On the night of 24th/25th February 1901, Mahler very nearly died from a serious intestinal haemorrhage. The doctors admitted the next day that he owed his life to their rapid intervention. This probably goes some way to explaining the almost exclusively ‘funeral’ or ‘despairing’ nature of the music he composed the following summer: four Rückert Lieder, three Kindertoten Lieder, as well as the first movements of the Fifth Symphony. The only exception is the first of the five movements, the Scherzo, which can be interpreted as a new Dankgesang eines Genesenen (Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent), like the Largo of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15.
In fact, this is one of the rare optimistic moments that can be found in Mahler’s music which, in its entirety, exudes happiness and a certain joie de vivre. On the other hand, nothing is more sombre or despairing than the first two movements, which suggests they were drafted by Mahler during the same summer. The following year, Mahler completed the Symphony with a final “part” which included the famous Adagietto and the Rondo Finale. He came up with a type of ‘architecture’ which he would go on to use in the Seventh Symphony. He would never, however, make the Scherzo the real core or centre of the piece in the same way as he did here. And never again would there be another quite so vast, complex, and polyphonic composition.
When Mahler returned to Maiernigg at the end of June 1902, he began a new life Indeed, he was accompanied by his young and radiant wife, Alma, who had replaced his sister Justi as mistress of the house.
Alma was a musician, she had composed, played the piano very well and would soon use these skills to help her husband, spending long hours copying the score for his new symphony. Locked away in his Häuschen, in his isolated studio in the heart of the forest, Mahler did not usually come down to take a bath in the lake, before lunch, until very late. He did not keep his wife informed about his creative work, but secretly composed a Lied just for her, Liebst du um Schönheit. This is one of the most beautiful declarations of love ever dedicated by a composer to his partner.
On 24th August, three days before leaving for Vienna, Mahler wrote to two of his friends telling them he had finished his piece. It was at this moment that he chose to share his happiness with Alma. “Almost solemnly”, he took her by the arm and took her to the Häuschen, where he played her the entire symphony on the piano. Alma was appreciative of the piece, but questioned the final climax, the brass chorale, which she felt was “ecclesiastical and uninteresting”. Mahler then cited her the example of Bruckner and his apotheoses in the form of Chorales, but gave up trying to explain the ambiguity of this triumph, which reproduced, note for note, one of the melodic fragments launched, in a humorous and casual manner, by the clarinet in the opening bars of the Rondo.
As always, during the winter months, Mahler worked out the details of his score, the final copy of which he did not finish until the autumn of 1903, at the same time as his wife finished her own. But the story of the Fifth Symphony was only just beginning.
The first performances
One of the leading publishers in Germany, C.F. Peters, offered to edit the symphony which represented an entirely new phenomenon in Mahler’s career. The principal conductor of the famous Gürzenich Konzerte in Cologne decided to make the Fifth Symphony the highlight of the 1904/5 season. Unfortunately, at the reading rehearsal in September 1904, a month before the première with the Vienna Philharmonic, Mahler was overcome with doubts about the effectiveness of his instrumentation and Alma confirmed his concerns by telling him: “You’ve written it for percussion and nothing else!” For the first time, in fact, the absolute mastery Mahler had acquired in the field of the orchestra had been overshadowed by the evolution of his style, when it had been more a question of upholding clarity in an ever more strict polyphonic fabric. It was at this point that the endless chronicle of different versions of the Fifth Symphony began. Bruno Walter later claimed that the advance paid to Mahler by Peters was spent solely on never-ending score revisions and corrections, which at this point had already been already printed. The last version dates back to 1909 but, despite the promise made to Mahler shortly before his death, Peters would never publish it, and it was not printed until 1964. In fact, the company director, Henri Hinrischen, was completely discouraged by the resounding failures of the piece and what it cost him in monetary terms. He even ended up admitting to Arnold Schönberg that he was thinking of destroying the printing plates. We know only too well the horrified reaction of the young composer which was illustrated in an extensive article which he devoted to his illustrious elder in 1912.
The first performance of the Fifth Symphony, by the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra, was held in Cologne on 18th October 1904. It was conducted by Mahler himself. Some two years after his first success as a composer, with the Third Symphony in 1902, Mahler finally enjoyed real fame in Germany. And yet neither the public nor the critics seemed ready to follow his creative evolution. Any applause was still overshadowed by whistles and boos and the next day the press would once again go on the rampage. A year later, during the Viennese creation, the formidable Robert Hirschfeld, the most virulent and anti-Mahler Viennese critic, dubbed the composer the “Meyerbeer of the symphony”. While admitting there had been sustained applause, he accused the Viennese of having bad taste and, not content with just being interested in the “anomalies of nature”, now only had ears for the “abnormalities of the mind”.
Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has five movements:
Everything in the Fifth Symphony is evocative of a master composer who has reached his peak but, at the same time, someone who feels a deep need to reinvent themselves. From the Fifth Symphony, Richard Specht spoke of “a first attempt at reorganising (Gestalten) the world starting with the individual self”. Above all, it was a movement towards abstraction, towards forgetting any reference to the past (le Knaben Wunderhorn), to childhood or paradise (the Fourth Symphony), to major philosophical-religious themes (the Second Symphony) or even Pantheism (the Third Symphony). What’s more, it was an effort towards creating a new style of orchestral writing, enriching the sound palette and towards a denser, more coherent and harmonious symphonic form (numerous thematic reminders, the interdependence of the first and last two pieces which were combined to form a single “part”). Although there are still indisputable thematic relationships between the Fifth Symphony and his contemporary lieders, Mahler took the decisive step to move towards an exclusively orchestral art which would define his work from that point forward and for the rest of his short life, with the exception of the Eighth Symphony and the Song of the Earth.
-1- – Im gemessenen Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt [Measured. Severe. Like a funeral march.], 2/2, C sharp minor.
Just like with the Second Symphony, nine years earlier, the Fifth Symphony starts with a monumental funeral march. The symphonic hero is “carried to the ground”. However this time, the imaginary spectator, or symphonic narrator if you prefer, does not revolt against destiny
or a tragic but ineluctable reality. Instead he faces it with a noble and haughty resignation; he expresses himself with a pathetic but impersonal tone, even during the violent first interlude and the elegiac gentle second. The absence of conflict, or even of any real contrast, can be considered the cause – or consequence – of the abandonment of the sonata-form: the thematic material constantly evolves from a set of cells according to a process so typical of Mahler compositions during this period of maturity. At the same time, the need to return to the starting tone is no longer deemed necessary and the work begun in C sharp minor ends in D major. In the Fifth Symphony’s funeral march, the
two episodes that we somewhat hesitate to name “Trios” in the first instance, even though they both respond to an obvious desire to create the usual expected contrast, use themes derived from earlier materials. The trumpet fanfare, which immediately defines the character of the movement, is most probably a distant childhood memory and a time when a young Mahler heard calls from the Iglau barracks and attended military music parades in front of his parents’ house The same fanfare reappears moreover as a sort of tune, with the consistent aim of linking together the different episodes or verses of the March. The theme itself (violins and cellos) belongs to the same era as that of
the last Wunderhorn Lied, Der Tambourg’sell, composed in the same summer of 1901. During its second exposition, (violins and woodwind), it is followed by a new “consoling” element (in A flat) in sixths, characterised by the same dotted rhythm.
“In the first secondary episode (Plötzlich schneller. Leidenschaftlich. Wild. [Suddenly faster. Passionate Wild] B-Flat minor), the emotion is in controlled bursts and unleashes into feverish patterns of eighth notes, supported by syncopating chords from the horns. The resumption of the march theme and episode of “”consolation”” restores calm and leads to the second “”Trio””. The gentleness and resignation are far removed
from the expressionist violence of the previous Trio, and yet the thematic substance is entirely made up of variations from earlier motifs. Of particular interest is the distancing effect achieved by Mahler in the last bars by use of a new technique: a flute echoing the ascending arpeggio of the trumpet”
-2- Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz [Stormy and animated. With great vehemence.], 2/2, A minor.
Mahler’s letters to C.F. Peters show that he considered this sonata form Allegro to be the first true movement in the symphony. The beginning of the exposition does not have a real theme, but rather a short bass ostinato, followed by a choppy motif in ascending and descending scales. The authentic first subject does not appear until later, with the first violins. As for the second theme, (Bedeutend langsam [Much slower], it is none other than an almost literal quote from the second “Trio” of the initial march The exhibition is followed by an extensive Durchführung in which anxiety and fever reach levels rarely surpassed in Mahler’s entire symphonic repertoire. The feelings released here are so violent, (revolt, despair, painful frenzy), that it is no surprise to then see the apparent disregard of the usual classic criteria: just when we expect the return of the first subject, it is the second which reappears in E minor. It does not take long, however, to return to the main motifs of the first movement. As a result, these two subjects, so strongly contrasted in the beginning, end up being somewhat confused. At the end of the resumption, the ascending and “optimistic” elements seem to have the upper hand. Indeed, the brass instruments play a triumphal hymn in the form of a chorale. But this victory is short-lived and everything, including the anguish and mystery, end in the night. “The old storm is reduced to a powerless echo,” Theodor Adorno so aptly wrote.
-3- Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell [Vigourous. Not too fast.] 3/4 D major
No transition here manages to soften the break in tone between the despair of the Allegro and the radiant good humour of the Scherzo. Not only is it Mahler’s most extensive Scherzo (819 bars), but it is one of the few in which no element slips and therefore be considered a parody or caricature. Moreover, everything in this Scherzo is surprising, not only the gigantic proportions but also its thematic elaboration which is as complex and detailed as that of a sonata movement. The first “obligato” horn, which plays a solo role throughout virtually the whole movement, exposes the main subject of the Ländler. Its robust good humour is barely contradicted by an asymmetrical counterpoint which thwarts the ternary rhythm. As for the secondary episode, it is a “fugato” in eighth notes. Its very presence in a dance movement is unusual to say the least. However, it plays a vital role in future developments.
The graceful and hesitant rhythm of the first trio (etwas ruhiger [A little quieter]) no longer characterises a country ländler, but rather a city waltz. This first Trio is separated from the second by a repeat of the Scherzo and by a first development of the fugue episode. Entrusted to the horns, romantic instruments par excellence, the dreamy songs of the second Trio transport us from the world of dance to the world of nature. Later, however, the rhythmic and melodic elements of the three different episodes become closely entangled and are developed simultaneously. In the final coda, the melee becomes inextricable. When it reaches its climax, the Viennese waltz is interrupted, with an almost Beethoven-like abruptness by a double return of the initial Scherzo motif.
-4- Adagietto (Sehr langsam) [Very slow], 4/4, F major
After such an explosive joie de vivre, it would have been inconceivable to end the symphony in a tragic fashion, and even more inconceivable to insert another movement of the same playful character after the Scherzo. It was therefore necessary to provide a contrast and this is the
main reason for the famous Adagietto, or”lied without words” which belongs solely to the strings section of the orchestra and is discreetly
accompanied by the harp. The central episode develops and amplifies the initial theme, which works its way through varying distant tones before being recapitulated. However, this repeat is actually much more apparent than real. Indeed, at this time of his creative life, Mahler refrained from literal recapitulations and refused to look back. Instead, this was a time for meditation and to forget about things going on in the world, just like in the Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen lied, which is so similar in terms of theme. As hinted by Willem Mengelberg, should we consider this small movement as a new message of love from Mahler to his wife? As much as one hesitates to question
the testimony of one of Mahler’s closest friends, and of one of his favourite interpreters, it seems surprising that Alma never later alluded to this new love confession, she who was so often happy to recall the testimonies of love she had received from the four great men in her life.
Anyway, those who are quick to judge the charm of this tender “reverie” and its immediate attraction would do well to closely examine the score, to see just how much care, refinement and love has been put into carving out each bar and each melodic line. Of particular interest, the way in which Mahler created an effect of weightlessness by avoiding to introduce the fundamental note of the chord, that is to say the tonic, in the first two bars ; this suspension of time effect is achieved at the end of the piece by a series of delays as if each note is hesitating to go down again and only regretfully regains its place within the perfect chord. Mahler does not proceed otherwise, not when he wants to evoke the essence of eternity at the end of the Song of the Earth.
-5- Rondo Finale. (Allegro; Allegro giocoso) 2/2, D Major.
The woodwind instrument introduction takes on an unusual allure of a joyful and entertaining improvisation. Either way, the various random patterns play a vital role in future developments. One of them s none other than a quote from an 1896 Wunderhorn Lied, Lob des hohen
Verstandes [In praise of high intellect], a humorous account of a singing competition between the cuckoo and the nightingale, at the end of which a donkey, the official arbitrator, announces the wiser of the two as the winner, in other words, the cuckoo. Mahler had originally entitled this Lied “Critics Praise”. Perhaps here he was referring to the “infernal judges” from the press who were sure to act like the donkey in the poem and condemn his symphony. In any case, it is difficult to imagine that such a faithful self-quotation could not be significant in one way or another.
Strictly speaking, the first subject of the Rondo is taken directly from the finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Its general form takes its inspiration from Beethoven, half-sonata, half-rondo, and Beethoven also influenced Mahler to introduce fugue elements to the piece. The first of these “fugatos” comes immediately after the introduction of the main theme. As a counter-subject he uses the motive launched by the clarinet during the Introduction. The Wunderhorn theme then feeds into a new episode (Grazioso) by the strings, which we soon realise is a simple metamorphosis of the Adagietto’s central development, here repeated in its entirety! The second recapitulation of the chorus (this time with varied rhythms) is followed by a new and even more developed “fugato” evoking memories of the Adagietto.
After a false repeat recapitulation of the main subject (in A flat, on the bass strings), the third development follows the melody from the Adagietto and gradually accelerates, ending in swirling scales. It is at this point that the brass chorale makes its entrance. This displeased Alma. Similar to the second movement, it reproduces, note for note, the flippant refrain given to the clarinet during the Introduction. And this is what symbolises the definitive victory of the forces of life and creation. With its inexhaustible abundance of themes and motifs, the magic of the kaleidoscope of sound, in which ever familiar fragments and melodic cells are repeated, always true to themselves and yet still fresh, this song of glory only confirms the feeling of euphoria generated from the very beginning of the Rondo.
Theodor Adorno noted, with just cause, that the measures which follow the chorale, and which bring the movement to a close, are somewhat distorted and parodic, likening them to a “whiff of sulphur”. Behind the superficial splendour of Mahler’s first brilliant Finale, where Mahler seems to be attempting to revive the vigour of classical forms and techniques, there is a veritable feeling of uneasiness. But isn’t the turmoil of the artist’s everyday life a destructive force insofar as it diverts him from his creative mission? Already, Wagner’s Master Singers had taught us that this “learned” style could generate parodic effects and that it lent itself to delectable caricatures. Thus the final triumph of the Fifth is somewhat puzzling. Everything suggests that Mahler had instinctively taken on responsibility for the uncertainty, doubt, secret anguish and fundamental ambiguity that was so prevalent during his time and which still weigh heavily on the world today. It can even be said that this ambiguity is one of the main underlying themes that influenced his art, the very thing which contributed to its bountiful richness and infinite relevance, and at the same time opened up the most unexpected and abundant perspectives. Had Mahler deduced that, at a primary level, the ordinary apotheosis always becomes stronger as time passes