All the symphonies of Gustav Mahler are large and powerful creations, but the Symphony No. 5, written at the time of his marriage to the beautiful Alma Schindler, introduced to his music a heightened expression through what Austrian musicologist Egon Gartenberg called a “volcanic change to modern polyphony.” 

Born July 7, 1860 in Kalist, Bohemia; 
died May 18, 1911 in Vienna. 

    First performed on October 18, 1904 in Cologne by the Gürzenich Orchestra under the composer’s direction.
  • First performed by the Des Moines Symphony on October 22 & 23, 1983 with Yuri Krasnapolsky conducting. Three subsequent performances occurred, most recently on May 11 & 12, 2013 with Joseph Giunta conducting.

(Duration: ca. 68 minutes) 

In November 1901, Mahler met Alma Schindler, daughter of the painter Emil Jacob Schindler, then 22 and regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Vienna. Mahler was 41. Romance blossomed. They were married in March, and were parents by November. Their first summer together (1902) was spent at Maiernigg, Mahler’s country retreat on the Wörthersee in Carinthia in southern Austria. It was at that time that the Fifth Symphony was composed, incorporating some sketches from the previous summer. He thought of this work as “their” music, the first artistic fruit of his married life with Alma. But more than that, he may also have wanted to create music that would be worthy of the new circle of friends that Alma, the daughter of one of Austria’s finest artists and most distinguished families, had opened to him — Gustav Klimt, Alfred Roller (who became Mahler’s stage designer at the Court Opera), architect Josef Hoffmann and the rest of the cream of cultural Vienna. In the Fifth Symphony, Mahler seems to have taken inordinate care to demonstrate the mature quality of his thought (he was, after all, nearly twice Alma’s age) and to justify his lofty position in Viennese artistic life as director of the Court Opera, a circumstance that brought about a radical change in his creative language. 

The musical style that Mahler initiated with the Fifth Symphony is at once more abstract yet more powerfully expressive than that of his earlier music. In his study of the composer, Egon Gartenberg noted that the essential quality differentiating the later music from the earlier was a “volcanic change to modern polyphony,” a technique of concentrated contrapuntal development that Mahler had derived from an intense study of the music of Bach. “You can’t imagine how hard I am finding it, and how endless it seems because of the obstacles and problems I am faced with,” Mahler confided to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner while struggling with the Symphony’s third movement. Free of his duties at the Opera between seasons, he labored throughout the summer of 1902 on the piece at his little composing hut in the woods, several minutes’ walk from the main house at Maiernigg. So delicate was the process of creation that he ordered Alma not to play the piano while he was working lest the sound, though distant, should disturb him (she was a talented musician and budding composer until her husband forbid her to practice those skills after their wedding), and he even complained that the birds bothered him because they sang in the wrong keys (!). Every few days he brought his rough sketches to Alma, who copied them over and filled in some of the orchestral lines according to his instructions. 

The composition was largely completed by early autumn when the Mahlers returned to Vienna, but Gustav continued to revise the orchestration throughout the winter, daily stealing a few early-morning minutes to work on it before he raced to the Opera House. The tinkering went on until a tryout rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic early in 1904. Alma, listening from the balcony, reported with alarm, “I heard each theme in my head while copying the score, but now I could not hear them at all! Mahler had overscored the kettledrums and percussion so madly and persistently that little beyond the rhythm was recognized.” Major changes were in order, Alma advised. Mahler agreed, immediately crossed out most of the percussion parts, and spent seemingly endless hours during the seven years after the Symphony’s premiere further altering the orchestration so that it would clearly reveal the complex musical textures. Hardly any two performances of the work during his lifetime were alike.   

The 1904 premiere in Cologne brought mixed responses from audience and critics. Even Bruno Walter, Mahler’s protégé and assistant at the Vienna Opera and himself a master conductor and interpreter of his mentor’s music, lamented of the first performance, “It was the first time and, I think, the only time that a performance of a Mahler work under his own baton left me unsatisfied. The instrumentation did not succeed in bringing out clearly the complicated contrapuntal fabric of the parts.” It was not until one of his last letters, in February 1911, that Mahler could finally say, “The Fifth is finished. I have been forced to re-orchestrate it completely. I fail to comprehend how at that time [1904] I could have blundered so like a greenhorn.”  

Mahler grouped the five movements of the Fifth Symphony into three parts. Thus, the opening Trauermarsch (“Funeral March”) takes on the character of an enormous introduction to the second movement. The two are further joined in their sharing of some thematic material. The giant Scherzo stands at the center point of the Symphony, the only movement not linked with another. Balancing the opening movements are the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale of Part III, which have the quality of preface and summation. 

The structures of the individual movements of the Fifth Symphony are large and complex, bearing allegiance to the classical models but expanded and re-shaped, with continuous development and intertwining of themes. The Trauermarsch is sectional in design, alternating between music based on the opening trumpet summons and an intensely sad threnody presented by the strings. The following movement (“Stormily moving. With great vehemence”) resembles sonata form, with a soaring chorale climaxing the development section only to be cut short by the return of the stormy music of the recapitulation. The Scherzo juxtaposes a whirling waltz/Ländler with trios more gentle in nature. The serene Adagietto, perhaps the most famous (and most often detached) single movement among Mahler’s symphonies, serves as a calm interlude between the gigantic movements surrounding it. The closing movement (Rondo-Finale) begins as a rondo, but interweaves the principal themes with those of the episodes as it unfolds in a blazing display of contrapuntal craft. The triumphant chorale that was snuffed out in the second movement is here returned to bring the Symphony to an exalted close.  

The score calls for three piccolos, four flutes, three oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, glockenspiel, triangle, whip, tam-tam, harp and the usual strings.