The Fifth is an accursed work.  No one gets the point

  • Gustav Mahler

Gustav+Mahler smilingI 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.

Leonard Bernstein Conducting Boston Symphony

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”.

sunshineThe 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.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement V, Rondo-Finale

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.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 6, “Tragic”, Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic




“Strange enough Mahler took note of me immediately; not only because of my face, which could be called beautiful at the time, but also because of my sharp, tense manner.  He looked at me through his glasses long and searchingly.”

  • Alma Mahler, on her first encounter with Gustav

If you have only heard one piece of Mahler’s music, it likely would have been this slow movement from the Fifth Symphony.  Scored for just strings and harp, it has garnered a life of its own as a separate piece.  It has been used in films, most famously in the Luchino Visconti film,  “Death in Venice.”  A number of first rate choreographers have used the music in their dance programs.  Leonard Bernstein played it at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy.  Bernstein played it in a memorial for his mentor Serge Koussevitzky.  When the news of Bernstein’s own death traveled in the fall of 1990, orchestras around the world played this music in his honor and memory.


It is easy to think of the great solemnity of this music as another vision of death, in the middle of this Mahler-led journey through an emotional grieving process.  We started with a funeral march, of all the dark places to begin things.  However, the origins of this Adagietto may be quite different than a lamenting dirge.  This might actually had been a love song without words, or at least one of the most successful pick up lines in human history.

Alma Schindler Mahler

Alma Schindler Mahler

Gustav met the then 22 year old Alma at a party in November of 1901, when he was halfway through the composition of the Fifth Symphony.  She was 19 years younger than him, beautiful, smart and musically talented.  She engaged the already esteemed conductor in a conversation about opera, and held up her point of view with the bravura of youth.  As the story goes, shortly after this meeting, Gustav sent Alma the manuscript of the Adagietto without any further explanation.  The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Fifth Symphony, wrote: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was “love, a love comes into his life.”  Some girls get flowers and candy, other apparently get Adagiettos.

As a profession of love, the Adagietto was very successful.  Gustav and Alma were engaged only one month after their first meeting.  Four months after that dinner party, the two were married and Alma was already pregnant at the time.

So how does this love music get turned into a lament, a dirge associated with loss and funerals?  Admittedly, Gustav is giving us an outpouring of love of the “I would die for you” sort. But how does one get from that to music for a memorial service?  The metamorphosis is accomplished with a change of tempo.  Mahler is recorded as having performed the Adagietto in a little over 7 minutes.  Mengelberg and the great Bruno Walter, who both knew Mahler, performed this movement in 7 ½ to 8 minutes.  Walter also had attended the premiere of the work with Mahler conducting, so he would have known the composer’s intentions  In the years since Mahler’s death, conductors have performed the Adagietto at slower and slower tempos.  In my collection of recordings, Solti clocks in at 9:51, Bernstein at 11:02, and Karajan at 11:53.  Some performances have stretched the fourth movement to 13 and 14 minutes long.  At that speed, we definitely get a vibe that is more lament than love. It is a testament to the genius of the music, that it can withstand such varied interpretations.

Compare the two performances here.  First Bruno Walter, with an 8 minute Adagietto.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement IV, Adagietto, Bruno Walter conducting

And now, Leonard Bernstein in the performance with the Vienna Philharmonic we have been working with in these posts.  Here Lenny gets it done in 12 minutes.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement IV, Adagietto, Leonard Bernstein conducting

Gustav himself is partly to blame for the confusion of tempos.  He has titled the movement “Adagietto” (less slow than Adagio), and then marked the first measure “Sehr langsam” (very slowly).  You are free to prefer whatever rendition you choose.  Currently, I tend to think I would conduct the Adagietto at a tempo closer to the Bruno Walter version (no disrespect to Lenny).  I have three reasons for my line of thinking.  First, it is closer to how we think Mahler performed it, and the composer’s intentions should hold a fair amount of weight.

Secondly, Medgelberg wrote a short poem into his conducting score, which are the words to go with our “song without words” melody in the first violins.

Wie ich dich liebe,
Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen
Nur mein Sehnsucht
kann ich Dir klagen
Und meine Liebe
Meine Wonne!

How I love you,
You, my sun,
I cannot find words to tell you.
Only my longing
Can I lament to you,
And my love,
My delight!

That clearly puts me in the love song camp of the slightly quicker tempo.  The third bit of evidence to support the love song argument is a quote of music from Wagner.  In the middle section of the Adagietto, Mahler includes a motif from Tristan und Isolde, and then Mahlerizes it a few times.  Tristan und Isolde is a great love story, and the motif Gustav borrowed is known as the “gaze” motive, sort of a “love at first sight” moment in the opera.  Alma was a knowledgeable enough musician to have gotten the reference and understood the hint.  Or maybe it was some sort of test, whereby,if she was clever enough to get it, she was worthy of Mahler’s attention.

There are hundred of recording of the Adagietto, both as the fourth movement of the symphony and as a stand alone piece.  I have collected five performances in a Spotify playlist, with performance times ranging from 7:39 to a stretched-out 16:48!  I think an 8 or 9 minute version keeps the balance of the movement within the symphony as a whole, but please enjoy your favorite from beginning to end.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Adagietto   Spotify Playlist

Next up, finally, the fifth movement Rondo-Finale



Mahler’s marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all christendom gone mad  … Mahler is German music multiplied by N

  • Leonard Bernstein on Mahler

The Scherzo is a devil of a movement…

  • Mahler on the third movement of the Fifth Symphony

Mahler still has one foot in the 19th century, and in musical classicism.  The next part of the classical symphonic cycle of movements should be the dance movement.  In Haydn and Mozart, this was a Minuet and Trio.   Beethoven had little use for a minuet, and fired up this dance portion of the symphony into a more intense Scherzo.  Mahler’s Scherzo here in the Fifth Symphony is like a Scherzo on growth hormone, caffeine, and whatever it is that turns Bruce Banner into the big green Incredible Hulk.  What is usually the shortest movement of a symphony, is here not just the longest movement of the work, but one of the longest single movements in any of Mahler’s works.  When Gustav divided this symphony into three large parts, the Scherzo is by itself the middle part of the symphony.

I had a professor in college, Lettie Alston, who I introduced to readers of the blog last summer.  According to Lettie, that which distinguishes modern music of the twentieth century is , “the twentieth century in music ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous.”  By that standard, this Scherzo is certainly modern music, in fact, the entire Fifth Symphony would qualify.  This dance movement takes the German Ländler and Waltz and expands and distorts them to an intense outpouring of music.  The form is sprawling, and has been approached in a number of different ways.  I tend to view this movement through the lens of Scherzo form, as that is what Gustav called it.

LandlerA Ländler is a folk dance in triple meter (3 / 4 time), that was popular in Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and elsewhere in that region of Europe.  It is thought to have contributed to the development of the Waltz, along with a few other folk dances.  The Viennese Waltz, also in triple meter,  was incredibly popular in the 19th century.  (It is interesting to note that Mahler was born in a region of Bohemia, and was then working at the height of his career in Vienna.)  I am horribly unqualified to teach anyone how either of these dances looked, but Mahler’s music isn’t made for the dance-floor.

The third movement is actually a double Scherzo, which simply means we have two Trio sections that visit us between the main sections.  More music also means it will be a longer movement.  If we label the main sections of music “A”, and the Trio sections “B”, we can map out this form as an A-B-A-B-A structure.  What distorts the form of this music from being a well-behaved, if raucous Scherzo, is the degree of musical development at work.  Mahler rarely, if ever, repeats sections of his music without altering them to a degree.  Here in this third movement, “alteration” does not begin to describe the paces Gustav puts his material through.  This level of development is usually reserved for some sort of sonata form, not the dance movement of the symphony.  Theodor Adorno actually referred to this movement as a “development-scherzo”, which is not a bad description.

Viennese horn sectionThe first main section, our first “A” section, encompasses the first 135 bars and 2:36 of the music in the video below.  Four horns sound in unison, announcing our opening Ländler, that hopping-stomping rustic folk dance.  Make special note of some of the imitation in some of the instruments, where one line follows another with the same melody at a distance of a bar or two.  This sort of treatment will become important soon.

The first Trio section, our first “B” section is the Waltz music, and it is in a different key.  This music is a bit more refined, just like the Waltz is a more refined and smoother descendant of the country  Ländler.  It starts at bar 136 in the score and about 2:37 in the attached performance.  So far Gustav hasn’t done too much to prevent us from following the conventional Scherzo form.  We have had a lovely Ländler, and a polite little Waltz in our Trio section.

TrumpetA trumpet marks the return of the main “A” section music, with a pronouncement that echoes the opening horn fanfare of the very first measure.  This is bar 174 in the score and 3:44 in the video, but anyone with ears can hear it clearly.  Solo trumpet, familiar melodic figure, standing like a large print sign saying “Here is a new section”.  About halfway through this section, some of that imitation we noted in the first “A” section now evolves into a full fledged fugato.  A fugato is a passage in fugal style planted right in the middle of another piece which is not a fugue.  The fugue is one of the strictest contrapuntal musical constructions a composer could use, and here Gustav is applying that technique to our quaint Ländler music.  This is another clear sign that Mahler is about to get a little complicated.

The fugato transitions into the second Trio section, which I consider to start at bar 241 (4:57).  Now remember, the Beethoven vision of a Scherzo was an intensification of the old Minuet.  If a Beethoven Scherzo is Dr. Jekyll, we are about to meet Mr. Hyde in the form of our second trio section.  This overgrown child goes on for over 200 measure, roughly the length of the first three sections combined!  Mahler puts a great deal of compositional work and ingenuity in the material of this second Trio.

flowerbedSpeaking of overgrown, I remember a time years ago, when I first started tending the flower beds around my house.  I had removed some old bushes, and economically planted a mix of wildflower seeds that should have grown and bloomed at various times.  This would have given the side of the house a mix of colors through the entire summer.  Things grew, and I faithfully fertilized the young plants over and over.  I didn’t know how big they would grow, or when they would bloom, but doggone it these plants got all the attention and blue liquid plant food they could take.  Three months later, I determined I had fertilized some weeds to grow five feet tall, and when they never bloomed, I remorsefully had to cut them down.

Fortunately, Mahler’s second Trio does blossom, into a mature development section at bar 429 in the score, about 10:16 in the performance below.  This goes on for 60 measures or so, and is pretty unorthodox for a normal Scherzo.  Development like this usually is reserved for a sonata form movement.  Some analysts will call this development its own section, but I think of it as attached to the second Trio.

HornsThe return of the main section, the “A” section, is heralded again by the horns.  You can’t miss it at bar 490 in the score, about 11:29 in the video.  By this point, Mahler had gotten himself into a bit of a creative pickle.  A simple restatement of the music from the “A” section would be wholly unsatisfactory, and out of balance with what this second Trio has wrought upon us.  We can hear this is the music from the main section, but it continues greatly modified.  After a time, we get a visit from the Waltz themes of the first Trio, a showing of the second Trio material, and eventually close the last fifty bars or so with a closing Coda section.  This sprawling Scherzo has finally come to an end.

The third movement takes us through a variety of emotions.  I see this as a stage of healing, after the grief and sorrow of the first movement, and rage of the second. Robert Greenberg helps place the Scherzo in our journey through the grieving process by saying, “it confirms that as long as there is rhythm, beat, heartbeat, life can and will go on.”  Buckle up and take a listen to the ride.

Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement III, Scherzo

Up next, the super-famous fourth movement Adagietto.