MFive Sym

Severance Hall
September 26 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

September 28 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.

Symphony No. 5

Gustav Mahler  (1860-1911)
composed 1901-02, revised 1904, 1907-10

At a Glance

Mahler composed this symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902, although he continued to make revisions throughout the remainder of his life.  The first performance took place in Cologne on October 18, 1904, under Mahler’s direction.  The first performance in the United States took place on March 25, 1905, with Frank van der Stucken conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

This work runs about 70 minutes in performance.  Mahler scored this symphony for 4 flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (third doubling english horn), 3 clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, slapstick, tam-tam, glockenspiel), harp, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at concerts in December 1952 under the direction of William Steinberg.  The most recent performances by the Orchestra were led by David Robertson in February 2012.

About the Music

What or how much does one need to know in order to understand a piece of music? — simply to enjoy the music?  To appreciate the meaning behind or within the music?  

Does it help to know what the composer was thinking?  Or what was happening in the composer’s life at the time?

Gustav Mahler offered “programs” (or storylines) for his early symphonies, up through No. 4, trying to tell audiences what each was “about.”  This was common at the time, at the end of the Romantic 19th century, when, it was thought, that feelings and meanings and stories were all wrapped up together.  At a time when Richard Wagner’s operas had been fully accepted not just as music but as allegories about life.

Most people hearing Mahler’s early symphonies in their first performances were confused, perplexed, titillated, unamused, even offended.  For his part, Mahler was frustrated and disappointed that his explanations didn’t seem to help people appreciate his music.

What of us listening tonight, this weekend?  Some few in the audience — 10%? 20%? — are hearing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony for the very first time.  The rest of us can and should envy you, because, as with any number of other first-times in life, the music, the experience can be moving and life-changing and exhilarating in that newness.  Just as it was for Mahler in the writing.

We know incredible amounts of information and detail about Mahler’s life. There are tens of thousands of documents 

. . . letters, recounted conversations, diaries by others about him, business papers, newspaper reviews and discussions.  Included in these are Mahler’s own comments about the Fifth Symphony, which largely are about the music itself and NOT about its meaning.  His public insistence, from the Fifth Symphony onward that programmatic or storyline explanations of his music were inadequate, if not misleading.

All that said, if you’d rather experience the music as it comes to you, close this program book now and think about something else.  Or visit quietly with your seatmate (assuming that the concert hasn’t already begun). 

On the other hand, if background and context help give you perspective, continue reading — keeping in mind that, ultimately, all music, all art, is a personal experience, interpreted solely by each individual.  Make of it what you will; it is yours for the taking.

Writing the Fifth Symphony

Mahler wrote his Fifth Symphony over the course of two summers, in 1901 and 1902.  He drafted the first two movements in 1901 along with much of the central Scherzo.  He finished the symphony the following summer, writing both the Adagio and the finale, as well as tidying up and working on details across all five movements.

Many big things happened in Mahler’s life in the years just prior to 1901, and, importantly, between the two summers during which he wrote the Fifth Symphony.  In 1897, he reached his life’s goal of being appointed director of the Vienna Court Opera (today’s Vienna State Opera).  There he was making wholesale changes to how operas were presented — with his efforts and achievement increasingly acclaimed. 

He’d also been chosen to lead the concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic, starting in 1898.  This was less successful overall.  His conducting was applauded, but the politics of the job — the Philharmonic chooses its own conductor — were ultimately too difficult and time-consuming.  Thus, in the autumn of 1901, he allowed himself not to be reelected for the next season of Philharmonic concerts. 

Mahler was also devoting an increasing amount of time to guest-conducting engagements, including the world  premiere performances of his Fourth and Third symphonies, in November 1901 and June 1902, respectively.  The lack of understanding and bewilderment by audiences (and critics and musicians) for his Fourth upset him.  But the Third was given a warm embrace, buoying Mahler’s spirits. 

In February 1901, before beginning the Fifth Symphony, he suffered a severe digestive hemorrhage.  Emergency surgery saved his life, but this close call with death caused an emotional upheaval — so that he understood, perhaps for the first time, for real, that life was a finite number of years, days, hours, minutes.  Wasted time was lost time, never to be regained.

Most important, between the two summers of writing the Fifth Symphony, Mahler fell in love.  Her name was Alma Schindler, a young woman half his age.  Within weeks, they agreed to marry, and were expecting their first child when they married in March 1902, four months after they first met.  

The Music

Life was complicated, for Mahler just like the rest of us.  And the many moods of Mahler’s music do not always match the joy or sorrow in his life at the time.  Like most composers, he could create sad music in times of joy, and vice versa.  While at other times, all was aligned — with music and life in sync.  

Nonetheless, lessons learned or observed during life’s journey often creep into an artist’s outlook and output.  

Music was Mahler’s real language — for commenting on and understanding reality, his reaction to being alive.  He had a keen intellect and probing mind, and had a great command of written and spoken language.  But music was his thing.

Thus, the emotions in the Fifth Symphony are connected, in some ways, directly or indirectly, with Mahler’s overall shifting perspective on life in general and significant changes in his own circumstances at the time he was writing it in particular.  

Mahler conceived his Fifth Symphony in three parts, built around the central Scherzo dance (movement 3).  On either side are pairs of related movements (1-2 and 4-5).  Like Beethoven’s famous Fifth, the symphony’s music takes a journey from darkness to light.  It starts with a funeral march, and ends with the most ebullient and joyfilled, almost carefree, music that Mahler ever wrote.  

  Part One, Funeral March and Stormy Aftermath:  The opening movement evokes many great funeral marches of the past, including Beethoven’s in the Third and Seventh symphonies.  It also relates to the opening movement of Mahler’s own Second Symphony, originally titled Todtenfeier or “Funeral Rites.”  Here in the Fifth, Mahler’s music is even more anguished.  Rather than the steady mourning of Beethoven or Chopin, the ennobling tread of remembrance, we feel a very personal view of life changed, of departure and especially of despair.  

This is life’s risk — to lose, to mourn what can never be.  

In addition to the emotional weight, the opening movements introduce a number of common musical threads that give the overall symphony a clear sense of unity.  Several recurring motifs are used between the first two movements.  And shared motifs cross into other movements as well, including a chorale in the second movement that returns in a new guise in the last.

Many have remarked on the similarity of Mahler’s opening motif to that of Beethoven’s Fifth — three short notes followed by a longer one.  It is not the same, for in its base form Mahler’s interval leaps up while Beethoven’s down, and the rhythmical imprint is different.  But, Mahler knew what he was doing.  He was writing his Fifth Symphony!  And, like Beethoven’s, he was creating a journey from darkness to light, from death to life.  At the very least, Mahler’s motto is a variation on Beethoven’s kernel.  And there is something important and relevant here, especially when Mahler later inverts his motto to show off a downward interval more akin to Beethoven’s.  At times, as the music moves forward, the motif is repeated relentlessly, just as Beethoven did in his famous opening movement.

In Mahler’s two-movement opening, the only real bright moment comes toward the end of the second movement, in the form of a gigantic chord-in-the-making, bristling with hope and seemingly about to burst out with joy — representing for many listeners all the potential, the forgotten and disappointed dreams being mourned.  But after withering once more, the music seems to accept all that has happened — signaled with finality by a quiet tap from the timpani.

At the end of Part One, Mahler expected a pause, and took one himself when conducting this symphony.  Not the kind of lengthy 5-minute break that he requested after the first movement of his Second Symphony, but a few moments of silence, for reflection before forging ahead.  

Part Two, Scherzo:  This large-scale Scherzo movement, created in 1901, features some of the most polyphonic music Mahler ever wrote, thick and dense with multiple strands of ideas.  As with most of his scherzo movements, this one is a dance in triple meter and deceptively beguiling, at least at first.  After the interruption of the opening funeral march, life returns to liltingly familiar rhythms — from the tread of death to the dance of life.  Yet the movement is filled with contradictory moves and counterpunches, and builds to an almost chaotic frenzy, a bursting forth of impulses.  

Mahler tellingly wrote to Alma about this symphonic centerpiece in 1904, during rehearsals for the world premiere in Cologne:  “The scherzo is the very devil of a movement. . . . And the public? — oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos in which new worlds are constantly being created only to be destroyed moments later, at these sounds of a primeval world, this howling, booming, roaring sea, this host of dancing stars, these breathtaking, iridescent, glittering waves.”

Again, in performance Mahler took a brief pause after this large movement, before heading to the finish line with the final two movements.

Part Three, Adagietto and Rondo-Finale:  The final part of the symphony opens with some of Mahler’s most well-known music.  Although often excerpted and played in memoriam, this music is not a farewell.  Rather, it is an introduction.  Just as the first and second movements work together as a pair, the Adagietto was written as a prelude to what follows.  

Several of Mahler’s associates, including the Dutch conductor Willem Mendelberg, suggested that this movement, for strings and harp, was written as an unsigned letter of Mahler’s love for Alma.  If that is so, it is the love of everyday contentment — love that is unexpected but abundant, and, simply, part of daily life.  (Mahler revisits a similar but contrasting musical feeling and outline in the opening movement of the Tenth Symphony, but that large Adagio is much more agonized and anguished.  And there, in the manuscript score, he literally wrote out his despair and heartbreak over Alma’s love and betrayal.) 

Mahler’s tempo marking for the fourth-movement Adagietto is Sehr langsam, or “very slow.”   But how fast is slow enough?  — or how slow is too slow? Contemporary accounts suggest that early performances under Mahler’s direction clocked in at as little as 8 minutes.  Bruno Walter, Mahler’s then-assistant and longtime advocate, recorded it at just 7 minutes and 45 seconds.  Modern timings vary all the way up to nearly twice as long.  The actual duration, however, may be less important than setting a tempo that fits the overall context of a particular performance of the entire symphony.

Yet, the Adagietto should not drag.  Any desire to hold onto it too hard, to treasure it as something that will or can be lost, misses the point.  Here, love (or musical beauty) is reality, simple and sure.  

The Rondo-Finale bursts forth unexpectedly, introduced by a solo horn.  This movement is, quite arguably, the happiest of Mahler’s output.  Its Rondo structure returns again and again to a fittingly spirited theme, interspersed with new episodes, giving the movement fullness and variety.  Continuity and unity are ensured through motifs and ideas returning from earlier movements.  This is the sheer ecstatic thrill of the downhill ride on a rollercoaster, arms in the air.

By this point in his career, Mahler was against programmatic explanations of his music.  He’d tried that and only confused audiences.  Behind the scenes, however, he continued to talk to friends, family, and colleagues about his music, in metaphor if not in storyline — the key to which was not the facts of any tale he might suggest, but the emotional truth, the feelings that the music evoked in him and evokes in each listener.

Personally, I believe that the closing movement of the Fifth Symphony is a reflection of Mahler’s changed outlook.  As he approached writing this movement, he fully believed that he had reached the upper ramparts of life’s mountaintop, with the struggles of beginning a career behind him.  He had survived a close call with death, giving him inspiration for the opening funeral march a year earlier, as well as a revised view of life’s opportunity.  He was battling forces at the Court Opera, but believed he was winning.  His dismissal from the Opera is in an unknown future.  So too is the diagnosis of his heart murmur and his daughter’s death.  His love for Alma is new and still bursting with happiness.  Her betrayal is behind a door to the future he cannot see or imagine.  Tomorrow is not today.

Regardless of his life’s details, this closing movement is Mahler — this is any or all of us — in the throes of sheer happiness, drinking in life’s pleasure fully.  This is Mahler unworried, unplugged, unwound, unleashed.  Unprepared, with his defenses down, fully open to the future, come what may.  

Eric Sellen © 2019

The 2019-20 season is Eric Sellen’s 27th year as program book editor for The Cleveland Orchestra.  

Festival 2020 

Censored: Art & Power


As we prepare for our festival in May 2020 surrounding Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, the program book will note for certain concerts how music by various composers was treated in Nazi Germany or other locations.

During Hitler’s regime, all of Mahler’s music was banned from performances by Germany’s civic orchestras because he was born a Jew.  Conversely, the Jewish KulturBund (or Cultural Federation), which was formed by the Nazis to strictly limit and ghettoize Jewish arts activities, could present Mahler’s music but was prohibited from playing any “true German music,” including works by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner.