Symphony Notes for Week Six

Symphony no. 5 in C-sharp Minor/D Major         

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler was born in on July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia, and died on May 18, 1911, in Vienna. He was one of the most gifted conductors of his generation and a musician of unusually passionate conviction. These features manifest themselves vividly in his compositions, which comprise 10 symphonies, songs for voice and piano, and for voice and orchestra. The Symphony No. 5 received its premiere in Cologne on Oct. 18, 1904, with Mahler conducting that city’s Gürzenich Orchestra. The work is scored for four flutes (third and fourth doubling on piccolo), three oboes (third doubling on English horn), three clarinets (third doubling on D clarinet), bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.

“Mahler was the child and beneficiary as well as the captive and victim of … diverse elements; he was Jewish in religious background, German in upbringing, Bohemian by environment, pan-European in his adult thinking. As brilliant artistic, medical, and scientific achievements enhanced the Austrian image in inverse ratio to its political, diplomatic, and military decline, Mahler became the final gigantic cornerstone of a period which reached a climactic finale with his massive musical canvasses at the sunset of a century, of romanticism, and of a dynasty.” —Egon Gartenberg, Mahler, the Man and his Music (New York, 1978)

By the end of 1897, Mahler had triumphed over earlier adversity to be named the principal conductor and artistic director of the Imperial Royal Opera House in Vienna. Soon thereafter he followed the legendary Hans Richter as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. This new, and sometimes stormy, relationship lasted until 1901, the year in which Mahler began work on his Symphony No. 5. For the moment, at least, Vienna, that most musical of cities, lay at his feet.

No less an important event of 1901 was the beginning of Mahler’s relationship with the young and beautiful Alma Maria Schindler, the woman who was to become his wife in the next year. The 20-year-old daughter of the painter, Emil Jakob Schindler, was herself a gifted composer. Mahler was twice Alma’s age and he proved to be a demanding consort and husband, demanding nothing less than total and unconditional dedication to him and his career. Mahler forbade her to compose, instructing her under no uncertain terms that her job was to take care of family matters and to stand by him through thick and thin. While an understandable resentment on her part ensued, she at first accepted his unyielding terms.

The year 1901 marked a new beginning for Mahler as the composer. The previous year witnessed the completion of his Symphony No. 4 — the last of four symphonies that were related in one way or another to songs, especially those with poems derived from the anthology known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn, published in 1805). Mahler’s interest in the poetry of Friedrich Rückert yielded a new orchestral song cycle, Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), as well as some additional songs for voice and piano. Mahler continued work on these songs from 1900 through 1902.

The major symphonic project of this period, however, was the Fifth Symphony. Mahler himself considered the piece to mark a new beginning in his development as a composer. The absence of a specific extra-musical reference did force Mahler to rely on his mastery of form, orchestration, melody and harmony to carry the day. Much has been made of Mahler’s handling of counterpoint in the Fifth Symphony. While there certainly are elaborate passages of imitative and non-imitative counterpoint (especially in the Rondo-Finale), the Fifth derives much of its character from its melody and color (the heavenly Adagietto, scored for strings only, comes to mind), and, above all, its near hysterical expressiveness (Movements 2 and 3).

Despite the absence of either a specific literary text or overt reference to any external inspiration, this “abstract” (i.e., nonprogrammatic) symphony fairly cries out for explication. Mahler arranged its five movements into three distinct sections:

(1) Funeral March (Trauermarsch), and (2) Stormily, with utmost vehemence (Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz)

(3) Scherzo: Powerfully, not too fast (Kräftig, nicht zu schnell)

(4) Adagietto (Sehr langsam), leading without break to (5) Rondo-Finale: Allegro

The thematic recall of the march within the second movement clearly justifies the joining of the first two movements. Some have identified the Trauermarsch as an introduction to the faster second movement, but its sheer size argues against such an interpretation. More to the point, it is not out of place to question why Mahler would begin this symphony with a funeral march at all. The fact that he had done so earlier in his Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) makes the question all the more intriguing. What death — real or symbolic — is being observed here? And why write so elaborate a tempo indication — “Funeral March. In Measured Pace. Strongly. Like a Processional” — when the character of the music seems to have no need of so obvious a description?

After all is said and done, it is Mahler’s handling — now subtle, now overpowering — of his huge orchestra that lingers in the memory. It is strange to think that Mahler was never satisfied with the orchestration of the work, effecting changes virtually every time he conducted it after its premiere in Cologne on Oct. 18, 1904. The program for the premiere was an interesting one: Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, intermission, three songs by Franz Schubert (Ständchen “Zögernd leise” for mezzo-soprano, piano and female chorus; “Bei dir allein,” “Nacht und Träume” and “Das Lied im Grünen” for voice and piano), concluding with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. It was as if Mahler were telling his audience, “Listen first to my symphony, and then see how it relates to the musical heritage to which it belongs.” (The author of these notes was privileged to hear this very program performed by the Gürzenich Orchestra of Köln on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Fifth Symphony’s premiere.) Another fascinating document concerning the first movement of the symphony is a “recorded” performance of the composer playing it on the piano, as preserved on a Welte-Mignon piano roll.

Nobody, once having heard Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, can forget the stunning impact of its opening trumpet fanfare or the spectacular solos for the French horn, especially in the scherzo. No less memorable are the chorale-like passages for the entire brass section in the Rondo-Finale, or the hauntingly beautiful scoring for harp and strings in the Adagietto, whose strains reverberate throughout Visconti’s film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The folkish lives in close proximity to the urbane throughout the work, just as raucous outbursts dwell side by side with the most refined sensitivity. The Fifth Symphony begins in death, but ends in a joyous affirmation of life. Mahler himself opined that a symphony “must contain the world.” The job of the artist, he once told his assistant, Bruno Walter, is to take disparate sounds and “to organize them into an intelligible entity.” The Fifth Symphony represents an important and magisterial step toward Mahler’s realization of that lofty goal.

David B. Levy is professor of music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He will present a pre-concert lecture on Thursday’s program at 6:45 p.m. in the Hurlbut Church sanctuary.

Tags : Chautauqua Symphony OrchestraGustav MahlerSymphony no. 5 in C-sharp Minor/D Majorsymphony notes
David Levy

The author David Levy