Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is one of my all-time favorite composers. Like my mentor, I sort of have to be in the right mood for all the serious and stormy emotion of Mahler’s music. When I am ripe for the experience, nothing is quite as cathartic as cranking the speakers up to a window rattling volume for one of Gustav’s symphonies. Up til now, I have actually been avoiding trying to tackle a Mahler post on Good Music Speaks. There is just so much to say when dealing with his music, that I am really quite challenged by the idea of distilling anything intelligent to say down to one blog post. So I decided instead to write a collection of articles, and hopefully you will find it worthwhile to follow all of them.
Mahler actually made his living as one of the greatest orchestra and opera conductors of his generation (or any other generation for that matter). He was a tyrant on the podium, and demanded excellence from the orchestra. He berated, browbeat and bullied the musicians he led until he got the high level of performance he demanded. I think it would have been a wonderful experience to be in the audience listening to Mahler conduct an orchestra, and an absolute miserable experience to be a part of that orchestra. He composed in a fury in the summers away from his conducting appointments. He isolated himself in one of his composing huts to work, and expected his wife to keep the noise of local children, barking dogs, and any other possible distraction, from disturbing him. Actually, Alma Schindler was something of a musical talent and composer herself when she met Gustav. Some of the stipulations he made for their marriage included her giving up composing her own music and devoting herself to meeting his needs. (Mahler and Gloria Steinem would not have gotten on well at a dinner party.) Gustav was a deeply emotional, passionate, neurotic man, and his life was filled with times of great joy as well as some of the deepest tragic moments a person could experience. These emotional peaks and valleys are all evident in his music.
The subject of this collection of Gustav posts is Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Anyone who knows me in person just said to themselves, “Of course, the Fifth”. I studied trumpet, and the opening bars of the Fifth are one of the most famous orchestral trumpet solos in the repertoire. It is some of the first Mahler I heard and studied, and was the starting point for my study of the rest of his works. Written in the summers of 1901 and 1902, Mahler conducted the world premiere in October of 1904. Afterwords, Gustav is quoted as saying, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.” Even now, a hundred years since the premiere, this symphony is taxing. It makes demands of the listener’s attention span, depth of feeling, and even the stamina of one’s’ backside sitting in the seats of an orchestra hall.
Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is quite a long emotional journey. At 70-75 minutes in performance, some would say it is just plain long. To give you a sense of where it is all heading, here is a clip of the final few minutes of the finale, with the glorious ending chorale.
Gustav also said (probably in German): “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” I don’t see how I can fit Mahler’s “everything” in just one blog post, so my plan is to continue my commentary on Symphony No. 5 by writing one post for each movement.
A brief overview of Mahler’s symphonic works will help us place the Fifth Symphony in his total output. The compositional career of Gustav Mahler is usually divided by historians into three periods. These are artificial divisions, of course, but they do serve to group similar works together. The symphonies composed during the first period are often referred to as the “Wunderhorn” symphonies. They all draw on songs that Mahler wrote on texts from a collection of German folk poetry. The book of poems is entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder (The Boy’s Magic Horn: Old German Songs). Gustav drew on these poems to create a collection of songs for voice and orchestra. He then included some of these songs in his first four symphonies. The first symphony contains an instrumental arrangement of a song, and the second, third, and fourth feature a vocal soloist in one or more movements.
The middle creative period of Mahler’s output includes the fifth, sixth and seventh symphonies. These three are all instrumental, and actually very tightly composed. It makes sense that counterpoint becomes a much bigger element of these works composed without textual/vocal components. Mahler had a conflicted view on the subject of programs for his symphonies. He had written descriptive programmes for each of the first four symphonies, and published the first three before withdrawing the programmes altogether. Some listeners feel like the middle symphonies show Mahler writing “absolute” music (i.e. music without a storyline behind it). Constantin Floros, in his book Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies, writes about Mahler having a hidden, inner program for these works. Flores explains that Gustav had specific things in mind as he was composing, but intended the music to carry the message without further explanation. This message was an internal, subjective, psychological musical statement.
Mahler historian and musicologist Deryck Cooke counts the marvelous Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand) as a great affirmative statement that stands between the middle and last compositional periods.
The final portion of Mahler’s compositions include the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth, and the torso of the incomplete Tenth symphony. These works brilliantly serve to bridge the end of the Romantic period of musical history to the fragmented explorations of the early twentieth century.
Our starting place of the Fifth Symphony is then clearly in the middle of Mahler’s works. He is at the top of his compositional game, a mature genius of orchestration and instrumental colors. His musical powers are all put to service for dramatic personal expression. He has had a brush with death, in the form of a major hemorrhaging when he nearly bled to death. During the time he was composing this symphony, he also met, fell in love with, and married Alma Schindler. His conducting career is blossoming, with Mahler being the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and Director of the Vienna Court Opera at this time. All of these events in his life necessarily feed into the emotional depths and heights of the Fifth Symphony. In his own words, Mahler says, “I don’t choose what I compose. It chooses me.” I’ll try to keep that in mind as I move through each movement of the work one at a time.
If you want to obtain your own copy of the orchestra score, it can be downloaded at the International Music Score Library Project in a public domain edition.
For those of you that want to hear the entire work right away, I give you a live performance by one of my favorite conductors, and champion of Gustav Mahler, the great Leonard Bernstein.
Bernstein actually recorded complete cycles of Mahler’s Symphonies two different times. The collection with the New York Philharmonic from the 1960’s introduced an entire generation to Mahler’s music. The long playing vinyl records were packaged in this handsome leather case with shiny gold writing, and an embossed image of Gustav on the side. If they could have shipped the recording with a large marble bust of the composer, I think they would have. Lenny also talked about Mahler at one of his Young People’s Concerts, an episode that first aired in 1960. Although it doesn’t include any excerpts from the fifth symphony, it is a great introduction to the music of Gustav Mahler.