Revisit: Mahler Symphony no. 5

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez

From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the ‘whole Symphony’, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted.

This quote is no insightful, deeply meaningful expression about the underlying content of the work, but it does represent a little bit of what I want to say about the piece, as we’re making the rounds of revisiting some of the earliest Mahler symphonies I wrote about years ago, hopefully in a more coherent, informed fashion. But here’s another, more insightful one:

Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.

Mahler, about his fifth symphony

Fifth symphonies, eh? There’s Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, … but what about Mahler? It seems there’s something kind of magical about the fifth symphony, maybe, because there are an awful lot of very good ones… and while Mahler’s fifth might not be hailed as one of his greatest (tough competition against the second, third, sixth, eighth, ninth…), it’s a powerful, deeply engaging work, a unique one in his output, and one that I hold in a special sentimental regard.

Somehow, somewhere, like a decade and a half ago, I acquired a recording of Mahler five. I remember the cover was red, and the back had an image of a forest, or at least some trees, on the back. The thing that struck me the most was that there were five movements, and that each of them seemed dosh garn long… I never got through the first half of the first movement. Didn’t get it. Turns out that recording was Harold Farberman and the London Symphony, and I still have no idea where that recording came from.

In any case, I somehow got the impression that Mahler 5 was generally regarded as one of the composer’s most famous, most successful works. This is, I should mention, before I’d heard, or even been made aware of, the nature of any of his other symphonies. So there this disc sat, with its admittedly engaging funeral march, the trumpet call that leads to the eruption of the first movement, and then… I stopped listening. But coming around to appreciating this wok was always sort of through that peculiar lens.

The fifth symphony is a special symphony for Mahler, too. As discussed earlier in the week with revisits of his first and second, all the Wunderhorn symphonies, as they’re called, either directly use or refer to vocal music that the composer had written earlier in his career. I make the (perhaps unpopular) argument that it was a bit of a crutch for the first symphony, piecing stuff together to tackle a first attempt at such a large form, but by the second symphony, he’d clearly found some wealth of passion or confidence or inspiration, for he then wrote what at the time was the longest, largest symphony in the canon, and then did it again with the third. The fourth finished the trajectory of these four earliest symphonies, using material that had originally been intended for the third symphony, finishing out that story arc.

So the fifth, then, marks the beginning of another period in the composer’s career, like another first symphony, in a sense. It’s marked by a complete lack of vocalists (soloists or chorus) and no reference to his Lieder (although it does share a passage of content with the second symphony, which came from Hans Rott’s symphony). Mahler’s sound is refined, with a new clarity, density, I’d say a compactness, but it’s physically and musically as big as ever, just with a more focused intensity, maybe. Wikipedia describes the ‘middle period’ symphonies (5-7, the ones without vocal parts) as “taut and lean.” I like that.

In any case, the work was written in a time of success and (at least relative) joy in the composer’s life. He was the proud owner of a new villa in Carinthia, and held posts at the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic. He was finding success as a composer, and was later to meet and marry Alma Schindler, which was to be a happy thing at least for a little while, especially with their first child on the way. This is all after a near death hemorrhaging experience due to an uncomfortable medical situation Mahler was trying to resolve, and his doctor had told him “that he had come within an hour of bleeding to death.” This prompted the move to the lakeside villa to recover, and perhaps the proverbial ‘new lease on life.’ In any case, it comes at a great time for the composer, but then… it’s interesting that the piece begins with a funeral march. This isn’t the first time his music seems so very incongruous with the composer’s circumstances, but that’s for another time.

The work was completed in 1902, and first performed on 18 October, 1904 in Cologne under the composer’s baton, but even after having finished his ninth symphony, in very poor health, he still spoke of returning to and revising this work.

It’s in five movements, but in a way, is one of the more traditional symphonies (perhaps the most traditional symphony) that Mahler had written up to that point. Unsurprising, as with all Mahler symphonies, it’s over an hour long, with Boulez’s recording coming in at about 72 minutes.

Two things I want to draw to your attention here. First is the triplet similarity to Beethoven’s famous fate theme in his own fifth symphony. This is often referred to in discussion of Mahler’s fifth symphony (and it makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the first movement of Mahler’s fourth!). The second one, though, is below. Just listen to the first five seconds:

Triplets. Trumpet. C, C#. Wedding march. Funeral march? It’s a stretch but I find it interesting.

Moving on. The first movement is the Trauermarsch, or funeral march.

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. In this movement, like in Mahler’s first symphony, we have parts made up of separate movements. Part I is made up of mvmts 1 and 2, Part II is mvmt 3, and Part III is the fourth and fifth movements. I really only find this meaningful in grouping the first two movements together, but it also means there’s a sort of symmetry in the work, with everything bookending the central scherzo, something he would later return to in his seventh symphony.

The way the first two movements share content (a “sighing” theme, and the second movement’s references to ‘the tempo of the first movement’), these two, although distinctly separate, can be lumped together as a kind of composite first movement, and if we do that, then the entire symphony is in quite a standard four-movement form, albeit rather top-heavy.

After the trumpet’s triplet introduction and the explosion of anger or tragedy that ensues, we’re introduce to the first theme, the actual funeral march of the movement. Contrasting with this is a delicate, tender second theme. They’re different in their expressive qualities, but they sound to me like two sides of the same coin. A dotted quarter note figures into both melodies, and in their similarities, it feels like looking at the same thing from two different angles. Even these two movements alone provide an enormous amount of excitement and stunningly powerful, beautiful music.

The second movement presents us with similar material to the first, with the ‘sighing’ motif (dotted-quarter and eighth featuring a large upward leap) leading into its own first theme, but then another (or the same?) Trauermarsch appears, marked ‘in the tempo of the first movement,’ and the connections start to be made. Toward the end of the second movement, though, we have one of the great climaxes in this symphony, a stunning chorale, featuring brilliant strings and brass, a heroic fanfare, capped off by soaring horns. It’s triumphant, a relief, frankly, and a sense of victory washes over us… until the movement ultimately devolves into the tragedy of the first movement. This Part I, with two related movements makes for an interesting and very effective structure, leading into Part II, the more straightforward single-movement scherzo.

It’s really only slightly more straightforward though, as this movement presents at least three themes that each appear and change in their own ways, each with various shades of idyll, nostalgia, tenderness, plenty of light and shadow. It’s as if we’re exploring the landscape around Mahler’s composing hut through different times of the day or year, and seeing how everything changes around us. The common thread among them all is a slightly relaxed sense of nature. There’s no driving, angry terror like from a Bruckner scherzo, or even the maniacal darkness of Mahler’s seventh. The movement opens with a long, bold line from horns, with chirps from woodwinds and swelling strings adding to the color at turns. It might be one of the brightest, most unadulterated moments of simple, beautiful joy in the entire symphony up to this point, maybe one of the most memorable in his symphonic output thus far. It effectively sets the tone for the movement, even through some of the more shadowy pizzicato passages that suddenly sound exotic against the otherwise familiar landscape. It ends excitingly, a captivating scherzo for such a long movement, indeed.

The fourth and easily most famous movement, one often performed on its own, is the adagietto. Norman Lebrecht, in his definitely not polarizing Why Mahler? discusses this movement as a bit of a litmus test for conductors. While Mahler’s tempo indication is ‘very slowly’, both he and Mengelberg (of the Concertgebouw) conducted it in about seven minutes, while it seems the average performance time these days is closer to nine or ten minutes, and there are even recordings of this strings-only movement being stretched out to an almost absurd 13 or even 15 minutes. So what gives?

Well, the movement is not a dirge or funeral song of any kind. It’s a love song, to the composer’s wife. Remember, they’d just gotten married and had a young Mahler on the way, so this appears to be one of the composer’s truly blissful, happy moments in life, before things got complicated and frustrating. But dragged out to the ‘very slow’ that some conductors read, it feels more like a funeral procession, more of mourning than romance; it was even played at the funeral mass for Robert F. Kennedy, with Bernstein conducting.

The thing of it is, though, it’s effective either way. Mahler constructed a movement that works along a kind of scale, and while he obviously intended it to be representative of love and life at a ‘very slow’ seven minutes (making it one of the shortest movements of any Mahler symphony), you can move that slider along the scale to a much slower pace, and it still works effectively in its own way, even if you’ve changed the entire feel and message of the work. This is something the composer leaves up to the conductor, but in the context of the overall symphony, I feel it’s more effective as a moment of tender, expressive beauty, not sorrow or mourning.

The fifth and final movement rounds out the symphony, and puts the cap on the ‘most traditional’ symphony idea. It’s a rondo, a very standard form to use as the final movement of a symphony. It’s just… exciting! There are a number of themes that jump out at us as the movement comes to life directly from the adagietto, and there’s something familiar about them. Do these little ideas come from elsewhere in the symphony? It sounds as if they do, even if it’s just the musical version of newspaper clippings from previous movements, strung together and presented in their own way. It unifies the entire work, but doesn’t give the impression of a rehashing. It’s bold and full of energy, and part of that energy comes from a new kind of texture apparent in Mahler’s music from this period: counterpoint.

He’d apparently been criticized in the past (if I remember reading correctly) for not writing (or not being able to write) counterpoint, and although his orchestration and music is at least as big as it ever was, he reaches striking moments of clarity, where we have not just a mass of sound with a surface layer of detail, but suddenly an intense clarity, an intricacy among all the detail, and this gives a powerful, energetic sense of forward motion, things always moving and changing, and I feel Boulez’s approach to Mahler is especially effective here, with his sense of clarity and precision.

The music is wonderfully written, and by the finale, you might be wondering if the overall trajectory of the piece is one from tragedy to triumph, from the cataclysmic Part I, to the more restful Part II, and to the beauty and buoyancy of the final Part III… at least I did. This might well be Mahler at his most optimistic, overcome by success and positive ideas, but… as you will know, it didn’t last.

One of the reasons this symphony might not get as much love as the others, in my opinion (because it seems it doesn’t, from the recordings and discussions and concerts I’ve seen/heard), is that it doesn’t have its identifying, even defining, element. The first symphony is the Titan one, the one with the Frère Jacques funeral march; the second one is the Resurrection. The third is the huge one with the children’s chorus that is overall very nature-y. The fourth is the one with the soprano that finishes where the third left off.

The sixth is Tragic. The seventh is the song of the night. Eight is the symphony of a thousand, and there’s the famous ninth. What about five? What is its thing? Sure, it begins with that trumpet figure, and it has the adagietto, but the latter might detract from the apparent integrity of the overall symphony… I don’t know, but musically, it is just as memorable, just as captivating, as anything else he wrote, marking the beginning of a new period in the composer’s life, one in which he would meet, in some ways, more uncomfortably with success than with tragedy, which was not too far around the corner.

The symphony also leaves us with questions: (a personal one, I admit, like) Is there any intended reference to Mendelssohn’s wedding march? Why the tragic, tumultuous Part I in such a bright spot in his life? What would the composer have changed in the fifth if he’d  gone back to revise it? There isn’t much question about the pace of the adagietto. If there is one, it’s asked by the composer, and Mahler doesn’t mind different answers being given.

The traditional structure of this symphony and its perplexingly tragic opening only hint at the traditional form and true, heart-crushing tragedy (and even more formal layout) that is to come in the sixth, and of yet another five-movement form with the seventh. These three works form a trilogy of “taut and lean” nonvocal symphonies, works where the composer’s voice and style have matured, become more focused. Having returned to write new articles on this symphony (and the first and second, with a new article on the sixth forthcoming, and maybe fresher write-ups on 3 and 4, eventually), I feel I appreciate them more because of a better overall picture of not just the piece itself, but of the composer’s career, his trajectory, and hopefully even something of what he meant in the work.

The fifth is a wonderful representation of so many things in the composer’s output, like his stark contrasts between the violence and rawness of tragedy, and the simple, delicate beauty of simple joys. It seems to spring from life itself, from the Austrian mountainside, from love, tragedy, success, playfulness… it’s really a masterpiece, and although I myself don’t turn to it as much as I do the sixth or third or others, every time I listen to no. 5, I find myself wondering why I don’t put it on more often. It’s a triumph in symphonic writing.

That wraps up a small little review of some of the first Mahler symphonies I wrote about on the blog, but now in order: 1, 2, 5, and 6 to come. We are getting excitedly but sadly close to completing a discussion of Mahler’s entire output. Of the works we have not discussed yet are Das klagende Lied, the Wunderhorn songs, the Lieder und Gesänge books (most of that early stuff), and then the last three big late works: Das Lied von der Erde and the ninth and tenth symphonies….

And one of those pieces will be coming up later this week, so stay tuned.

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