“Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?”
- Gustav Mahler, after the first rehearsal of his Fifth Symphony
The Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler is, in several ways, different from anything created before it. Mahler’s earlier symphonies were program music with narrative dramas, story lines of the death and resurrection of heroes and such, even if Mahler later withdrew the programs. The Fifth is a psychodrama, with its action all being an internal depiction of a stormy emotional grieving process. This is a work born at the beginning of the twentieth century, the time of the early writings about the unconscious mind by Sigmund Freud, and the Expressionist outpourings of artistic works like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Gustav has long since dispensed with Classical emotional restraint, dispensed with the rustic folk poetry of his first four symphonies, and also with Wagner’s mythological subjects. Mahler’s Fifth is an emotionally cathartic experience from the internal, subjective world of humankind’s experiences about death and grieving.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is sometimes labeled as being in the key of c# minor, since that is the key of the opening Trauermarsch. Mahler did not like this designation at all, since the work doesn’t end in c# minor, and in fact none of the other movements are in that key. Most of Gustav’s symphonies demonstrate a concept referred to as “progressive” tonality, meaning the music progresses to a different emotional place than where it started, and needs a different key at the end. Much like life experiences that leave us changed, that leave us a different person than before, the journey Mahler’s symphony leads us through takes us to a different place from where it started.
The first movement Trauermarsch is a Funeral March. Such a cheery beginning Gustav gives us, starting at the end of life. (N.B. that is sarcasm, for those who have difficulty detecting such things.) (N.B. 2 That was also sarcasm). Mahler uses classical forms in this symphony, but they are hard to decipher for a couple of reasons. One source of trouble is Gustav’’s capacity for perpetual variation. He almost never brings back musical material in a literal repetition. The music is always changed, still recognizable, but varied in some way. This starts to blur the lines between exposition, repetition and ongoing development of musical ideas. The things important to the classical aesthetic; things like clarity, elegance, balance and emotional restraint, have completely given way. They have lost out to Mahler’s late Romantic emphasis on dramatic emotional extremes, all serving his individual expression.
There are other famous symphonies that include funeral marches. The most famous that springs to my mind is the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the Eroica, of which Mahler was certainly well aware. (N.B. Eroica is the Italian word for “Heroic”. The word is not missing a “t” .) Gustav was also quite conscious of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, with its movement from the c minor darkness of the opening to the triumphant C major finale. I think there is a parallel here in Mahler’s Fifth, with the despair and mourning of this first movement Trauermarsch leading eventually to the glorious chorale that finishes the symphony.
The March is built in a five-part form. It is customary to label these parts with letters, so one might describe this as an A-B-A’-B’-A’’ form. It opens with a solo trumpet fanfare leading into the initial A section march music, a solemn funeral procession march that depicts sort of the formal trappings of a funeral ceremony. This music returns to us two more times in this movement, but not in a literal repetition. Each time it is altered, changed, and transformed into something a little different.
The B sections are the march Trio sections. The name “Trio” is a holdover from “Minuet and Trio” and other dance forms as far back as the 17th century when these contrasting sections of music were actually scored with only three instruments. The B sections are still contrasting parts of music in Gustav’s funeral march. The first Trio starts at bar 155 of the score, about 5:14 in the video below. It doesn’t so much “start” as it erupts, explodes, and boils over with powerful music of despair and anguish. Somewhere I have read this first Trio describes as “terrifying demonic carnival music”, but I don’t remember where I am quoting that from. In the score, Mahler has labeled this music to be played Plötzschneller, Leidenschaftlich, Wild. (Suddenly Faster, Passionate, Wild).
Many writers have labeled themes in this symphony with emotionally descriptive names. In this first Trio section we have the “grieving” theme, and later in the movement a “consolation” theme. This is a perfectly valid way of analyzing this music, since there is an internal, psychological/emotional process being portrayed in the Fifth. Gustav didn’t want to write out and label these things for us, he wanted the music to speak for itself.
The A section music returns to us at bar 233, about 6:45 in the attached performance. It is now layered with counter-melodies, composed with counterpoint and some of the polyphonic musical techniques that become increasingly important in Mahler’s music during this middle creative period.
The second Trio/B section starts at bar 323 in the score and 9:48 in the video. It is hideously creative what Gustav does in this second Trio. He uses much of the musical substance from the first Trio section, but builds us something completely different. Instead of exploding onto the scene, the grief, despair, and anguish of this section builds, grows and finally overwhelms us in loud climatic moment you will not miss. Then, the musical energy more or less collapses into the final section, which continues to fade out.
The final A section occurs at bar 377, about 12:00 in the below performance, and ends the funeral march on a quiet note, fading into a final pizzicato C# plucked in the low strings. The overwhelming despair, anguish and feelings of loss have finally exhausted themselves as Mahler has vented our emotional spleen for the moment. Although the symphony is written in five movements, Mahler has grouped them together into three large parts. This first movement march is paired with the following second movement to create the first large part of the symphony. The lengthy third movements stands alone, and the final large part of the work is made up of the fourth and fifth movements. As we explore the emotional content of the Fifth, it will begin to make sense why Gustav grouped the movements together in this fashion.
Next up, the stormy stress of the angry second movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.