Recording producer, recording engineer: Ralf Koschnicke / Ralf Kolbinger
Recorded at Philharmonie Mercatorhalle Duisburg, 22-23rd September 2010
Artwork by Harald Priem
Cover photo by Andreas Köhring
Return to the Orchestral Symphony without the Addition of Voices
Gustav Mahler began anew with his fifth symphony. He returned to the instrumental symphony and did so without any programmatic description. The four Wunderhorn symphonies had already been composed. Texts from Achim von Arnim's and Clemens Brentano's collection of poems Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) - as well as additional verse - made their way into the second, third and fourth symphonies; the first symphony was a purely instrumental composition, but Mahler quotes his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). The composer wrote the lyrics himself and based them on the inflections of the folk songs which are also found in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. The symphonies of Gustav Mahler depict an unparalleled cosmos. His perception is all-encompassing, sometimes simple and small or humorous, but also grandiose or haunting, threatening and ominous. Also, sarcastic jags play a role: the music of Gustav Mahler captures the zeitgeist of the turn of the last century in a unique way, portraying his fine cultural standards on the one hand and his fears of a dark future on the other. At the time of its composition, it was very unusual to develop simple songlike inspirations into larger symphonic forms, and the Adagietto of the fifth symphony is a type of redemption which requires further explanation. The fifth is the first of a group of three purely instrumental symphonies, since voices are not called for until the eighth symphony, the Sinfonie der Tausend, and the Lied von der Erde, but here on a completely different scale.
Gustav Mahler's fifth symphony is an example of 'absolute' music, or at least no programmatic description has been provided. However, just like all of Mahler's important works, we are confronted with music which challenges our beliefs. Mahler raises existential questions as the symphony expands into an all-embracing cosmos, although clear answers are nowhere to be seen. The work thus has many different layers whose interpretive possibilities are not boxed in by any kind of denotative descriptions. However, there are markers to guide us through the layers. There are musical topoi as well as allusions to folk songs, children's songs, chorales and marches. It is also characteristic of Mahler to go his own unconventional way, since the weighty funeral march is presented at the beginning of the composition. The funeral march is Mahler's preferred idiom, since funeral marches or similar sounding music is also found in the first symphony and at the beginning of the Resurrection Symphony, among other places. The fifth symphony takes us through many stations between death, torpor and burdensome heaviness before going on to the rollicking joviality of the last movement rondo. And the grouping of the five movements into three parts which give the work its overall shape is food for thought.
Gustav Mahler's fifth symphony was composed from 1901 to 1903. Mahler had been director of the Vienna Hofoper since 1897, and time for composing was extremely scarce and remained limited to the summer months when the theatre was closed - this was a situation which was known to the composer during his earlier engagements. However, Mahler was now in a financial situation where he was able to spend his holidays in his own villa in Maiernigg on the south bank of Lake Wörth in Carinthia. He could compose at the nearby and spartanly equipped 'composing house', which remained the only place he practiced this art until 1907.
In the summer of 1901, Gustav Mahler began composing the song Der Tambourg'sell (The Drummer Boy) and the Fünf Lieder nach Texten von Friedrich Rückert (Five Lieder after texts of Friedrich Rückert). He also wrote the first of the Kindertotenlieder, also after the texts of Friedrich Rückert. After starting which these smaller forms, he then devoted himself to the symphony. Natalie Bauer-Lechner (1858-1921) tells us about the initial process of the composition of the fifth symphony. Bauer-Lechner, a violinist, violist and teacher kept a journal of her contact with Gustav Mahler starting in 1893. Apparently, the symphony's scherzo was drafted first, and from this third movement, Mahler branched out to the other movements from the beginning funeral march to the rondo-finale. The five-movement fifth, it should be noted, was initially drafted as a four-movement work. Natalie Bauer-Lechner was a witness to this and quotes the composer as follows: 'No words are needed, everything is stated through the music. It will be a proper symphony in four movements, each of which stands alone and are only connected with each other by a similar sentiment.'
In November 1901, the first momentous encounter with Alma Schindler (1879-1964) took place. Mahler became engaged to her and they were married on March 9, 1902. The composer changed his life dramatically. He broke off contact with Natalie Bauer-Lechner. Other friendships played a lesser role and ended as well. And even the composition of Symphony No. 5 was influenced by Mahler's betrothal and marriage. At the end 1901, the first three movements were more or less complete, but the symphony was expanded to include the Adagietto movement to make the symphony a five-movement work. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951), one of the earliest admirers of Mahler's music, remarked on the tender, delicate movement for strings and harp. 'This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler's declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her the manuscript of the movement without any other written explanation. She understood and wrote to him that he should come!!!' Until 1907, Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma spent the summer months in Maiernigg on Lake Wörth. But when their older daughter died - Maria Anna was born in 1902, Anna Justine was born in 1904 - they never set foot in holiday home again.
After the symphony was completed at the end of 1902, there were numerous changes and corrections. Finally, the fifth symphony was premiered on October 18, 1904 in Cologne under the baton of the composer.
The Musical Language of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony
'The fifth is a cursed work. No one understands it', complained Gustav Mahler in 1904 on the occasion of a performance in Hamburg. Many peculiarities of the work keep it from being easily approachable. First of all, there is the harmonic progression of the work, which leads from a C-sharp minor funeral march to the finale in D major. A circle is drawn which cannot and will not close. The symphony does not even begin with a movement in sonata form; the funeral march has the function of an introduction on an immense scale. Only when we reach the third movement do we reach the actual main movement. Gustav Mahler himself hinted at the unique harmonic plan of his fifth symphony: 'It is very difficult to speak of a key of the "whole symphony" considering the disposition of the movements (the "first" movement is placed second), and I prefer that it remain unwritten, so as to prevent misunderstandings. (The main movement, the second one, is in A minor - the Andante, the first movement, is in C-sharp minor.) The symphony is named after its main movement - but only if it appears first, which was always the case - with the sole exception of this work.'
The path which the composer leads us down is also unusual, a path which begins with a funeral march, then through other, even more passionate movements, to a joyous finale. Listeners who were acquainted with Mahler's first four symphonies must have wondered about the special tone of the fifth, which returned to a larger instrumentation after a reduced orchestra in the fourth. The sonic palette unknown at that time was heard above all in the scherzo and the final rondo. The delicate structure is also noteworthy, with numerous fugato sections in the finale. And finally, the adagio movement is unusual in that it leaves conventional symphonic style behind and describes Mahler's personal world. A great contrast is thus set from the other movements of the symphony.
The first movement of Gustav Mahler's first symphony is a funeral march which serves as an introduction of immense proportions. The destination is reached with the sonata form of the second movement. This is underscored by Mahler's grouping of the symphony into three parts. The first and second movements are grouped together, as are the adagietto and the rondo-finale; the extended scherzo is the only movement with stands on its own. According to some accounts, Mahler made no break between the first and second movements during performances of the symphony, but separated the second and third movements with a noticeably long pause.
The funeral march of the fifth symphony is a movement without irony, which fundamentally sets it apart from the funeral march of the first symphony. The fifth symphony begins with a trumpet fanfare motif, and this fanfare appears four times in total, changing in form considerably each time. In its main sections, the movement has a burdensome heaviness, the rhythms are halting and the melodies are insistent and plaintive. However, this tight corset is repeatedly abandoned, even pierced through. He tried to break out of the movement it seems; in the first trio, the tempo instruction is 'Suddenly faster. Passionate. Wild.'
Since the sonata movement in Gustav Mahler's symphony is placed second, the novelty of it being first heard is lost. Mahler was conscious of this phenomenon. He presents moments of reminiscences of the funeral march, and other places he looks forward. A highly unusual extended episode with a plaintive cello melody appears in the development section, and the recapitulation surprisingly ends with a brilliant chorale, which cannot seem to assert itself until the end, when it experiences both redemption and closure.
The second movement is an expression of desperation, whereas the third movement which follows is a cheerful scherzo. The horn takes on the role of the soloist in this movement. The main section has a ländler character, but the fugato development seems to contradict it. The first trio is influenced by the waltz-like atmosphere and the second trio conjures up images of nature. Above all, the scherzo is a movement of huge dimensions, there is no irony or caricature here. Instead, there is a tight mesh of motivic associations with approaches that of sonata form. Mahler characterised the scherzo in the following way to Natalie Bauer-Lechner: 'It is kneaded through and through, so that not even a kernel remains unmixed or untransformed. Every note is fully alive and everything revolves around a whirling dance. (...) There is nothing romantic or mystical about it, only the expression of unheard power lies within. It is someone portrayed in full daylight, at the prime of his life. The instrumentation reflects this: no harp, no cor anglais. The human voice would not fit in here. No words are needed, everything is stated through the music.'
The adagietto is a contrasting binding element between two optimistic movements. Composed as a song without words for strings and harp, it describes a retreat into his personal world, and its remarkable allusions to the song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world). The third part of the symphony is made up of this movement and the rondo-finale.
The greatest contrast to the funeral march is achieved in the rondo-finale. Joviality, even arrogance characterize it. However, the movement does not begin with a main theme immediately, but gradually introduces thematic fragments. The finale itself displays a wealth of themes and motifs. It features a most artistic craftsmanship, especially in the repeated fugato sections. There are also quotes and thematic allusions. Mahler quotes his song Lob des hohen Verstandes (Praise of Lofty Intellect), later he touches upon the world of children's songs and repeatedly quotes the finale of Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio: The refrain 'Wer so viel Huld vergessen kann, den seh' man mit Verachtung an'. ('Anyone who could forget so great a favour should be regarded with contempt.') comes to mind. The recap is crowned by a brilliant chorale, the coda accelerates the tempo until the end, so that it cannot be sure if the triumph has really arrived.
Gustav Mahlers fifth symphony is a multi-layered work which is a reflection on life but does not contain a specific programme. The artistic rendering of the symphony is highly regarded and marks a turning point in Mahler's output. Even if the symphony were open to programmatic interpretations, it makes the work no less appealing.
Michael Tegethoff / Translation: Daniel Costello