Mahler’s fifth – a journey through the land of dreams

Posted on June 10, 2013


Mahler’s fifth symphony is a work composed in the years 1901 and 1902, symbolically linking the nineteenth century to the twentieth in music. It is a quintessentially romantic work, which goes along the idea of a single piece containing in itself a “whole world”, but the way it builds this world is utterly idiosyncratic, irregular and strange to any previous tradition. It starts with a funeral march in C-sharp minor and ends in a triumphant celebration of joy in D major, containing a multitude of other moods in between these extremes, mixed together in a chaotic fashion. The first, second, third and fifth movements of the symphony share a dreamlike quality, in the sense that they are stitched together from very disparate elements, just like memories, images and phantasies of different origin come next to each other in our dreams from far-away territories of our subconscious mind. However, there seems to be progression, overall, that of a progressive dominance of life over death through various non-linear stages of development and oscillations back and forth between contrasting themes. This appears to me the most elaborate artistic representation of the way human beings process complex emotions, involving everything they have stored in their minds through experience.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No 5 in C sharp minor. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conductor Daniel Barenboim

The symphony essentially consists of three parts. The first two movements represent the first part, dominated by the emotions of sorrow and stormy anger. Brief, sequences of calm and joy are included though, as a representation of hope, anticipating something better to come. The third movement in itself is the second part, which resolves the emotions raised by the first part through the most complex meshwork of melodies and moods, following each other apparently randomly, but leading in a finely elaborate manner towards a resolution realised in the third part, i.e. the fourth and fifth movements. The fourth movement, the so often performed Adagietto, is the only “clear spot” in this cavalcade of emotions, which in its ethereal clarity and simple melodic line contrasts with the whole of the rest. This is a movement scored for strings and harp, a love song without words, expressing infinite peace that can only become real through the passion of love and longing. Once this inner piece is achieved we are ready to celebrate it in the final movement of the symphony, which is a summary of the whole, containing melodic references to the first two movements, but this time sadness and anger are overridden by triumphant joy.

Posted in: Part 3