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Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

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Gustav Mahler

Upcoming Performances

Image from National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Mahler's Symphony No. 5 / Leonidas Kavakos, violin, plays Sibelius's Violin Concerto National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Mahler's Symphony No. 5 / Leonidas Kavakos, violin, plays Sibelius's Violin Concerto - May 7 - 9, 2015
Leonidas Kavakos--who "combines utter mastery…with rich sound and searching musicianship" (New York Times)--begins his two-week residency with Sibelius's Violin Concerto. Eschenbach continues his Mahler exploration with Symphony No. 5.

Past Performances

Image unvailable for WPAS: The Philadelphia Orchestra WPAS: The Philadelphia Orchestra - Mon., Nov. 29, 2004, 7:30 PM

Image from WPAS: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra WPAS: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Sun., Feb. 3, 2008, 3:00 PM

Image unvailable for National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Mozart & Mahler National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Mozart & Mahler - Oct. 14 - 16, 2010


About the Work

Gustav Mahler
Quick Look Composer: Gustav Mahler
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Mozart & Mahler Oct. 14 - 16, 2010
© Peter Laki

Gustav Mahler had his first brush with death on February 24, 1901.After conducting a concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in the afternoon and an opera (Mozart's Magic Flute) in the evening, he suffered a massive intestinal hemorrhage that necessitated surgical intervention on March 4. The 40-year-old Mahler felt that his last hour had arrived.Although the danger soon passed and Mahler recovered at a remarkable speed, the crisis had a lasting impact on his entire outlook on life and death.

During his convalescence in Abbazia (a famous resort on the Adriatic Sea), Mahler worked on the revision of his Fourth Symphony, and immersed himself in the study of J. S. Bach's works. By the summer, he was in excellent health, and well ensconced in his newly-built summer home at Maiernigg on the Lake of Wörth (close to Pörtschach, where Brahms used to spend so many of his summer holidays). It turned out to be one of the most productive summers in Mahler's life. He was working on Kindertotenlieder, several additional Rückert songs, as well as his final settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn").In addition, he completed the first two movements of his Fifth Symphony during the same summer.

Although this burst of compositional activity is, in and of itself, a sign of great vigor and vitality, there can be no doubt that the main theme of Mahler's 1901 output was death. Kindertotenlieder is about the deaths of children, the Wunderhorn song "Der Tamboursg'sell"("The Drummer Boy") portrays a young man on his way to the gallows, and the Rückert song "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" ("I am lost to the world") is a farewell to life. The opening movement of the Fifth Symphony is a funeral march, whose main theme is closely related to that of "Der Tamboursg'sell." The second movement is a passionate expression of violent pain that incorporates a second funeral march and (after a brief moment of sudden euphoria) sinks back into deep despair.

The first two movements were essentially ready and the scherzo at least sketched when Mahler left Maiernigg to reassume his duties as director of the Vienna Opera at the beginning of the autumn. By the time he resumed work on the symphony the following summer, he had met and married Alma. The movements completed that summer include a gigantic waltz-fantasy titled "Scherzo," the intensely lyrical "Adagietto," and an exuberant Rondo-Finale.

Thus, the passage from death to life, bodily experienced by Mahler in 1901, found direct expression in the symphony.While the general "darkness-to-light" tendency follows an earlier tradition (most notably, Beethoven's Fifth, to which Mahler makes several allusions in his own Fifth), the contrasts are sharper and the extremes of joy and pain greater than ever before. In order to maximize those contrasts and extremes, Mahler abandons traditional tonal unity: the symphony begins in C-sharp minor and ends in D major, a half-step rise symbolic of the spiritual journey completed by the music.

Alma's appearance in Mahler's life certainly changed the way the symphony evolved. We have the testimony of Mahler's confidante, Natalie Bauer-Lechner, to the effect that in 1901, the Fifth was going to be "a proper symphony with four movements, each complete in itself, all connected only by their similar moods. "That description hardly applies to the finished work, even aside from the Adagietto, the movement Mahler added as a declaration of love to Alma.

In its final form, the five movements of the symphony are divided into three parts. The first part includes movements one and two, the second part comprises movement three, while the third part is made up of the last two movements. Thus, the overall form may be understood as two slow/fast movement pairs framing a central scherzo.

Movement I ("In gemessenem Schritt.Streng.Wie ein Kondukt" — "With measured step.Strict.Like a cortege" — C-sharp minor). March rhythms are heard with some frequency in Mahler's symphonies, perhaps due to the impact of the music of the local military barracks in Iglau (now Jihlava) where he grew up. While the march often takes on a tragic or funereal character in Mahler, of no movement is this more true than of the "Kondukt" of the Fifth. After a dramatic introduction started by the first trumpet, the main theme (as mentioned above, a variant of "The Drummer Boy") is played by the violins. The music soon becomes "plötzlich schneller, leidenschaftlich, wild"( "suddenly faster, passionate, wild") and there is a violent outburst of emotions, with the violins playing "as vehemently as possible. "The "drummer boy"theme returns, followed by a second, doleful episode in the same slower tempo. Recalls of the initial trumpet fanfare — played first by the trumpet and then by the first flute —close the movement.

Movement II ("Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz" —"Stormily agitated, with the greatest vehemence" — A minor). The connection between the first and second movements is made evident by many thematic links. The trumpet fanfare that opened the symphony is especially prominent in the second movement, and a close relative of the "drummer-boy" melody appears as a contrasting theme, marked "in the tempo of the funeral march." But the movement has a main motif of its own that recurs several times; its brevity and simplicity make it sound equally fanfare-like (as the trumpet-call in the first movement), though it is played by the strings. In his fascinating analysis of the symphony, David B. Greene calls this theme the "anger"motif, and describes how expressions of anger alternate with "peace-questing sections," which contain many of the moments shared with the first movement.Near the end of the movement, there is a striking, brass-dominated "Pesante" ("Weighty") section that for the first time introduces the bright key of D major in which the symphony will end — an anticipation of the victory that is to come three movements later. For now, however, the prevalent mood is one of pain and grief as the movement ends softly and on an unmistakably tragic note.

Mahler indicated in the score that a long pause must follow this movement. Indeed, Movement III (Scherzo:"Kräftig, nicht zu schnell" — "Forcefully, not too fast" — D major) is as different from the preceding music as can be.In it, Mahler turns to what is (after the march) the other central musical type in his symphonies:the Ländler, and transforms it into a vision of uncommon power. The Ländler, this Austrian folk dance, had played an important role inclassical music since Haydn's time. But Mahler's use of the Ländler is unlike anybody else's.He throws himself into the whirl of 3/4 time with great, unprecedented abandon. The various motifs that unfold before our ears bring about subtle changes from the original Ländler, reminiscent of the Austrian countryside, to its more sophisticated urban cousin, the waltz. The outlines of a traditional scherzo form may be readily discerned; however, there are extended development sections and other irregularities that don't fit in with that form. The various sections are linked by many subtle motivic connections.The variety in orchestration techniques is astonishing (note in particular the use of the solo horn throughout the movement, and the pizzicato, or plucked, strings in the recapitulation of the trio section!). The musical textures used range from the simple "oom-pah-pah" of the waltz to complex fugal procedures. In the words of Henry-Louis de La Grange:"Mahler never revealed more fully his talents as a builder of musical structures and the inexhaustible richness of his invention. He was never surer of himself and his art.This movement represents a unique movement of equilibrium and optimism in his output."

Movement IV (Adagietto — F major). The Adagietto has become one of the most popular pieces Mahler ever wrote, especially since it was featured in Luchino Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice, in which Thomas Mann's original character, the writer Gustav Aschenbach, was transformed into a composer who bore an all-too-clear resemblance to Mahler.

The "Adagietto" is scored for strings and harp only. Its enchanting melody must be played seelenvoll ("soulfully"), according to the instructions in the score.It closely resembles the song "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," mentioned above. The famous Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, who was a close associate of Mahler's, said that this movement was Mahler's declaration of love for Alma, and asserted he had been told so by both Gustav and Alma Mahler. The movement contains a prominent quote from Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, which is surely no accident. The quote confirms that the inner connection between love and death, central to Wagner's opera, must have been also on Mahler's mind.

Movement V ("Rondo-Finale" — D major) follows the "Adagietto" without pause. Like the first-movement funeral march, the finale recalls a song written on a Wunderhorn text. Only this time it is a humorous piece, originally called "Lob des hohen Verstandes"("The Praise of High Intellect") in which the cuckoo and the nightingale have a singing contest, decided by the donkey in the cuckoo's favor.

The descending second half of this theme becomes the starting point for elaborate contrapuntal developments (the intensive study of Bach's works in the spring of 1901 was not for nothing!). This theme keeps changing its form, while one of the rondo's episodes, derived from the "Adagietto," remains more or less the same every time it recurs, providing moments of rest amidst the hectic contrapuntal activity. Shortly before the conclusion, a homophonic, chorale-like melody appears to increase the festive mood in which the symphony ends.

Commentators are divided about whether there is a tinge of Mahlerian irony behind the cheerfulness of this finale. According to the philosopher and musicologist Theodor W. Adorno, whose Mahler book contributed greatly to the cult of the composer, "Mahler was not a good yea-sayer" ("war ein schlechter Jasager"); his expressions of tragedy are always unambiguous while his optimistic statements are usually placed within quotation marks. The quotation marks are made evident here, in part, by the allusion to the satirical song; nevertheless, the resounding enthusiasm of the ending is something entirely new in Mahler's music, as none of his first four symphonies quite matches it in its joyful exuberance.

The first performance in Cologne met with mixed, but at least not unanimously negative, reviews. The Viennese critics, however, were downright hostile after the first performance at Mahler's own hown base. They seemed to take particular delight in tearing the powerful director of the Court Opera to shreds. The most positive early reaction came from a faraway country that,for the moment, meant little to Mahler. The Cincinnati Symphony under Frank van der Stucken gave the American premiere to rave reviews in March 1905. The following year, the symphony was given in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, making Mahler's music better known in American musical circles before the composer himself arrived in the United States in 1907.