Program notes: Season finale: Mahler 5

Thursday, August 24, 2023 , 6:30 PM

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor

Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Composed: 1901-1902
Length: c. 68 minutes
Instrumentation: 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet and e-flat clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (bass drum, bass drum with attached cymbals, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, whip), harp, and strings

Born a generation after Brahms and Wagner, Mahler came of age in the midst of the contentious debate that pitted “absolute” music (characterized by its allegiance to abstract form and sound structure) against “program” music (depicting a specific narrative or emotional journey). Mahler seemed to have one foot in each camp. He adhered to formal models for his music, although he modified them to suit his own expressive needs. The very fact that he chose to write symphonies and not operas seem to place him squarely in the “absolutist” camp. At the same time, he acknowledged extra-musical influences for many of his symphonies, and, of course, his magnificent song cycles were programmatic by definition. In fact, he expressed the opinion that “no modern music, beginning with Beethoven, does exist without having its inner program.” This inner program was never far from the surface in his first four symphonies (the so-called Wunderhorn symphonies), each of which was inspired at least in part by literary sources, with all but the first including vocal elements in the score. This approach changed markedly with his Fifth Symphony.

After having conducted in short stints with orchestras all over Europe, Mahler was appointed director of the Vienna Opera in 1897, a position that brought him back to the city of his student days. Perhaps stirred by the city’s musical legacy, Mahler was inspired to return to the less programmatic, more abstractly based composition. In the early stages of writing his new symphony, Mahler wrote to friend and musicologist Guido Adler:

It is now that I begin my Fifth. There is no program other than this: the music is composed without any outer influence. It is in my mind. I seek nothing…and I do not want to be told that it might represent something different. “It” is constantly moving in my mind. “It” and nothing else is taking shape.

With his many conducting obligations, Mahler could only find significant time to compose during the summers, orchestrating his works gradually throughout the year. He began to work on his Fifth Symphony during the summer of 1901 in his cabin retreat in Maiernigg. When asked at this time by his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner about the lack of a vocal part, Mahler responded, “There is no need for words, everything is expressed in purely musical terms.”
During the ensuing year, Mahler met and married his wife, Alma, and the two returned to the cabin the following summer. There, Mahler continued work on his symphony, which he would dedicate to his bride. Alma later reported that Mahler only allowed scores by Bach in the cabin, and his fascination with the Baroque master grew during this period. Mahler wrote in 1901:

It can hardly be expressed what I learn more and more from Bach (admittedly as a child sitting at his feet), for my innate method of writing is Bach-like. If only I had time to immerse myself completely in his highest school.

While this full immersion did not take place until his New York years (when he completed a fascinating arrangement of two Bach Orchestral Suites), the influence of Bach on Mahler can be found throughout the Fifth Symphony, especially in the finale, perhaps the most contrapuntal (with several independent melodies) work of Mahler’s entire output. By the end of the summer, Mahler had completed the symphony’s five movements, grouping the first two and last two movements together to form a three-part overall structure. (Read more about how the work was received by critics and audiences alike, and how it grew to become “the people’s symphony” on pages 68-69.)

What to listen for

  • First movement: You can track two complementary themes that provide the material for this Funeral March movement. The first is the quietly determined solo trumpet call that marches along at a measured pace, and the second is a melancholy march/dance melody first heard in the violins.
  • Second movement: The stormy movement culminates in a dramatic orchestral chorale before it revisits the earlier unsettled opening material and comes to a quiet end (listen for the unusual ending scale descending in successive notes from the tuba, harp, pizzicato low strings, and timpani).
  • Third movement: Mahler shines the spotlight on numerous sections of the orchestra in turn here, including a string quartet group that adds a unique touch with a pizzicato section surrounded by what Mahler called “expressions of incredible energy.”
  • Fourth movement: The deeply moving Adagietto subdivides the cellos, violas, and basses, especially in the passionate middle section, and uses the entirety of the ensemble’s dynamic palette (from ff to pppp) to achieve a lush, luxuriant sound.
  • Fifth movement: The second episode of this contrapuntal Rondo completely recasts the melody from the Adagietto, turning it into an allegro dance that weaves in and out of the orchestral texture. The piece ends with a triumphant return of the brass chorale from the second movement.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi