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Symphony No. 5 (1901-02)

  • 1. Trauermarsch. In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt
  • 2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz
  • 3. Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell
  • 4. Adagietto. Sehr langsam
  • 5. Rondo-Finale. Allegro - Allegro giocoso. Frisch

Between the completion of his Fourth Symphony, with its ending in a childlike vision of heaven, and his Fifth, which begins with some of his most unremittingly tragic music, Mahler suffered a major crisis in his health from which, reportedly, he nearly died. In February 1901 he had a serious haemorrhage that necessitated an operation and a prolonged period of convalescence. As an immediate result he considerably reduced his huge workload, cutting by half the number of opera performances he conducted (from around 100 to a still substantial 50 a year) and giving up his conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. While convalescing, Mahler took the opportunity to study the music of JS Bach. His delight in the contrapuntal discipline within which he immersed himself is increasingly obvious in his music from this time.

This move towards more objective and constructive concerns might seem to be marked by Mahler's Fifth Symphony, with its apparent distancing from the programmatic outlines, words and human voices employed in his earlier symphonies. But as the Fifth makes abundantly clear, Mahler's retreat from the perils of programmes was absolutely not allied to any reduction of emotional temperature. Indeed, the Fifth is shocking for the intensity of its emotional polarity, from the stark brutality of its opening Funeral March (in C sharp minor) to the joyous affirmation of the chorale with which its Finale ends (in D major). The Symphony falls into three parts that, taken together, trace an astonishing ascent from the negativity of the opening two movements (Part I) written in the summer of 1901, through the exuberant dance of the central Scherzo (Part II), to the passionate and uplifting final two movements of Part III, written in the summer of 1902. In the intervening winter, Mahler met Alma Schindler and, two months later, married her. Their first daughter, Maria, was born on 3 November 1902.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony is constructed in terms of an unremitting opposition. The force of Mahler's orchestra, deployed to sound like a vast military band, presents death as a cold, implacable march, with echoes of Revelge and Tamboursg'sell. The voice of mourning, by comparison, limps wearily and without hope. Nothing further could be imagined from the buoyant and life-affirming allegro of a classical symphony, but Mahler's Vienna was a different place and a different time to that of Haydn or Mozart. The Fifth sounds less like a personal 'funeral rite' (as his symphonic poem Todtenfeier might have been conceived) than a collective processional for his age. It is not hard to imagine this movement as the soundtrack for the grand imperial funerals in the years before the end of the First World War, or indeed for the demise of the Habsburg Empire itself.

If the first movement pits a broken, lamenting spirit against the tragic tone of the Funeral March, the second protests with music of unprecedented vehemence. Mahler treats the orchestra like an expressionist painter treats a canvas, breaking up line and surface with vivid, angry gestures and wild colours. This is an extreme form of symphonic battle music, but not a battle against some external foe, as narrated in a work like Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben; this is the battle of a painfully divided self. At one point that self seems utterly defeated, as the energy of the music collapses to leave just the faint murmur of a roll on the timpani. A single unaccompanied line in the cellos suggests a state of complete emptiness, without direction or strength. On the other hand, there are times when Mahler incites his players to such violent intensity of tone that the orchestra boils like an angry sea. But in the face of this impossible storm, Mahler dares to signal a moment of unhoped for and unimaginable breakthrough. The brass arrival at a chorale theme in D major is one of the most heart-breaking statements of hope in the history of music - heart-breaking because it changes the world utterly, but then is snatched away moments later. For a few brief seconds, it feels utterly true - and then vanishes. With a scurry, the battle returns, but the movement ends with a draining away of its energy. Odd whistles and squeaks, accompanied by disembodied rhythmic repetitions suggest an old steam engine running down rather than any kind of heroic ending.

The Scherzo is the pivot on which the whole symphony turns. It is a life-affirming collective dance, led by a solo horn like the caller in the dance. It may well relate to the movement Mahler planned in an earlier sketch titled Die Welt ohne Schwere - the world without gravity. 'It is man in the full light of day, at the zenith of life', Mahler described it, in which 'every note is of fullest liveliness and everything resolves in a whirling dance.' In place of the antagonistic counterpoint of the previous movement, the rich proliferation of lines and bright colours suggest a joyful crowd scene. This affirmative dance of life sometimes slows to become a more sentimental and wistful waltz, and on two occasions the space of the entire scene opens out to a quite different perspective. Echoing horns silence the bustle of the world, which gives way to the space and silence of the mountains, framing a passage of quiet reflection. The heartfelt dialogue of horn and cello is thus heard outside the time frame of the dance. The slow waltz returns tentatively, in a pizzicato version, as if half remembered (Mahler's music has an astonishing range of past tenses) before the solo horn calls the dancers back into the present.

From a famously tremulous beginning, the Adagietto moves from utter gentleness to searing intensity and back, in just over one hundred bars. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg always claimed that the Adagietto was sent to Alma by Mahler as a declaration of love. It is unclear whether this was soon after they met, or the following summer, after they were married. Either way, if this is Mahler's love song it is perhaps one to the ideal of the feminine love he longed for and that he hoped to find in Alma. For her, it might also have given notice of what sort of man she was dealing with. There is certainly tenderness here, and passionate intensity, but of a deeply searching and demanding kind. Many listeners have heard a similarity between this movement and Mahler's great song of inward retreat, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen whose content is certainly not incompatible with seeing Alma as a kind of haven. Whatever its origins, what is clear is that the Adagietto presents a song without words, sung by a single 'singer' (albeit divided into multiple strands) accompanied on the harp.

The Rondo-Finale begins with an odd exchange. A call on the horn is answered by a little phrase on the bassoon (a quotation from Mahler's earlier Wunderhorn song, Lob des hohen Verstandes, in which a donkey, as critic, awards the prize in a singing competition to the cuckoo instead of the nightingale). The bassoon is followed by a closing phrase in the oboe (that turns out to be nothing less than the triumphant theme with which the movement will close). Is this a last fond farewell to the world of the Wunderhorn, or Mahler letting the critics know what he thinks of them? Whichever, it sets the buoyant tone that carries the symphony to its conclusion. Mahler's study of Bach is much in evidence in the energetic passages of counterpoint, including an odd grazioso revisiting of the theme of the Adagietto. There are faint echoes of the D major chorale from the second movement, promising a return of its affirmation, before the busy contrapuntal writing is restored. Mahler presents a bewildering succession of different sections in this Rondo, separated by tangential changes of direction and sudden restarts, but somehow, like the consummate storyteller/sorcerer he was, he brings all these elements back together and binds them into a whole. The sheer richness of this is overwhelming at times before being rounded off by the rearrival of the triumphant D major chorale, anticipated way back in the second movement. Such is the long-range view of Mahler's great musical novels.

© Julian Johnson