Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 5

Program from 1906 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 5

The Carnegie Hall and NY premiere of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony took place on February 15, 1906 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Gericke.

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Upcoming Events

Sun, Dec 20, 2009 at 3 PM
The MET Orchestra
James Levine, Music Director and Conductor
MAHLER Symphony No. 5

The Symphony at a Glance

After Beethoven, fifth symphonies became special landmarks for composers working in the Austro-German symphonic tradition. Mahler’s is an epic work: large in scale, extreme in its expressive character, abundant in its musical ideas and invention. Its five movements create a broad sonic arch, capped by an elaborate Scherzo. Flanking this, to start the symphony, are a funeral march followed by music of violent intensity; and following the Scherzo, a dream-like Adagietto and an ebullient, contrapuntally embellished finale.


The Symphony In Depth

Concertgoers familiar with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony may recall that the first movement contains a trumpet call remarkably similar to that which opens the Fifth. This fact may be symbolically regarded as Mahler’s conscious effort to move ahead in a new direction in the Fifth, yet at the same time to show that the new must build on the foundations of the old.

What then is new? Mahler’s newfound and deep acquaintance with Bach probably had much to do with his new compositional style, which Bruno Walter called “intensified polyphony.” The orchestral fabric becomes more complicated—more instruments playing more different lines at the same time. Mahler’s style becomes generally less lyrical, and more angular and hard-edged. Hymns of love, childlike faith, and quasi-religious messages tend to be replaced by moods of tragic irony, bitterness, and cynicism. This new approach did not come easily to Mahler. The piano score was written during the summer months of 1901 and 1902, and was orchestrated during the fall of 1902, but thereafter Mahler continually revised the work. According to his wife, Alma, whom he had met and married during the period in which the symphony was written, “from the Fifth onward, he found it impossible to satisfy himself; the Fifth was differently orchestrated for practically every performance.”

One is often reminded that the Fifth is a purely symphonic work—no vocal or choral movements are found here, no texts philosophizing about joy, love, death, or resurrection—in contradistinction to the Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies, the so-called Wunderhorn symphonies, which take their texts from a collection of German folk poetry. The First may also be regarded as containing vocal elements in the form of extended passages orchestrated from previously written songs. Yet even in the Fifth, we find brief allusions to three songs—the first of the Kindertotenlieder in the first movement, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” in the adagietto, and “Lob des hohen Verstandes” in the finale.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 5 (I. Trauermarsch)

The symphony opens with a funeral march (Audio 1), a type of music found in every one of Mahler’s ten symphonies except the Fourth and Eighth. To the ponderous, thickly scored tread of the march is added a gentle lament in the strings. Suddenly the music erupts in wild, impassioned strains. The ever-changing, kaleidoscopic aspect of Mahler’s orchestration is heard in its fullest expression. Eventually the funeral march music reasserts itself, and after a nightmarish climax, the movement disintegrates in ghostly echoes of the trumpet call.

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 5 (II. Stürmisch bewegt)

The second movement (Audio 2) shares many qualities with the first, both emotionally and thematically. Easily identifiable variants and transformations of the first movement’s melodic material can be found. The turbulent, stormy mood continues and is elaborated. Titanic paroxysms of violent rage race uncontrolled in some of the most feverish music ever written. Quiet interludes recall the funeral lament of the first movement. Toward the end of the movement gleams a ray of hope as the brass proclaim a fragment of a victory chorale, an anticipatory gesture that will find its fulfillment in the symphony’s closing pages.

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 5 (III. Scherzo)

The despair and anguish of the first two movements (Part I) are abruptly dispelled in the life-affirming Scherzo (Part II) (Audio 3)—the longest and most complex scherzo Mahler ever wrote. The tremendous energy that infuses the scherzo segments alternates with nostalgic and wistful interludes in waltz or ländler rhythm. One is tempted to imagine Mahler’s Austrian landscapes, the peasant dances, and the bustle and joy of life. The role of the principal horn becomes nearly that of a concerto soloist.

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 5 (IV. Adagietto)

Audio Audio Excerpt 5

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 5 (V. Rondo-Finale)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

Part III consists of the Adagietto (Audio 4)—surely the most famous single movement in all of Mahler—and the Finale. In the Adagietto, scored only for strings and harp, we return to a romantic dream world familiar from Mahler’s earlier works—a world of quiet contemplation, benign simplicity, inner peace, and escape from harsh reality. The spiritual, textural, and harmonic relationship to Mahler’s song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world … I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song”) are too close to be ignored. This oasis of innigkeit (inwardness) provides an extraordinary contrast to the sheer exuberance of the previous scherzo and to the upcoming wildly extroverted finale (Audio 5). Near the end of the symphony, the brass chorale is recalled, heard previously in the second movement, but now bursting forth in full glory and triumph. The metamorphosis from grief and death to joy and life is complete.

—Robert Markow
© 2008 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation