MAHLER:  Symphony No. 5 in C‑sharp minor

Gustav Mahler was born at Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia, on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He composed the Symphony No. 5 in 1901‑02 and led the first performance with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne on October 18, 1904, having conducted a read‑through with the Vienna Philharmonic earlier that year. Frank van der Stucken conducted the first North American performance with the Cincinnati Symphony on March 25, 1905. The San Francisco Symphony first played the work, with Josef Krips conducting, in May 1970. The most recent performances, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, were given in October 2009. The score calls for four flutes (two doubling piccolo), three oboes and English horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, bass drum with cymbals attached, snare drum, triangle, glockenspiel, tam-tam, slapstick, harp, and strings. Performance time: about seventy-five minutes.

In the first movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a sunny exposition leads to a surprisingly shadowed development. Its explosive climax is quickly stifled, and, across the muttering of a few instruments, a trumpet calls the orchestra to order with an insistent fanfare. A variant of this fanfare opens the Symphony No. 5. There is no obvious explanation for this link. But the fanfare is too arresting, and it is too critically placed in both symphonies, to ignore some relationship. Let us speculate. In 1901, at the juncture of completing the Fourth Symphony and beginning the Fifth, Mahler was conscious of taking a new path. Perhaps, as he set out, he wanted to show that the seed for the new was to be found in the old.

In what sense is the Fifth Symphony new? After a run of unconventional symphonies, Mahler comes back to a more “normal” design, one that could be described as concentric as well as symmetrical. In the First Symphony, the orchestra plays long passages from Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, and the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies actually include singing. While the Fifth also alludes to three of Mahler’s songs, it is essentially an instrumental conception. This movement toward the purely orchestral is tied to another change in Mahler’s work. Except for a few brief departures, Mahler for thirteen years had set only texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. But in July 1901, he composed his last Wunderhorn song and turned to the writings of Friedrich Rückert, setting six of his poems that month and next.

With that change of literary inspiration, a certain kind of “open” Wunderhorn lyricism disappears from Mahler’s symphonies. The music becomes leaner and harder. About this time Mahler acquired the complete edition of Bach. At least partly in consequence of his excited discovery of what was in those volumes, his textures become more polyphonic. But this new “intensified polyphony,” as Bruno Walter called it, demanded a new orchestral style, and this did not come easily. Mahler was always a pragmatist in orchestration, tending to revise in response to his experience conducting his own works or hearing them under a trusted colleague like Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam, but never did he find he had so thoroughly miscalculated a sound as in the first version of the Fifth, with its apparently deafening barrage of percussion. He made alterations until at least 1907.

Mahler's wife, Alma, was ill and could not accompany him to Cologne for the premiere, and to that unhappy circumstance we owe one of the composer’s most remarkable and delightful letters, written just after the first rehearsal. Of the symphony he wrote: “Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? 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?”

For the composer Ernst Krenek, the Fifth Symphony is the work with which Mahler enters “upon the territory of the ‘new’ music of the twentieth century.” And to return for a moment to Mahler’s report from Cologne: “Oh that I might give my symphony its first performance fifty years after my death! . . . Oh that I were a Cologne town councilor with a box at the Municipal Theater and at the Gürzenich Hall and could look down upon all modern music!”

Mahler casts the work in five movements, but some large Roman numerals in the score indicate a more basic division into three sections, consisting respectively of the first two, the third, and the last two movements. At the center stands the Scherzo, its place in the design pleasingly ambiguous in that it is framed between larger structural units (Sections I and III) but is itself longer than any other single movement.

Mahler begins with funeral music. He starts here with the summons of the single trumpet. Most of the orchestra is drawn into this darkly sonorous exordium, whose purpose is to prepare a lament sung by violins and cellos. At least that is how it is sung to begin with, but it is characteristic of Mahler’s scoring that colors and textures, weights and balances, degrees of light and shade shift from moment to moment. Something else that changes is the melody itself. Ask six friends who know this symphony to sing this dirge for you and you may well get six versions, no two of them identical but all of them correct. It is a wonderful play of perpetual variation.

The opening music comes back. Again the summons leads to the inspired threnody, unfolded this time at greater breadth and with a more intense grieving. Yet again the trumpet recalls the symphony's first bars, but this time, suddenly, with utmost violence and across a brutally simple accompaniment, violins fling forth a whipping downward scale and the trumpet is pushed to scream its anguish. An attempt to introduce a loftier strain is quickly swept aside. Gradually Mahler returns to the original slow tempo and to the cortege we have come to associate with it, and it is here that he alludes for a moment to one of the songs of that rich summer of 1901. It is the first of the Rückert Kindertotenlieder, and the line is the poet’s bitter greeting to the first sunrise after the death of his child. When the whipping violin scale returns it is in the context of the slow tempo, and the movement disintegrates in ghostly reminders of the fanfare and a savagely final punctuation mark.

What we have heard so far is a slow movement with a fast interruption. There follows its inversion, a quick movement that returns several times to the tempo of the funeral march. These two parts of Section I actually share thematic material. Still more variants of the great threnody appear, and the grieving commentary that accompanied the melody in the first movement comes more insistently into the foreground, to the point of transforming itself for a moment into a march of unseemly jauntiness. Now trumpets and trombones intone a chorale, the symphony’s first extended music in a major key. But it is too soon for victory. The grand proclamation vanishes, and this movement, too, dematerializes in a passage of the most astounding orchestral fantasy.

As we reach the middle member of Mahler’s symphonic triptych, four horns in unison declare the opening of the Scherzo. The voice of a single horn detaches itself from that call, the beginning of a challenging obbligato for the principal player. This is country music, by turns ebullient, nostalgic, and a mite parodistic. There is room even for awe as horns speak and echo across deep mountain gorges. It is exuberantly inventive too, its energies fed by the bold ingenuity of Mahler’s polyphony, and it is brilliantly set for the orchestra.

The diminutive in the title of the famous fourth movement, the Adagietto, refers to its brevity and is not meant as a qualification of its adagio‑ness; indeed, in the first three measures alone Mahler tells the conductor three times and in two languages that he wants it “very slow.” If any single movement can convey the essence of Mahler’s heartache, the Adagietto is it. The orchestra is reduced to strings with harp, and one could go on learning forever from the uncanny sense of detail with which Mahler moves those few strands of sound. If the harp part were lost and one had to reconstruct it, figuring out the right harmonies would be easy, but nobody could ever guess Mahler’s hesitating rhythm or his sensitive spacing of those chords.

The Adagietto is cousin to one of Mahler’s first Rückert songs, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—“I am Lost to the World.” It is not so much a matter of quotation or allusion as of drawing twice from the same well. Adagietto and song share characteristic features of contour, harmony, and texture. The song ends with the lines, “I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song.” Our knowledge of those words confirms our sense of what Mahler wishes to tell us in this page of his symphony.

After the brightness of the Scherzo, Mahler sets the Adagietto in a darker key. Then, in a most delicately imagined passage, he finds his way back to the light. As abruptly as he had moved from the tragedy of the first two movements into the joyous vitality of the Scherzo, Mahler now leaves behind the hesitations and cries of his Adagietto to dive into the radiant, abundant finale. It is superb comedy, so vigorous that it can even include the melody of the Adagietto—in quick tempo—as one of its themes. The brass chorale from the second movement comes back, this time in its full extension, as a gesture of triumph and as a structural bridge across the symphony’s great span. When all is done, though, no one is in the mood for an exalted close, and the symphony ends on a shout of laughter.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)  |  Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)

Reading: Gustav Mahler: Vienna, The Years of Challenge, 1897-1904 and Gustav Mahler: Vienna, Triumph and Disillusion, 1904-1907, by Henry-Louis de la Grange (Oxford)  |  Mahler: A Biography, by Jonathan Carr (Overlook)  |  Thinking With History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism, by Carl E. Schorske, which includes a fascinating chapter on Mahler (Princeton)  |  “Mahler and Sibelius: What More Could There Be?” by Larry Rothe, in For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press)  |  The Mahler Album, compiled by Gilbert Kaplan, an intriguing collection that documents the composer’s life in photographs, sketches, drawings, and newspaper cartoons (Abrams)  |  Also see the website of the International Gustav Mahler Society, gustav-mahler.org/english.

On DVD: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore the composer and his world in Keeping Score: Mahler (SFS Media). Also at keepingscore.org.