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Composed: 1901-1904

Length: c. 75 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drums, cymbals, orchestral bells, snare drum, slapstick, tam-tam, and triangle), harp, and strings

About this Piece

Since his death in 1911, Gustav Mahler has come to occupy a central place in the history of music and in the orchestral repertory. With advances in recording technology, his symphonies – many of them clocking in around 80 minutes, perfect for a single CD – have found a huge audience, one much larger than in the decades after his death, when a handful of dedicated acolytes championed his music in the concert halls of Europe and America. Mahler has also, just about a century later, emerged as a crucial bridge between the musical Romanticism of the 19th century and the modernism of the 20th, a composer who simultaneously summed up the achievements of his predecessors and pointed the way forward.

The Fifth Symphony occupies a pivotal place in Mahler’s endlessly fascinating output. It was his first purely instrumental symphony since the First, which he had worked on during the 1880s and subjected to heavy revision in 1893. He composed the Fifth during the summers of 1901 and 1902, during his annual holiday from his job as director of the Vienna Court Opera. It was in Vienna the winter prior to beginning the Fifth Symphony that Mahler met Alma Schindler, the beautiful daughter of a famous landscape painter. Mahler proposed to her in the fall of 1901, and the symphony, with its trajectory from mourning to triumph, reflects this development in its composer’s personal life.

The symphony is in five movements, which are grouped into three parts. The work opens with a funeral march that starts with a trumpet fanfare whose rhythm dominates the movement. The march contrasts with two trio sections, the first bursting out of the near-silence like some sort of terrifying, demonic carnival music, the second a more somber, restrained passage for the strings. The second movement builds on the material of that demonic first trio of the opening march. This is intense, raw music, with Mahler whipping up a frenzy from comparatively modest material. The only respite comes with the appearance of a D-major chorale, a joyous, hymn-like passage that finds the sun temporarily piercing the charged gray hues of the surrounding storm clouds. Taken together, these two movements make up the first part of the symphony and foreshadow its overall trajectory, as the D-major chorale’s reappearance in the finale confirms.

The third movement Scherzo is the symphony’s longest movement and by itself comprises the work’s second part. The music’s episodic nature has a strong dramatic trajectory that prevents it from descending to mere sprawl – Mahler’s rigorous intellect is on display here as he balances the tone of folksy Austrian country dances and the more cultivated elegance of the Viennese waltz. The central trio section, with its evocative horn solo (the horn plays a prominent role in the whole of this movement) and shadowy writing for the orchestra, has much in common with the “night music” movements of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, the Fifth’s under-appreciated closest relative in the composer’s output.

The symphony’s third and final part begins with the Adagietto, probably Mahler’s “greatest hit” – it has often been performed as a stand-alone piece, most famously, by Leonard Bernstein at Robert Kennedy’s funeral in 1968. This slow movement silences everyone in the orchestra except for the strings and harp. According to the conductor Willem Mengelberg, an early Mahler champion, “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma! Instead of a letter, he confided it in this movement without a word of explanation. She understood and replied: He should come!!! (I have this from both of them!)” The brilliant Rondo-Finale ensues without pause, a lively (and, in many of its pages, quite learned) celebration capped by the return of the chorale theme from the second movement.

— John Mangum