Mahler – Symphony No. 5

by Max Derrickson

Gustav Mahler     (Born, 1860, Bohemia (now Jihlava, Czech Republic); Died, 1911, Vienna)


Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp minor

Part I.
– Trauermarsch (Funeral March)
– Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (In turbulent motion. With greatest vehemence)

Part II.
– Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (With strength, but not too fast)

Part III.
– Adagietto : Sehr langsam (Very slowly)
– Rondo-Finale: Allegro giocoso. Frish. (Fresh)


Embracing the depth of a Mahler symphony can be difficult.  As a conductor and lifelong student of his Art, his musical references spanned from the religious Renaissance to coarse tavern songs.  Freud’s mind science, Einstein’s theories, William James’ philosophy and James Joyce’s stream of consciousness, all of which Mahler was familiar with, collide with explosions and euphoria, death, awe and bliss.  Juxtapositions and interruptions are integral.  As listeners, we can often find a Mahler symphony an extraordinary, yet mystifying, experience.  We can also find a musical language of astonishing beauty with expressions that reach deeper into our souls than others’ music – Mahler’s can seem to be a music that has been playing in our sub-conscious all along, needing only a performance to illuminate it.  But we often ask ourselves what does it mean, where is the key?  A psychological portrait of Gustav Mahler left from his and others’ recollections presents as something rather neurotic, and though his creative impetus came from numerous sources, it’s clear that his troubled, early years played a tremendous role in his life as a composer in several dimensions: psychologically homeless, confused with the sanctity of death and life, adorer of nature, lost in the world, left seeking to be a child of the universe.  It would all play deeply in his approach to compositions for his lifetime.  His symphonies are a result of all of this.


Taken as a set, all nine (and his unfinished tenth) of his symphonies explore nearly every spiritual and metaphysical question known to man: what is death, resurrection, heaven, afterlife, hellishness, beauty, desolation, sorrow, joy?  To say that Mahler was preoccupied with death, as so many musicologists have suggested, somewhat unfairly misses the mark.  It’s true that, more than any other composer, Mahler’s works incorporate death themes, but an appreciation of all of his works, and of his life, point more to his obsession with understanding Life, of which death was an integral part.  Regarding his Fifth Symphony, which starts out with a numbingly grief stricken funeral march but which is gradually overtaken by joy, death is a part of the whole fabric of the work.  The death themes wind their way throughout the whole symphony, but so do their antonyms, joy and love, as well.  As with all of his symphonies, the musical expression – the duality of life and death and the pluralities of experience – was about how life presented itself to Mahler.  That philosophy seems especially integrated in his Fifth.  Mahler’s music is always heady stuff, but he could never steer away from being a philosopher in music, and he wasn’t afraid of being vulnerable or frightening.  But then, neither was Beethoven, to whose Fifth Symphony Mahler’s own Fifth plays homage.


The Funeral March that begins the Fifth, particularly the lone trumpet fanfare, had its genesis in the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which follows a program of the life and death of a child and then its view of heaven.  It would seem that the Fifth was a further examination of the story, perhaps from the perspective of the dead child’s mourners, but in 1901-1902, when Mahler wrote his Fifth, he exclaimed “Down with programs!”  After four eccentric previous symphonies, each of them tied to underlying programs, Maher had turned an artistic corner, much like Beethoven had done almost 100 years prior in composing his monumental Fifth.      [ . . .]    It’s a bit disingenuous, however, of Mahler to say his Fifth was program-less; all of his symphonies are self-portraits and followed philosophical themes.

[. . .]

The second movement is an agitated, angry piece.  Its disturbed feel reminds one of something his wife, Alma, said when they first met: “[Mahler is like] pure oxygen… get too close and you will get burned.”  Dreams still tumble, despite moments of respite, and themes from the first movement begin their musical process, much like in psychotherapy.  For example, the haunting second theme of the first movement reappears here in a dream-like way – its elements the same but blurred and half remembered.  The agitations, however, return and then give way to a glorious and grand chorale section.  These are the moments in Mahler’s music that shine like no others – out of a mental darkness breaks forth an incredible moment of gratitude and joy, all the more exquisite because of its juxtaposition on the other.  But it is short lived, and again, like the first movement, all diminishes into a solemn timpani “thunk.”

[. . .]

Part II, the scherzo, was the first movement of this Symphony that Mahler composed.  It’s a tremendously sprawling movement, the longest of any of the five.   [. . .]


When rays of sun glint through the filament of butterfly wings, we have the exquisite harp part to the Adagietto.  Or is it when the morning’s cool mists creep off the lake’s edge into the mountain crags?  In music that only Mahler could conceive, the first movement of Part III, the Adagietto. is all of this and none of it – reminiscent of Wagner’s Life/Death love theme from Tristan und Isolde – Mahler captures something beyond expression, as mysteriously effusive as love and grief.  Yearning seems to be of prominence, with the movement’s many suspended notes, with its timelessness … with its poignant beauty.  So unique is this Adagietto that depending on the tempo it’s given in a particular performance, its character changes dramatically – from a love song when performed fast to devastatingly grief-stricken when slow.  And any of these characters, according to Mahler the conductor, is correct.  In the context of the entire Symphony, too, either could be right.  Its material draws from a song Mahler wrote earlier which ends with the strain “I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song.”  As such, this Adagietto, among much of any music ever written, inhabits a mystical and beautiful world of its own.


After a moment such as the Adagietto, a transition into the wild Finale needs a tender touch.  Mahler does this with surprising simplicity, [. . .]