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Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphony No. 5

Mahler underwent a profound change around 1901-2. Virtually all his earlier music inhabited the fantasy world of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with musical form subservient to his literary imagination. Symphony No. 1 was symbiotically interlinked with Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen, and Symphonies 2, 3 and 4 included sung texts whose meanings cannot be ignored. His song Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden (1892) was to have been the finale of his Third Symphony (1896), but instead became that of his Fourth Symphony (1900). Here, a blissfully serene lullaby fades like a child drifting into “bee-bo-land”, but at the very end the slow pulsing darkens ominously. Was Mahler bidding farewell to his own youth? Then there's a trumpet call, appearing just once in the first movement, an enigmatic spectre which realises its destiny in the Fifth Symphony

1901 saw the premières of the Fourth Symphony (to general ridicule - there's no pleasing some folk) and his early cantata, the gruesome Das Klagende Lied. He wrote Der Tamboursg'sell, his last and bleakest Wunderhorn song, then turned to more adult matters, writing four of the Rückert Lieder and working on Kindertotenlieder and the Fifth Symphony. Not only is the poetry in the contemporaneous songs more realistic than the “fairy tale” Wunderhorn, but also - an obvious kinship between the Adagietto and Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen (from the Rückert Lieder) apart - the Fifth Symphony is a completely new departure. Gone is that pervasive song/symphony relationship, and with it the explicit imagery of sung texts. Instead we have “absolute music”, propelled by a new concentration on strict, though innovative, form. 

That's some change. So, what caused it? Well, why does any man “grow up” suddenly? “Woman”, maybe? This change matured around the time he met and married Alma Schindler, a woman of extraordinary beauty and intellect, and herself a composer. The truth is, he was already working on the symphony’s first two movements. She must, nevertheless, have had some influence: the Adagietto is apparently a “love song” for Alma. But she was more than a passive source of inspiration: for example, in 1902, while copying the score of the Fifth, Alma showed Mahler a passage where she thought he had obliterated the melody with percussion. Mahler (a supreme orchestral technician!) promptly eliminated the offending parts. 

In considering the structure of the Fifth Symphony, arguably his most complex and formally integrated, we need to be aware of a particular technique. Ever since Beethoven recalled themes from previous movements in the finale of his Ninth Symphony, composers have variously used idées fixes, motto themes, and leitmotifs to lend integrity to their increasingly complex structures. In his first four symphonies, Mahler developed a partiality for “feeding forward” materials within his structures, including (in the Third) feeding forward a “process” from the first movement to the last. In the Fifth, he applied this idea systematically, starting with the feeding forward of that trumpet call from the Fourth Symphony. Overall, he cast the five movements into three parts. The first and last pairs each form a part, the leading movement of each acting as exposition to the latter's development. Part I is funereal, turbulent, anguished. Part III is an Emergence into Light - through the Adagietto to the finale's unbuttoned joviality. The third movement stands alone, a vast celebration of both the Ländler and its offspring, the Waltz (Mahler's tribute to Johann Strauss Sohn). A key structural element is the chorale which evolves in the second movement. This re-emerges at the corresponding point of Part III, re-clothed in the thematic fabric of the finale, a device reminiscent of that stunningly effective one in the Third Symphony. The general impression is of stupendously original symphonic thought, music as tight as a drumskin. 

By making the first and fourth movements “expositional preludes” to the second and fifth respectively, Mahler effectively released himself from the constraints of “standard” symphonic sonata-form, which is conspicuously absent. The first and fourth movements seem to follow the sonata pattern, with blatant simplicity. However, the first movement's themes are in constant flux, while with only one, exquisitely extended subject the fourth amounts to a simplified sonata-form. Their internal “development sections” are brief, because Mahler has freed himself to develop his materials in the open air of imaginatively extended ternary forms. The central scherzo goes the opposite way! The subjects are developed even as they appear, and the expected final “work-out” of the main subject is supplanted by a volcanic coda vividly amalgamating all the subjects. Should we be surprised that Mahler would next turn to the “classical” symphonic form? 

Luckily, all this formality in no way dimmed the passions that inflamed his earlier works. Being both acutely sensitive and holding the toughest of jobs, Mahler must have regarded composing as therapeutic, releasing the stresses of his very stressful urban life (we, in our stressful epoch, use his music for much the same purpose!). Part I's dark torments are thought to reflect his fears, both concerning an intestinal haemorrhage and (I would add) those intimations of mortality which strike men on achieving the “Big Four-Oh”. Love and Marriage brought a dramatic improvement in his fortunes which simply must have penetrated this music. The unforced jollity of the bucolic Ländler contrasts the haunted conclusion of Part I: did this symbolise a “honeymoon”, with Mahler representing himself by the ancient folk-dance, and his young and beautiful wife by its “modern” progeny? The first movement's funeral march is transformed into the blissful subject of the Adagietto: does this symbolise a new beginning? What of the incredible finale? Having “put childish things behind him”, he slips a quote from a Wunderhorn song into the clutch of motifs from which he will weave his most magical musical tapestry. Anybody prepared to guess why he should have chosen a theme from In Praise of High Intellect, where the cuckoo and the donkey make an ass of the nightingale? 


1. Trauermarsch (In gemessenem Schritt - Streng - Wie ein Kondukt): The first subject, a stark, naked trumpet solo answered by massive brass and percussion, rings as hollow as it is loud. The continuously curling second subject meanders aimlessly. Leaden parody is the only constant in the exposition “repeat”. A sudden outburst of rage gradually yields to the first subject's gloom, and the grim treadmill returns. The coda turns “Rage” to “Pleading”, but the first subject's towering bulk grinds it down to a weary, sullen “plunk”. One suspects that all is not well. 

2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit grösster Vehemenz: (A-B-[A-B-C]-[A/B-C]-A) more or less sums up Mahler's deployment of materials in this complex movement. [A] is a development of “Rage”, while the melancholy [B] develops “Pleading”. During the movement two first movement themes are explicitly referenced. The first [C] sprouts the beginnings of a chorale, a striking, brassy two-note descent. Soon, there is dancing (!), from which the second [C] draws the full chorale theme. This dies in flower, bequeathing anguish and haunted uncertainty. In this mixture of hope, fear and brief promise, I fancy Mahler was “recounting” his first encounter with Alma. 


3. Scherzo (Kräftig, nicht zu schnell): If this were a play, we might preface this with “Some months later”. Gone are the anger and uncertainty of Part I - suddenly all things are bright and beautiful. This is a double scherzo and trio, Mahler developing his themes in an (ABABA) pattern, although the sections are irregularly proportioned, and things get rather involved after the second [B]! [A], the Scherzo, contrasts Ländler and Waltz, while [B], the Trio, uses a single theme, firstly as horns communing with nature, secondly as a graceful waltz. Both are combined in the coda, a magnificent torrent of sound. 


4. Adagietto (Sehr langsam): Mahler's re-working of the first movement's dreary dirge underlines the breathtaking beauty of this short, simple ternary movement. The theme unfolds in one long breath, ecstatically elaborated at the movement's heart. An almost literal reprise emerges from a modulation of miraculous serenity. Not bad, for what is “merely” a romantic interlude prefatory to the real business of Part III. 

5. Rondo-Finale (Allegro - Allegro giocoso. Frisch): Hatching like chicks from the Wunderhorn quote (upward bassoon run), a clutch of related motifs becomes [A], a joyous, delirious but complicated fugal “cavalcade à la rondeau”, with [B] (the Adagietto theme) providing luminous signposts in the formal progression of (A-B-A-B-A-B-A). This tour-de-force of cumulative invention is interrupted by doubt only once, after the third [A], only to emerge with renewed vitality, and yet more bounce injected into [B]. When the second movement's chorale theme, note for note, bursts triumphantly into the coda, it turns out to be none other than the last-born of the finale's “chicks”. Ha! We have a “chicken and egg” conundrum, but no time to reflect as the music romps onwards, even slithering down a whole-tone scale for good measure. “In Praise of High Intellect”, indeed! 

After its first performance, Mahler famously said, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.” It's often been through my head during the last thirty, yet I feel that I'm still learning the ropes - and, come to think of it, isn't that exactly how it should be?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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