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."
The piece is scored for a large orchestra made up of:
- woodwinds: 4 flutes (3rd & 4th doubling piccolos; for the last two bars of movement 3, all four flutes play piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets in B-flat and A (3rd doubling clarinet in D and bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon)
- brass: 6 horns in F (with solo horn at movement 3), 4 trumpets in B-flat and F, 3 trombones, bass tuba
- percussion: timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, whip (used only at movement 3), glockenspiel
- strings: harp, violins I, II, violas, violoncellos, double basses
Revisions of the score
The score appeared first in print in 1904 at Peters, Leipzig. A second "New edition", incorporating revisions that Mahler made in 1904, appeared in 1905. Final revisions made by Mahler in 1911 did not appear until 1964 (ed. Ratz), when the score was re-published in the Complete Edition of Mahler's works. In 2001, Edition Peters published a further revised edition (ed. Kubik) as part of the New Complete Critical Edition Series. This edition is the most accurate edition available so far. Previous editions have now gone out of print.
The work is in five movements, though Mahler grouped the movements into bigger parts:
- Part I
- I: Trauermarsch (Funeral March). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (C-sharp minor)
- II: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) (A minor)
- Part II
- III: Scherzo. Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Not too fast, strong) (D major)
- Part III
- IV: Adagietto. Sehr langsam (Very slow) (F major)
- V: Rondo-Finale. Allegro – Allegro giocoso. Frisch (Fresh) (D major)
The fourth movement may be Mahler's most famous composition and is the most frequently performed of his works. The British premiere of the Fifth Symphony came thirty-six years after that of the Adagietto, conducted by Henry Wood at a Proms concert in 1909. Leonard Bernstein conducted it during the funeral Mass for Robert Kennedy at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York, on 8 June 1968. It was used in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film Death in Venice.
It is said to represent Mahler's love song to Alma. According to a letter she wrote to Willem Mengelberg, the composer left a small poem:
"Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir's nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe."
(How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing and love.)
It lasts for approximately 10 minutes, and Mahler's instruction is sehr langsam (very slowly). Mahler and Mengelberg played it in about 7 minutes. Some conductors have taken tempos that extend it to nearly 12 minutes (viz. recordings by Eliahu Inbal, Herbert von Karajan, and Claudio Abbado), while Simon Rattle with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed it in 9½ minutes. Bernstein also briefly discusses this section along with the opening bars of the 2nd movement in his Charles Eliot Norton lectures from 1973.
The Adagietto has been used by figure skaters. Ekaterina Gordeeva commemorated her deceased husband, Sergei Grinkov, at the 1996 "Celebration of a Life". Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, from Canada, performed their free dance at both the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2010 World Championships, winning the gold medal at both events.
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.
- World premiere: October 18, 1904, Cologne – Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne conducted by the composer.
- United States premiere: March 24, 1905, Cincinnati – conducted by Frank Van der Stucken.
- English premieres:
- Of Adagietto only: August 31, 1909, London – conducted by Henry Wood during a Proms concert.
- Of complete work: October 21, 1945, London – London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Heinz Unger.