Symphony no. 5 in C# minor
Gustav Mahler

Shortly after his sudden and violent intestinal hemorrhage of February 24, 1901, in which he was found lying in a pool of blood, Gustav Mahler, who was at that point director of the Vienna Court Opera, remarked, “I lost a third of my blood that night. I shall certainly recover, but the illness will still have cost ten years of my life.” 1 He described his thoughts during the following operation thus: “While I was hovering on the border between life and death, I wondered whether it would not be better to have done with it at once, since everyone must come to that in the end. Besides, the prospect of death did not frighten me in the least...and to return to life seemed almost a nuisance.” 2

On the 9th of March 1902, Mahler married Alma Schindler, a woman he had met only four months before. An excerpt from one of his many love letters to her reads: “ immense and superhuman love, which we can only call divine, has bound us together with a bond that links us indissolubly to all living beings.” The two of them remained so bonded, happily, until Mahler’s death.

Mahler spent the summers of both these years away from the busy noise of Vienna, in a secluded cabin he had built in the forest at Maiernigg, in order to concentrate on composing. In 1901 he finished what would become the first three movements of his Fifth Symphony; in 1902, the fourth and fifth. Though the individual movements are undoubtedly colored (perhaps even inspired) by these momentous events in Mahler’s life, the dipolar canyon of emotion which they encompass gives the entire work a diversity and range of insight which it could not have achieved had it been written solely in one year or another, making it “a demonstration of the victory he had won over death.” 3

The work, in addition to and “over” its five movements, is given a three-part structure: the first part consisting of the first movement (Funeral March) and second movement (Allegro), which were conceived and written in 1901 as one movement; the second part consisting solely of the third movement (Scherzo), and the third part consisting of the fourth (Adagietto) and fifth (Rondo-Finale) movements. Beyond this dual structure, Mahler refused to furnish this or any later work with an official program to be used as a basis for interpretation, as he had for his previous four symphonies. He considered himself a mature composer, wishing “to write ‘absolute’ music as a musician.” 4 (However, some of his later works were accompanied by comments of his which were awfully similar to a program, to Mahler’s full awareness and self-deprecating frustration.)

A brief analysis of each movement:

1. Funeral March. The work opens with an ominous four-note theme played by a solo trumpet (similar in rhythmic shape to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth--Mahler worshipped Beethoven) leading off a somber and grim steady march, somewhat prone to dramatically erupting into rushing violence. (This theme and its immediate development can also be found deep in the first movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony.) Twice this march is interrupted, though, by a calm and sweet serenade steeped in romantic passion, and a more private grief. If the funeral march symbolizes the symphonic hero’s being laid to rest, the second section (or Trio, as the two of them are often referred to) sounds to me like a sepia-toned flashback into the hero’s life and loves. Because of the ABABA structure, many have tried to label this movement as a product of sonata form, yet there are arguments against that viewpoint, citing the lack of “proper” development of either theme and the highly unusual key relationship (C# minor-A minor) between the two Trios. I believe Mahler desired a unique form in which to express this piece, comparable to the unique form of the entire symphony, so he borrowed aspects of form that suited his purposes and invented the rest.

2. Allegro. This movement as well seems in ABABA sonata form, but it keeps to classical development patterns. However, the key signatures are now quite odd, with the main interval between A and B sections a tritone (A minor-Eb minor). From the first instant of this movement, the mostly pent-up sorrow of the previous one bursts forth with violent passion. Yet the two are linked both by several themes (most notably, the climactic melody and sighing ninths in the background recur, both from the second Trio of the first movement) and by their point of conjunction; somehow the abrupt transition feels natural, even inevitable. The recapitulation in this movement surprises the listener in a few places, entwining the two themes instead of juxtaposing them. Soon after that, the piece reaches a plateau of triumphant ecstasy, only to fade back into mystery and darkness before the end, much as the first movement did.

3. Scherzo. This is the center and heart of the work, and one of the most complex and brilliant pieces Mahler ever composed. Its form is so irregular as to be virtually indenotable; any attempt to distinguish trios and themes in the intricate mesh soon becomes painfully elaborate. Its main occupation is with juxtaposing a landler and a waltz, respectively country and city dances: “the contrast--conflict--between the two styles, one the primitive peasant forerunner, the other, its brilliant, wordly successor, of the city, and sophisticated to a degree, presented the kind of dialectical complex which attracted Mahler’s synthesizing musical intelligence; and from the attempted synthesis emerges part at least of the Scherzo’s hectic tension.” 5 The transitions between the different phases are extensive, which is rare for Mahler. The piece is fascinating in its range of emotions and how each restatement of a theme is made fresh. Mahler described it as “chaos out of which a world keeps being born, only to fall apart again at once, these primeval jungle sounds, this rushing, roaring, raging sea, these dancing stars, these breathtaking, scintillating, flashing waves.” 6 That was after he had finished it. The problems he encountered on the way there he described like this:

“The movement is enormously difficult to work out because of its structure, and because of the utmost artistic skill demanded by the complex inter-relationships of all its details. The apparent confusion must, as in a Gothic cathedral, be resolved into the highest order and harmony...You can’t imagine how hard I am finding it, and how endless it seems...there should be no repetition, only evolution. The individual parts are so hard to play that they really call for accomplished soloists. Because of my thorough knowledge of the orchestra and its instruments the boldest passages and rhythms suddenly came to me!” 7

Regardless of his wish not to reveal an interpretation (or perhaps before he had conceived it), Mahler described the movement’s aim and philosophy: “There is nothing romantic or mystical about it; it is simply the expression of incredible energy. It is a human being in the full light of day, in the prime of his life. It is scored accordingly: no harp or English horn. The human voice would be absolutely out of place here. There is no need for words, everything is purely musically expressed.” 8 His wish for nonverbal communication extended to the rest of the symphony as well.

4. Adagietto. This is a stylistic and emotional contrast to all the symphony has achieved so far and in particular a contrast to the spanning breadth of the Scherzo. It is a simple song using only strings (including harp)--a cartoon dating from the Symphony’s Vienna premiere shows a tuba player during this movement, asleep. It conveys only a single mood and is structured in ABA form, with section B a modulation of the main melody. It exhibits “lonely and blissful contemplation” and “emotion intensely felt and yet restrained in expression.” 9

Personally, I’ve never heard the movement the way Mahler intended it; the version I own lasts 11 minutes and Mahler conducted it at under 8. As Henry-Louis de La Grange puts it: “Mahler certainly did not anticipate, nor would he have wished for, the excessive sentimentality which most conductors today indulge in when playing this short piece. The slowed-down tempo at which they take it completely distorts its tender, contemplative character and changes it into a syrupy elegy.” 10 On a similar note (no pun intended), my recording of the entire symphony is over 72 minutes, while Mahler once said, “My symphony, the Fifth, plays about three-quarters of an hour.” 11

There is a story (probably apocryphal) that this movement was written as a testament of love to Alma, and that Mahler sent it to her with no accompanying words. Allegedly she understood his meaning and wrote him in return that he should come to her. The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, Mahler’s friend and colleague, claims that both Gustav and Alma told him of this event separately, but it is unlikely that Alma never would have recorded it or told of it in the half-century in which she survived Mahler, and also that the fourth movement would be so related to the fifth movement, were it inspired by an independent emotion.

5. Rondo-Finale. As with the first movement, the form of this piece is somewhat unique. It does not resemble a classical rondo, but neither does it completely fit into sonata form, and it uses many fugal elements as well. In this Mahler follows Beethoven’s precedent, just as one of his themes here closely resembles one from the Finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. But Mahler also proves that he has closely studied the work of Bach (and this applies throughout this symphony) by using counterpoint to achieve his effects, at the same time as two or three distinct melodies interact.

There is much critical debate over whether the apotheosis of affirmative joy at the climax of this movement, marking the end of the long and convoluted symphony, is justifiable, or if it is set within the proper context. Some claim that it was his very ambiguity that drove him as an artist--especially in this particular symphony, one can see how he seems to fly back and forth between two emotional extremes and cover everything in between, only to later find the exact opposite of that entire situation and mine its properties just as thoroughly.

The Italian composer Alfredo Casella identified this as the distinguishing characteristic of Mahler’s whole career (focusing more on multiplicity than juxtaposition specifically): “It is impossible to imagine anything so dissimilar as the various elements of which every one of the Symphonies is made up. Constant variety, superabundant imagination: these are the two prime impressions transmitted by this strange music, in which an iron hand unites and fuses the apparently most disparate melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic elements.” 12

The Fifth Symphony was one of Mahler’s most frequently revised works. After its technical completion in 1902, Mahler came back to the work many times to change orchestration and voicing, though rarely did he alter its structure. The first time he revised it was just before its premiere in Cologne, set for October 18, 1904. After running through the work with a full orchestra on the 17th and 26th of September, as La Grange puts it, “He was somewhat surprised to find that his orchestration technique, over which he felt he had acquired full mastery by then, had not fully adjusted to the evolution of his style and the requirements of a polyphonic texture that was more intricate than before.” 13 Mahler’s final adjustment to the work, one of the last he ever made, was executed in 1911, just three months before his death. He wrote:

“I have finished the Fifth. I had in fact to re-instrumentate the whole of it. I simply cannot understand how I could have fallen back into such beginner’s errors at that time. (Evidently the routine I had developed in the first four symphonies let me down completely on this occasion--when a completely new style required a new technique.) 14

Mahler’s constant and consistent search for new things--styles, techniques, formats, contrasts--is the main reason why I personally am so drawn to his work, and it is also why both studied critics and casual listeners continue to be entranced by his music. He is truly one of the most outstanding composers of our age, and possibly of all time.


1 La Grange 799.
2 La Grange 334-5.
3 La Grange 805.
4 La Grange 805.
5 Mitchell 211.
6 La Grange 816.
7 Bauer-Lechner 172.
8 Bauer-Lechner 173.
9 La Grange 818.
10 La Grange 817.
11 Martner 298.
12 Blaukopf 232.
13 La Grange 801.
14 La Grange 802.


Bauer-Lechner, Natalie. “Recollections of Gustav Mahler.” English translation by Dika Newlin. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 1923.

Blaukopf, Kurt and Herta (compilers and editors). “Mahler: His Life, Work and World.” English translation copyright Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. 1976.

de La Grange, Henry-Louis. “Gustav Mahler. Volume 2. Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904).” Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1979.

Mahler, Gustav. “Symphony No. 5 in C# Minor.” Ernst Eulenberg Ltd, London. Copyright 1989.

Martner, Knud (editor). “Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler.” Original edition selected by Alma Mahler. English translation by Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser and Bill Hopkins. Faber and Faber, London. 1979.

Mitchell, Donald. “Gustav Mahler: The Early Years.” C. Tinling & Co. Ltd, London. 1958.

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