Mahler’s emancipation: Symphony No. 5

For those of you interested in seeing the Seattle Symphony this season, this weekend would be a great time to see them. The program for this Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (October 1-4) is Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, with guest soloist Isabelle Faust, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor. I have a special affinity for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. It was the symphonic work that inspired me to pursue an orchestral music career.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was a revolutionary work and represents a new compositional period in his music. After composing three symphonies with vocalists and words (Symphonies 2, 3 and 4), Mahler writes a purely instrumental symphony. Richard Strauss, a fellow composer and contemporary of Mahler’s, wrote, “[Mahler’s] emancipation from the literary clearly awakened in him higher demands on orchestration in the service of expression and clarity.”

The Fifth Symphony does not follow standard practices of symphonic composition within the Romantic period. In this symphony there is a superlative use of polyphony that Mahler once tried to describe as the sounds of a country fair.  Indeed, as one listens to the overlapping voices of the orchestra at the height of the first movement one can imagine a disheveled scene similar to a 19th century country fair.

The structure of the symphony is in 3 parts, with five movements. The first two movements, 1. Trauermarsch: Wie ein Kondukt (“Death March: Like a Funeral Procession”) and 2. Stuermisch* betwegt. Mit groesster* Vehemenz (“Turbulently Rough. With Great Vehemence”) make up Part One of the Symphony. Part Two is the third movement alone, 3. Scherzo, and Part Three is made of up the last two movements, 4. Adagietto and 5. Rondo-Finale. Many compare this symphony to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony for it’s heroic character and the programmatic triumph of good over evil. Certainly one can hear the jubilant chords at the end as representative of a victory.

For first time listeners of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony listen for repetition, changes in the timbre, and variation of any thematic material. All of these techniques are clues to what Mahler was trying to make more prominent at certain points in the music. Other than that, let your emotions ride along with the music. Without words to tell the audience what is going on in the music, or what the music is about, the music can mean many things to many people. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and most music in general, is best enjoyed when we open our minds and our ears to the possibility of music taking us on a journey. Journey out to the Seattle Symphony this weekend and you will definitely not be disappointed.

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