growth or maturity. We get to the fifth movement and we feel that everything is going to be okay. It has moments of delicacy where strings or a solo oboe do something delightful and beautiful to bring contrast to the rondo, or where a solo horn sings over the whole orchestra (again). This movement, as the third, feels like vocal writing for the symphony. After listening to some of his Lieder before, I almost expected a voice to enter in the third movement. However, the writing in the fifth movement here is so full and rich and moving that there is clearly no room for a vocal part, and one doesn’t want one. The fifth movement lacks nothing. It is balanced and logical and satisfying. About four minutes from the end of this track, we start to feel like we’re coming to the end, and it’s almost disappointing. One wants to hold on and see what else is in store. Don’t end yet. It’s okay though. Mahler packs enough content into those four movements that it feels perfect. Maybe the word I’m looking for is ‘celebratory.’ The last few minutes of this piece are so thoroughly, satisfyingly beautiful and intense, that you totally understand what Karajan said when he talked about the finale making you want to hold your breath until the final note was over. It just presses forward and goes and goes and goes and builds in its glory. It gives me chills even to listen to the recording here on my bed as it finishes for the sixth or seventh time.
My opinions toward this symphony have changed, clearly. The first listen after the live performance felt very different from those before. I definitely appreciated it more, and it felt more logical and coherent and natural. There’s just something about the ringing in your ears and the rumble in your chest hearing a piece live (especially a Mahler symphony, I suppose). I had a goal last week of at least coming to appreciate this symphony at least intellectually if not emotionally. I can say I at least like it now, and with some more time to let it sink in, could really come to love it. It is an experience. There are two things I’ve read before that make lots more sense now:
Mahler told someone once (in so many words) that writing a symphony was to create a world of its own. This is certainly true of Mahlerian symphonies, at least, and he did that here.
In reading a comparison of two of the great late Romantic German composers, Bruckner and Mahler (both known for their long works), one once said that Bruckner’s emotion is to convey that of the collective human experience, while for Mahler, it is about conveying his own experience, so while he may be self-absorbed, we are forced to find ways to relate to him and what he has to say. This may be a negative trait, but it could also be insightful. Who wouldn’t want to have a conversation with someone of his stature? Through this symphony, we do get a glimpse of the man.
I will slowly be addressing his other symphonies as well. I would have liked to do them in chronological order, but the opportunity came up to deal with one of his more “lean”, “accessible” works live, so I took it. I like the first symphony just fine (I LOVE the third movement), and they will eventually get their time, but I will need a break from such large-scale complicated works. Last week’s was a big one, this week’s is a big one, and I’ve already started on next weeks’ piece. While I won’t have the chance to hear it live, I tried to make it a departure from the Romantic kick I’ve been on. It’s also I think the most modern piece I will have addressed to date. It has Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra beaten by a few years. Tune in next week for another Mozart Monday and a less-than-professional-or-reliable review of important works to which I may do zero justice!

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