The musical canvas and emotional scope of the work, which lasts over an hour, are huge. The symphony is sometimes described as being in the key of C♯ minor since the first movement is in this key (the finale, however, is in D). Mahler objected to the label: "From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the 'whole Symphony', and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted."
Mahler wrote his fifth symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902. This was a time of great change for the composer. On the positive side he moved into his own lakeside villa in the southern Austrianprovince of Carinthia in June 1901. Mahler himself was delighted with his new-found status as the owner of a grand villa. According to friends, he could hardly believe how far he had come from his humble beginnings. He had one of the best jobs in the musical world as Director of the Vienna Court Opera and was the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras. His own music was also starting to be successful. But he had not yet found the love of his life. This last missing element in his life fell into place later in 1901 when he met Alma Schindler. By the time he was back at his summer villa in summer 1902, they were married and she was expecting their first child.
On the negative side, Mahler had experienced severe health problems in February 1901 when he suffered a sudden major hemorrhaging and his doctor later told him that he had come within an hour of bleeding to death. The composer spent quite a while recuperating and doubtless was shaken by the experience.
With so much going on in an artist’s life it is no surprise that the music Mahler started writing in summer 1901 was noticeably different from the music he had previously written. With hindsight we can see that this was the beginning of what was to become Mahler’s middle period. Symphonies five, six and seven all belong to this period and have much in common, and are also markedly different from the first four, which all have strong links to vocal music. For example, symphonies two, three and four all include singers, whereas none of the middle three symphonies have them. The middle symphonies are pure orchestral works and are, by Mahler’s standards, taut and lean. As his wife said of the composer at this time, “he was at the height of his powers”.
Nostalgia begins to creep into the music during Mahler’s middle period. The first four symphonies were written during the composer’s twenties and thirties. The middle three were written by a man in his forties while the last works were written in the shadow of some terrible personal tragedies that struck Mahler in 1907. This nostalgia in Mahler’s music is often linked with music associated with the composer’s love of nature. This is particularly true in the sixth and seventh symphonies where Mahler includes distant cowbells in the orchestra. In the fifth symphony this longing is most clearly heard in the middle movement with its solo horn.
Counterpoint also becomes a more important element in Mahler’s music from the fifth symphony onwards. The ability to write good counterpoint was highly cherished by Baroque composers and Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as the greatest composer of contrapuntal music. Thus, it is only logical that Bach played an important part in Mahler’s musical life at this time. He was a subscriber to the edition of Bach’s collected works that was being published at the turn of the century, later conducting and arranging works by Bach. Mahler’s renewed interest in counterpoint can best be heard in the third and the final movements of the fifth symphony.