Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphony No. 5
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
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
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.
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.
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
feeding forward a “process” from the first movement to the last. In the
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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,
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