It is scored for 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 4 timpani, cymbals, bass drum, bass drum with cymbal, snare drum, triangle, glockenspiel, tamtam, wood block, harp, and strings.
The five movements of this work are grouped together into three sections:
The reason for this particular grouping, which Mahler did not use in any other symphony, becomes clear upon analysis. The first two movements fulfill between them the usual function of an opening sonata-allegro movement. The "funeral march" movement would ordinarily have been merely a slow introduction; here it has grown into a complete movement by itself, with the second movement, the sonata-allegro proper, as another entity. The third movement stands by itself as the largest-scaled Scherzo conceived by Mahler. The fourth is a "little Adagio"; again, it might be likened to a slow, contemplative introduction to an Allegro movement (the fifth movement) which has itself become a separate movement. Both of these "split-off introductions," Movements 1 and 4, are still strongly linked in theme to the movements succeeding them.
This is the third of Mahler's symphonies to end affirmatively in the key of D Major. The earlier examples are the Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3, both of which begin in d minor. No. 5 likewise begins in the minor mode, but a semitone lower in key, in c-sharp minor, thus inaugurating the idea of a symphonic voyage, which Mahler favored often in his later works. The overall emotional progression of this symphony – roughly speaking, from tragedy to triumph – is fortified by quotations from (or suggestions of) at least three of Mahler's songs.
This symphony is usually described as that in which Mahler plunged into the 20th century, breaking the chain of Wunderhorn symphonies with actual vocal movements (i.e., Nos. 2 to 4), which had occupied him for ten years. It is indeed a revolutionary work; yet even here, the durable and binding links to what had gone before are clearly evident. Mahler's biographer Paul Bekker cIaims that the Fifth's great Scherzo, in some respects its most "forward-looking" movement, was in fact first conceived for the Fourth Symphony of 1898-1900, but was replaced there by the c-minor Scherzo when it grew beyond the more modest dimensions that Mahler envisioned for his Fourth. The very opening trumpet motive of the Fifth is also another thematic link to the Fourth. Thus the chain is unbroken, so that Mahler's entire symphonic output is like one continuous musical odyssey, not just a series of independent, self-contained works.
The first movement, the Trauermarsch, is actually a funeral march broken by a faster episode in the middle. The main section is marked "with measured pace, strict, like a funeral procession." The opening fanfare for solo trumpet, which returns in the most varied guises throughout the movement, bears manifold connotations:
A second dirge theme, for strings, is of a songful type to be found in the Adagio of Bruckner's Sixth Symphony (third subject), or in Mahler's own song Der Tamboursg'sell ("The Drummer Boy"). A third and closing one for woodwinds, in the major, is a sad and wistful reminder of the sort of folk tune Mahler was said to have played so eloquently on the accordion when he was but four years old. The middle episode, "suddenly faster," then bursts forth as a passionate outpouring in a totally new key (b-flat minor), spilling out themes to be heard in the ensuing Allegro movement, in wild profusion. When that subsides, the procession inexorably continues as before, and in a new extension of the "accordion" theme we presently hear a pregnant reference to a vocal phrase from the first of the Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children" ). The trumpet fanfare is taken over by the kettledrums, introducing an elegiac coda which begins in a minor, the main tonality of the second movement. Finally the procession halts, and its burden appears to be slowly lowered into the ground, against curt reiterations of the fanfare rhythm in the original c-sharp minor.
In the second movement, marked Stürmisch bewegt, all of the foregoing is turned inside out, as it were, and new elements are added. The main a minor Allegro section is full of strife and turmoil, and is marked "Stormily agitated, with greatest vehemence." Near the beginning, the upward leap that set in motion the faster episode in the first movement is turned into a shrill scream by the woodwinds, and this becomes in turn the upbeat for a tempestuous new string theme. When this has finally subsided, an f minor section follows, marked specifically "in the tempo of the first movement's funeral march." The elegiac theme announced in the coda of that movement is then developed at length and with great contrapuntal complexity. These long melodic lines are somber and almost majestic, but they are accompanied by a hideous cackling in the woodwinds, and a veritable chorus of wailing sound evolves from the upward-leaping figure.
The stormy, anguished section is renewed, and so is the elegiac one, the latter now in a-flat minor, and prepared by a complete hush and a long recitative in the cellos. Another stormy climax suddenly dissolves into a mournful new reminiscence (in B Major) of the "accordion" melody from the first movement. Next a bold, confident episode in A-flat Major sets forth, with the upward leap transformed into a figure of aspiration. The trumpets crown it briefly in A Major, over an onslaught of percussion, and then the a minor storm returns in full fury. Everything is restated in a varied form, with a temporary turn to E minor, and with the mounting aspect of a colossal struggle. The culmination is reached as the aspiring figure reaches the key of D Major, the final goal of the symphony. Like a sudden burst of sunlight, the figure opens out into a complete statement of the D Major chorale which is to return in tri-umph at the end of the finale. But, as in Florestan's song of hope from the dungeon in Beethoven's Fidelio, the chorale ultimately subsides in exhaustion, and the coda in d minor and A minor can offer only a parting gesture of defiance as the sound ot the infernal wailing and cackling seems to lose itself in infinity, continuing but unheard.
"The Scherzo is a very devil of a movement,"
Mahler wrote to his wife from Cologne, after the first rehearsal of the Fifth on October 16, 1904,
"and the public – what are they to make of this chaos out of which new worlds are forever being created, only to crumble in ruin a moment later? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking iridescent and flashing breakers? I'm going for a walk along the Rhine, the only Cologner who will quietly go his way after the premiere without calling me a monster. O that I might give my symphony its first performance fifty years after my death!"
Conceived though it may have been in the end of the 19th century, the D Major Scherzo appears to us as Mahler's greeting and challenge to the 20th. Nothing more prophetic, in instrumentation, counterpoint or harmony, had yet come from his pen. It is filled with vital energy based on 3/4 dance rhythms, the leading tempo being "powerful, not too fast." The merry opening call, for four horns in unison, leads to the solo appearance of a fifth horn for which Mahler departed from his usual German nomenclature, designating it "corno obbligato." The protean leaping figure from Part I now becomes embedded in a satirical waltz, introduced by a shrill rhythmic figure for the clarinets. The gaiety of these and other revolving themes is enhanced by the sounds of the glockenspiel and triangle.
The first Trio section of this multiplex movement, "somewhat more tranquil," is devoted to a second, more lyrical waltz in B-flat, filled with "schmaltz" and slithering Viennese strings. The second Trio, in g minor, again features the corno obbligato, romantically evoking one of Mahler's haunted landscapes. Its mountaineer's calls are answered by soft cadences in the low strings and winds, then are taken up in kind by the cellos, and finally are echoed in a ghostly, far-off tone by another horn. The lyrical waltz returns in F Major, only instead of slithering, the strings are delicately plucked, like a guitar. The echoing horn calls are developed by the trumpet, the muted trombone, etc. An increasingly boisterous episode, with the rhythm of the shrill clarinet figure given to a stuttering wood-block, leads through a sudden pause to the principal reprise of the D Major section. The revolving themes now become gradually livelier and more hectic. After being peremptorily if but momentarily dis-missed, there is a final return of the mountain horn-calls and echoes, before the closing peroration is ushered in by a transference of the stuttering rhythm to the bass drum.
The Adagietto, a slow, relatively short piece in F Major, scored for strings and harp, is probably the most famous single movement in any of Mahler's works. It is frequently featured in concerts for string orchestra alone, or for chamber orchestra. The act that the descriptive title "Adagietto" does not bear the same relation to "Adagio" that "Allegretto" does to "Allegro," i.e., a modification of its slowness, is revealed by the actual tempo headings in the score: "Sehr langsam" as well as its equivalent, "Molto adagio."
The harp plays almost entirely in broken chords and arpeggios, reflecting and pointing up to the many subtle modulations of key in the string polyphony. The violins enter gently at the third bar with a seemingly direct melodic quote from the second of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, but harmonized in a less dark and more serene manner. The entire main melody has also been likened to that of the song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I am lost to the world" ) in its raptness and quietude of expression, a resemblance that becomes explicit in the very cIosing bars of the movement. In the middle section, which begins in G-flat Major, the harp drops out and the first violins climb to heights of rapturous yearning, carrying a theme destined to play a leading role in the final movement.
In the Rondo-Finale, the enormous vitality that characterized the Scherzo is now applied to materials of a predominantly joyful and even playful, nose-thumbing character, albeit with a great underlying strength of purpose through manifold (and momentarily bewildering) changes of key and combinations of themes. The short introduction is a gentle awakening from the meditative mood of the Adagietto, begin- ning with a kind of musical pun on the tone A. A is the third tone of the scale in the Adagietto's F Major, and the fifth tone of the scale in the finale's D Major. The first violins have just faded out on a low A, with the other components of an inverted F-Major chord in the cellos and basses below. Now the first horn tentatively sounds an A in the higher octave, and the same violins repeat the same tone as before, but unharmonized, as if curious but uncertain. The horn makes its meaning more clear by playing a falling fourth (A-E) and returning to a long-held A. Then the bassoon ventures a clear melodic fragment in D Major, and the cat is out of the bag.
The bassoon's fragment is also, very recognizably, out of the humorous song Lob des hohen Verstandes (" Praise from a Lofty Intellect" ), in which Mahler had poked allegorical fun at the fraternity of music critics. Its invocation at the very outset of such a staggeringly complex and irrepressible composition is as if to say, "Well, my long-eared friends, what are you going to make out of this?" Other fragments, which are also to be developed side by side in the ensuing Allegro giocoso, are stated in turn by the oboe, the bassoon again, the horn and clarinet in this miniature introduction. They are all very perky, and the truly astonishing thing is that all of them are to be incorporated, in dignified augmentation, into the final triumphant chorale of which we have already had a taste in the second movement!
The main rondo theme is led off by two horns in dialogue, the other winds gradually joining in. The strings then make their first active appearance, setting in motion no less than a triple fugue. When all the giocoso elements have made their gyrations several times, a lilting transformation (marked grazioso) of the aforementioned Adagietto theme is pressed into the rondo over a syncopated rhythm, as naturally as if it had never been conceived any other way. It slows up and broadens out only for its final cadence, and is followed by a mysterious and delicate transition back into the whirling counterpoints. This whole process is more than once repeated with infinite variation, until a final burst of speed and energy leads to a gathering of all the remnants into the all-embracing D Major chorale for which they were destined. There is a concluding stretto-coda accelerating to Presto, and a last-minute interruption in B-flat, as if by a dissenting critic, who is promptly hurled down four flights of whole-tone scales.
— Jack Diether
Recorded May 27-June 1, 1974 at the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Producer: Seymour Solomon
Engineer: David Baker
Originally release: Vanguard Everyman Series SRV 321-2 SD (2 LPs, coupled with the Adagio from Symphony No. 10)