The Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler was composed in 1901 and 1902, mostly during the summer months at Mahler’s cottage at Maiernigg. Among its most distinctive features are the trumpet solo that opens the work with the same rhythmic motive as used in the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony and the frequently performed Adagietto.
The musical canvas and emotional scope of the work, which lasts over an hour, are huge. The symphony is sometimes described as being in the key of C? minor since the first movement is in this key (the finale, however, is in D major). Mahler objected to the label: “From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the ‘whole Symphony’, and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted.”
Movement 1: Trauermarsch (Funeral March). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt
Movement 2: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz
Movement 3: Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell
Movement 4: Adagietto. Sehr langsam
Movement 5: Rondo-Finale. Allegro – Allegro giocoso. Frisch
Part I: Movement 1: Trauermarsch (Funeral March). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt and Movement 2: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz. As designated by Mahler in the score.
Part II: Movement 3: Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell.
Part III: Movement 4: Adagietto. Sehr langsam and Movement 5: Rondo-Finale. Allegro – Allegro giocoso. Frisch.
The piece is generally regarded as Mahler’s most conventional symphony up to that point, but from such an unconventional composer it still had many peculiarities. It almost has a four-movement structure, as the first two can easily be viewed as essentially a whole. The symphony also ends with a Rondo, in the classical style. Some peculiarities are the funeral march that opens the piece and the Adagietto for harp and strings that contrasts with the complex orchestration of the other movements. The performance of the work lasts around 70 minutes.
Mahler wrote his Fifth Symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902. In February 1901 Mahler had suffered a sudden major hemorrhaging and his doctor later told him that he had come within an hour of bleeding to death. The composer spent quite a while recuperating. He moved into his own lakeside villa in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia in June 1901. Mahler was delighted with his new-found status as the owner of a grand villa. According to friends, he could hardly believe how far he had come from his humble beginnings. He was Director of the Vienna Court Opera and the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. His own music was also starting to be successful. Later in 1901 when he met Alma Schindler and by the time he returned to his summer villa in summer 1902, they were married and she was expecting their first child.
Symphonies five, six and seven, which all belong to this period, have much in common and are markedly different from the first four, which all have strong links to vocal music. The middle symphonies, by contrast, are pure orchestral works and are, by Mahler’s standards, taut and lean.
Counterpoint also becomes a more important element in Mahler’s music from the fifth symphony onwards. The ability to write good counterpoint was highly cherished by Baroque composers and Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as the greatest composer of contrapuntal music. Bach played an important part in Mahler’s musical life at this time. He subscribed to the edition of Bach’s collected works that was being published at the turn of the century, and later conducted and arranged works by Bach for performance. Mahler’s renewed interest in counterpoint can best be heard in the third and the final movements of the fifth symphony.