Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, composed between 1901 and 1902, stands as a monumental work in symphonic literature, embodying the transition from the Romantic era to the modern era in music. Mahler, an Austrian composer and conductor, was deeply influenced by the world around him, and his symphonies are known for their expansive emotional landscapes and complex structures. The Fifth Symphony, in particular, marks a pivotal point in Mahler’s compositional style, showcasing a departure from the programmatic elements prevalent in his earlier works towards a more abstract, purely musical form.

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 he met Alma Schindler (31 August 1879 – 11 December 1964, the a Viennese-born socialite and composer) and by the time he returned to his summer villa in summer 1902, they were married and she was expecting their first child.

Alma Mahler in 1902
Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel (born Alma Maria Schindler; 31 August 1879 – 11 December 1964) was a Viennese-born socialite and composer. She became the wife, successively, of composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel, as well as the consort of several other prominent men. Musically active from her teens, she was the composer of at least seventeen songs for voice and piano. Later, her salon became part of the artistic scene, first in Vienna, then in Los Angeles. Photo: Wikipedia

The symphony is renowned for its emotional depth and technical complexity, weaving together a rich tapestry of motifs and themes across its expansive structure. It opens with a trumpet solo that sets the tone for the entire piece, introducing a journey through despair, turmoil, love, and ultimately, triumph. This work is characterized by its dramatic contrasts, ranging from the somber funeral march of the opening movement to the exuberant finale, reflecting Mahler’s profound exploration of life, death, and redemption.

One of the most famous sections of the Symphony No. 5 is the Adagietto, often performed independently as a standalone piece. This movement, scored for harp and strings, is a tender love song, believed to be a declaration of love to Mahler’s wife, Alma. Its serene beauty contrasts sharply with the intense, often stormy passages found elsewhere in the symphony, showcasing Mahler’s mastery of emotional expression through music.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony also reflects his innovative approach to orchestration. He employs a large orchestra with an expanded brass section, making use of the orchestra’s full range of colors and dynamics to create a vivid, immersive sound world. This symphony challenges both the performers and the audience, demanding exceptional technical skill from the musicians and a deep emotional engagement from the listeners.

The work’s premiere in Cologne in 1904, conducted by Mahler himself, was met with mixed reactions, reflecting the challenging nature of his music. However, over time, Symphony No. 5 has come to be celebrated as one of Mahler’s greatest achievements and a cornerstone of the orchestral repertoire. Its influence extends beyond the concert hall; the Adagietto, for instance, gained widespread recognition through its use in Luchino Visconti’s film “Death in Venice.”

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 (the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent -polyphony- yet independent in rhythm and contour) also becomes a more important element in Mahler’s music from the fifth symphony onwards. Baroque composers highly cherished the ability to write good counterpoint 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.


The work is in five movements, though Mahler grouped the movements into bigger parts. With start times in the video above:

Part I

1. Trauermarsch (Funeral march). In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (At a measured pace. Strict. Like a funeral procession.) [01:01]

The first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, labeled “Trauermarsch” (Funeral March), is a profound exploration of mourning and solemnity, encapsulated in the directive “In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt” (At a measured pace. Strict. Like a funeral procession). This movement sets the emotional and thematic tone for the entire symphony, initiating the listener into Mahler’s deeply introspective and complex world.

Opening with a solitary trumpet call, the movement immediately establishes a somber and ceremonial atmosphere. This trumpet solo, characterized by its haunting and plaintive quality, serves as a clarion call to the funeral march that unfolds. Mahler’s scoring for this section is masterful, utilizing a wide range of orchestral colors and dynamics to paint a vivid picture of a solemn procession. The march rhythm, once introduced, is unrelenting and inexorable, embodying the steady, measured pace of a funeral cortege.

Mahler’s use of thematic development in this movement is noteworthy. He introduces several motifs that undergo a transformation and reappear throughout not just the movement but the entire symphony. These motifs are woven into the fabric of the march, contributing to a sense of unity and continuity within the work’s larger structure.

The mood of the movement is not uniformly somber; it contains contrasts in dynamics and texture that reflect the complexity of grief and mourning. Mahler employs sudden shifts in volume and orchestration, creating moments of intensity that surge like waves of emotion, only to recede into quieter, reflective passages. This dynamic interplay adds depth to the march, suggesting the nuanced and often conflicting feelings that accompany loss.

The structure of the movement itself is complex, featuring a form that deviates from traditional symphonic movements. Mahler’s approach to form here is more free and fluid, with sections that ebb and flow organically rather than adhering to a strict formal design. This flexibility allows for greater expressive range and a more profound exploration of the movement’s thematic material.

2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz [13:28]

The second movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, titled “Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz” (Stormily agitated, with the greatest vehemence), is a dramatic and turbulent continuation of the symphonic journey initiated by the solemn “Trauermarsch” of the first movement. This movement delves deeper into the emotional turmoil and existential angst that are characteristic of Mahler’s music, showcasing his ability to convey intense and complex emotions through orchestral composition.

From the outset, the movement is charged with energy and restlessness. The instruction “Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz” signals Mahler’s intention for the music to be played with a tempestuous, almost frenzied quality, reflecting a state of inner turmoil and conflict. The orchestration is dense and highly charged, with the full force of the orchestra being employed to create a soundscape of storm-like intensity. The strings play with fiery passion, the brass section adds powerful and often menacing accents, and the woodwinds contribute with their own swirling, agitated lines, all of which combine to create a sense of overwhelming emotional upheaval.

The movement is structured in a complex, through-composed form, eschewing traditional symphonic structures in favor of a more free-flowing and expressive approach. This allows Mahler to explore a wide range of emotions and musical ideas, with themes and motifs from the first movement reappearing in transformed guises, contributing to the cyclical nature of the symphony as a whole. The music moves through contrasting sections that vary in tempo, dynamics, and mood, mirroring the unpredictable and often chaotic nature of human emotions.

Mahler’s mastery of orchestration is on full display in this movement, with his use of instrumental colors and textures adding depth and nuance to the musical narrative. The interaction between different sections of the orchestra, and the way in which themes are passed from one instrument to another, create a rich tapestry of sound that is both complex and coherent.

Despite the prevailing storminess, the movement is not without moments of lyrical beauty and reflection. These passages serve as a brief respite from the tumult, offering glimpses of tranquility and introspection amidst the chaos. However, the overall mood remains one of intense agitation and fervor, driving toward a powerful and climactic conclusion.

Part II

3. Scherzo [27:12]

The third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is a scherzo, marked by the composer as one of the central and most pivotal sections of the entire work. This movement represents a significant departure from the intense, somber, and stormy atmospheres of the preceding movements, offering instead a world filled with vitality, complexity, and a kaleidoscope of emotions and colors. It embodies Mahler’s extraordinary ability to juxtapose contrasting moods and themes, showcasing his innovative approach to orchestration and structure.

Characterized by its lively tempo and intricate rhythms, the scherzo is infused with a sense of buoyancy and dance-like motion that contrasts with the emotional depth and turbulence found in other parts of the symphony. The movement is rich in polyphonic textures and showcases Mahler’s skill in weaving together multiple thematic materials into a coherent and dynamic whole. The music frequently shifts between different moods and colors, reflecting Mahler’s fascination with the complexity of the human spirit and the natural world.

A key feature of this scherzo is its use of orchestral forces to create a vivid and diverse sonic landscape. Mahler employs a wide range of instrumental timbres and techniques, from delicate passages for strings and woodwinds to powerful, full-orchestra climaxes. The brass section, in particular, plays a prominent role, contributing bold and heroic themes that add to the movement’s dramatic impact.

One of the most striking aspects of the scherzo is its rhythmic complexity. Mahler experiments with shifting accents, unexpected syncopations, and complex counterpoints, challenging both the performers and the listeners with its intricate dance rhythms. This rhythmic vitality gives the movement an almost perpetual motion, propelling the music forward with unstoppable energy.

Despite its overall exuberance, the scherzo also contains moments of introspection and tenderness. These passages offer a contrast to the prevailing jubilant and sometimes frenetic mood, showcasing Mahler’s ability to express a wide range of emotions within a single movement. The juxtaposition of these contrasting elements contributes to the scherzo’s richness and depth, making it a central pillar of the symphony’s emotional and structural architecture.

The scherzo’s place within the larger context of Symphony No. 5 is crucial. It acts as a bridge between the despair and struggle of the opening movements and the resolution and triumph that are to come. In doing so, it reflects Mahler’s philosophical and existential inquiries, exploring themes of life, death, love, and redemption through the lens of his unique musical language.

Part III

4. Adagietto [45:25]

The fourth movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the Adagietto, stands in stark contrast to the preceding movements with its serene beauty and tender expression. Lasting approximately 10 minutes, this movement is scored for strings and harp, creating a texture of exquisite delicacy and emotional depth. The Adagietto is often interpreted as a love letter from Mahler to his wife, Alma Mahler, reflecting the composer’s profound affection and the intimate connection between them.

The tempo marking “Adagietto” indicates a slow pace, and the movement unfolds with a gentle, flowing melody that immediately establishes a mood of introspection and longing. The simplicity of the orchestration allows the strings to sing with a voice that is both vulnerable and passionate, supported by the ethereal sound of the harp. This creates a musical space of almost transcendent beauty, inviting listeners to a realm of quiet reflection and deep emotional resonance.

The Adagietto is characterized by its lyrical melodies and harmonies that are rich in emotion yet restrained in their expression. Mahler masterfully manipulates dynamics and tempo to enhance the movement’s expressive quality, allowing the music to breathe and evolve naturally. The interplay between the different sections of the strings adds layers of texture and color to the music, with each phrase meticulously crafted to convey a sense of longing and tenderness.

Despite its brevity in comparison to the other movements of the symphony, the Adagietto holds a central place in the overall structure of the work. It serves as a moment of repose and reflection before the symphony’s triumphant finale, offering a poignant contrast to the complexity and intensity of the surrounding movements. The Adagietto has also gained popularity as a standalone piece, frequently performed at concerts and used in film and television to evoke a sense of profound emotional depth.

The movement’s beauty and apparent simplicity belie the sophistication of Mahler’s compositional technique. Through subtle shifts in harmony and texture, he creates a piece that is rich in emotional nuance, and capable of evoking a wide range of feelings in the listener. The Adagietto is a testament to Mahler’s ability to communicate deeply personal emotions through music, making it one of the most beloved and enduring movements in the orchestral repertoire.

5. Rondo finale [57:29]

The fifth and final movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, titled “Rondo-Finale,” is a triumphant and jubilant conclusion to the symphony’s emotional journey. This movement encapsulates Mahler’s skill in blending complex structures with deeply felt emotional content, offering a resolution that is both intellectually satisfying and emotionally uplifting.

Structured as a rondo, the movement is characterized by the recurrence of a main theme, the rondo theme, which serves as a musical anchor throughout the movement. This theme, bright and vivacious, contrasts sharply with the darker, more tumultuous themes encountered in earlier movements of the symphony. Mahler’s use of the rondo form here is innovative, as he intersperses the recurring theme with a variety of contrasting episodes that recall material from previous movements, thus weaving the entire symphony together in a cyclical fashion.

The orchestration of the Rondo-Finale is notable for its brilliance and color, with Mahler employing the full resources of the orchestra to create a rich tapestry of sound. The movement is filled with lively rhythms and buoyant melodies that convey a sense of celebration and triumph. The brass section, in particular, plays a prominent role, delivering fanfares and motifs that underscore the movement’s exuberant character.

Mahler’s mastery of counterpoint is also evident in this movement, as he skillfully intertwines multiple musical lines and themes. This contrapuntal texture adds depth and complexity to the music, demanding attentive listening to appreciate the interplay of melodies and harmonies.

One of the most striking features of the Rondo-Finale is its culmination in a grand chorale, a moment of majestic beauty and grandeur that serves as the emotional and structural climax of the movement. This chorale, with its broad, sweeping lines and rich harmonies, represents a moment of transcendence and redemption, echoing the themes of struggle and resurrection that permeate the symphony.

The finale concludes with a coda that brings the movement and the symphony as a whole to a thrilling close. This section reiterates the rondo theme with increased intensity and drive, leading to a triumphant conclusion that leaves the listener with a sense of exhilaration and awe.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

I am Özgür Nevres, a software engineer, a former road racing cyclist, and also an amateur musician. I opened to share my favorite music. I also take care of stray cats & dogs. This website's all income goes directly to our furry friends. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can help more animals!

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