“The Fifth is an accursed work. No one gets the point”
- Gustav Mahler
I think Gustav may have been a little hard on himself in this case. The form of the last movement is surely difficult to describe. Well, maybe not. If one is looking for a classical Rondo, the form of this movement is a big sprawling hot mess. The form, however, is not the point. The expressive qualities of the music is the real point, and here the Rondo-Finale is a great success. Anyone can get the point of the finale. Paul Bekker saw it as a “crowning affirmation of life”, and Heinrich Kralik called it a “musical declaration of joy”. The Fifth Symphony balances the grief and anger of the opening by closing with positively ebullient, joyous music. This is Mahler with a happy face.
The hyphenated name that Mahler provides, Rondo-Finale, should alert us that the form of this movement is a very individualized hybrid. The last movement of many symphonies in the repertoire take the form of a Rondo. The defining element of a Rondo is a section of music that keeps coming back to us after a contrastic section. If the “rondo” music is labeled “A”, then a Rondo form movement might follow the pattern A-B-A-C-A-D-A. The point is you have this familiar stuff returning several times in the music.
Other finale movements, many times the serious ones, will follow a Sonata form similar to most first movements. This especially happens when a composer still has some things to work out in a development section. Gustav has given us a combination of both, with elements of a Rondo and lots of heavy development. As if that weren’t complicated enough, there are several fugato sections of music, those highly contrapuntal chunks of music in the style of a fugue. Clearly, happiness for old Gustav is no simple thing.
We, as listeners, have traveled through an hour of music to this point. The despair of the opening funeral march, and the anger of the second movement sonata form. We recovered from grief a bit in the Scherzo dance movement, one that declared life must go on. We saw Mahler’s love note to his future wife in the famous Adagietto fourth movement. In this closing music of unbridled joy, Gustav is going to give us his compositional everything. He is going to leave it all out there on the podium, and that notion deserves a bit of my respect.
The Rondo-Finale starts out with some preparatory measures, then right into the bright Rondo music at bar 23 of the score, 0:42 in the video. The first fugato style music is at bar 56 (1:16), and the Rondo theme returns to us in bar 136 (2:38). More fugato, more thematic sections until we come to some sort of punctuation at bar 240.
What follows from bar 241 is a long development section that flows for about 265 measures, a full four minutes of music until the main Rondo theme returns to us (altered) in the original key of D major at bar 497 (8:33). One could spend hours pouring over the score and learning all the details of craftsmanship that Gustav has included in this final movement. For our purposes, it is sufficient to quote Constantin Floros in saying “the music displays great brilliance”.
The highlight that we cannot miss, the exclamation point on Mahler’s declaration of joy, is the appearance of the gorgeous D major Chorale that we first heard a snippet of in the second movement. This occurs at bar 711, about 12:16 in the video, but don’t worry about the time. You can’t miss it. In the second movement, we were not completely ready for the joy of the Chorale, and it faded out. That was 40 minutes of music earlier, and we have healed since then. Now the Chorale can take hold, blossom, and reach its full potential in capping the bright euphoria of this music.
There we have it. It has taken me 7000 or so words, and six blog posts, to simply summarize Mahler’s Fifth. It has remained one of my favorite works since I first listened all those years ago with a used LP in my parent’s house. The Fifth pulls us along a journey whereby the “emotional progression of the symphony has marched from deep despair and anger to love and then pure joy” (to quote Kelly Hansen). If all of this joyful euphoria is a bit too much for you, then I would have to recommend Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. That work is labeled the “Tragic”, and also starts off with a funeral march. The mood of the work just deteriorates from there. The final moments of the Sixth are some of the most brutal in all of music. Alas, that would be a subject for an entire different set of blog posts. Another time, perhaps.