In a discussion with Sibelius, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) explained what he considered that a symphony must comprise: “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” Mahler’s symphonies do indeed include a wide range of genres and – often contradictory – emotions that follow each other in quick succession. This earned him the criticism that his symphonies were like a ‘potpourri’. But for Mahler, these extremes were precisely the building blocks of his symphonic universe.
For anyone not yet acquainted with Mahler’s music, his epic Fifth Symphony is an ideal ‘first date’. It is an intense work that reflects both the force of nature in the Austrian mountains and his love for his wife Alma, expressed in the Adagietto – world-renowned thanks to Visconti’s film Death in Venice. Mahler himself said of this symphony: “Every note is full of vitality and spins around as if in a whirlwind. There is nothing romantic or mystical about it, it is simply an expression of incredible energy. It is a human being in the full light of day, in the prime of his life.”
Mahler had a lifelong romance with death: on the one hand, it was a synonym for fear and temporality – Mahler lost eight brothers and sisters, both his parents and later his eldest daughter as well – and on the other hand, eternal life looms in the hereafter. The theme runs like a golden thread through his orchestral works. His Fifth Symphony contains all the extremes of life; from a funeral march, the sound of time ticking by, to a yearning Adagietto for his beloved Alma. But most of all, the work celebrates the triumph of humanity over grief and death.
Mahler composed the work in 1901, mostly during his summer spent in Maiernigg, a village on the shores of the Wörthersee in Austria. It was a tumultuous year: in the spring, he had recovered from a serious illness, but the period was followed by a productive summer and autumn, both for his career and his personal life. Mahler met the charming and intelligent Alma Schindler, the daughter of the landscape painter Jakob Emil Schindler, at a gathering at the home of mutual friends. He fell in love at first sight, and married her just four months later.
Initially, Mahler had been planning a symphony in four movements, but during their honeymoon in August 1902, he changed his mind and added the now famous Adagietto. The symphony opens with a funeral march, which is gradually transformed into a plaintive melody about death. A passionate climax leads into the second movement, which harks back to the funeral march. Halfway through, there a moment of triumph appears to break through, but the blissful feeling quickly gives way to sombre tones.
After a rest, an exuberant Scherzo is heard: an extensive succession of folk and Viennese dances in which the first horn leads the dance. In the Adagietto, calm returns. The sugary-sweet melodies in the strings are nothing less than a declaration of love to Mahler’s ‘beloved Almscherl’, to whom he dedicated the symphony. They were apparently inspired by a poem that he had written for Alma: “How much I love you, my sunbeam, I cannot tell you with words. Only my longing, my love, and my bliss can I with anguish declare.” The final movement follows without a pause; in it the themes from the previous movements are interwoven in an impressive interplay with each other into a magnificent, sun-drenched closing celebration.
On 24 August 1902, Mahler announced the completion of the symphony in a letter to two friends, but the ultimate version would come only in 1903 – as was his custom, Mahler made many more changes to the score. He apparently continued until the end of his life to work on perfecting and refining the orchestration: his last revisions date from 1910.