The Colburn Orchestra Play Mahler - 'Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor'

For the full performance, which includes Takemitsu & Mahler, click here.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
"Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor" (1901-02)

The opening trumpet call of Mahler's Fifth Symphony announces a profound change
in his compositional style. It bids farewell to his "first period" and the picturesque world of
his previous symphonies -- their programmatic nature based upon poetic texts and the use of voices. The First Symphony had quotes from his song cycle, Lieder einesfahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), and the subsequent Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies all included choruses or vocal solos.

Interesting to note, however, is that the opening trumpet call is actually a quote from the Fourth Symphony. In the Fourth it appears right after the pounding climax in the first movement in which the trumpet calls the orchestra back into order. In this way, the call provides a link to the old world that Mahler leaves behind, or perhaps, it symbolizes that the seed of the new period is found within the old.

The Fifth Symphony also marks a change in Mahler's orchestration from his earlier symphonies. At the turn of the 19th century, Mahler acquired the complete edition of Bach's works and the influence of the master can be seen in his music -- the parts are more often independent of each other and his textures become increasingly
contrapuntal. Mahler also makes more frequent use of smaller groupings in the orchestra, creating the effect of the ensemble being composed by a greatly varied series of smaller chamber groups. This new orchestral style did not come easily to Mahler
and he was horrified to discover at a reading rehearsal before the premiere of the Fifth Symphony that he had over-orchestrated many sections of the score. Still unsatisfied after the official premiere, he continued to make revisions to the score until at least
1907, and possibly until his death in 1911.

Mahler sets the Fifth Symphony in five movements, arranged into three over-arching sections, consisting respectively of movements one and two; movement three; and concluding with movements four and five. The three-part structure traces a course in which the mood progresses from darkness and tragedy to exuberance and joy. The two movements of Part I are tragic and angry, while the third movement, the central Scherzo comprising Part II by itself, contains moments of anxiety contrasted with jubilation. It represents the transition of moods, finally leading to Part III, which conveys love and joy. The harmonic progression also mirrors this astonishing change, moving up a half-step from the opening movement in C-sharp minor, to the last movement which closes the symphony in a triumphant D Major.

The opening movement of the symphony is entitled Trauermarsch (Funeral march). A single trumpet summons the orchestra with a fanfare of rapid triplets, leading to a dark, somber lament sung by the violins and cellos. The opening music returns and is followed
once again by the lament, which unfolds with more intense grieving. As the march comes to a full close, the trumpet fanfare returns once again to introduce the next section, the trio - a wild, hysterical outcry in B-flat minor consisting of the violins whipping rapid scales while the trumpet screams its anguish in wave after wave of great intensity. Gradually the wild music subsides and the main march returns, the lament varied and intensified. This
time the melody is accompanied by a punctuating rhythm in the trumpets and trombones. The second trio is more subdued and returns in the context of the slow tempo, and the movement disintegrates into echoes of the trumpet fanfare, closing with a final menacing pizzicato in the lower strings.

The second movement, marked Stürmisch bewegt. Mit grösster Vehemenz ("Stormy, with greatest vehemence") is in many way the main movement of the work, although not the longest. Whereas the opening movement is slow with fast interruptions, this movement is its inversion, a fast movement that returns several times to the funeral-march tempo. It shares thematic material with the opening movement, taking the frenetic outbursts for its main character, contrasted with variants of the funeral march in the cellos and clarinets. The trumpets and trombones introduce a chorale-- the first time an extended section has been in a major key--but it does not last long before it is defeated, and this movement, too, disintegrates in mystery, bringing Part I to a close.

Following the dark and dreariness of the previous section, Part II represents "a human being in the full light of day, in the prime of his life." It consists of the third movement alone, the Scherzo, and at over 800 measures, it is not only the longest movement of this
symphony, but one of Mahler's longest movements in any work. The music lilts and waltzes with great energy and speed, joyous at times and nostalgic at others. It is contrasted with twists every now and then of boisterous, sometimes brutal passages.

Part III opens with the famous fourth movement, the Adagietto, a love song without words written for Mahler's wife, Alma. The movement recalls one of Mahler's first Rückert songs, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and the breathtakingly beautiful melody grows hesitatingly, in sweeping arches, over the harmony gently strummed out by the harp. It is a movement of utmost enchantment and beauty.

A single note from the horn, delightfully unexpected, introduces the fifth and final movement, a grand Rondo-Finale. As abruptly as he left the tragedy of the Part I with the vitality of the Scherzo, Mahler now leaves behind the hesitations of the Adagietto and dives into the Finale with vigorous radiance and energy, in the new key of D major. Part of the Adagietto even turns up, almost unrecognizable, surrounded by music of very different spirit and speed. The music builds to a climax in which the same brass chorale that was defeated in the second movement is brought back, this time heroically bringing the symphony, and the ultimate struggle and rise from tragedy to victory, to a magnificently triumphant close.

Written by Colburn Conservatory student Bora Kim, a violinist and pianist in the Bachelor of Music program.


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Carol and Warner Henry