Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 5

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 70–80 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: 1901–1904(–1911)
World Premiere: October 18, 1904 (Cologne)

Table of Contents

Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in 5 Sentences

Gustav Mahler struggled with his Symphony No. 5 (and especially with its orchestration) for a very long time: In 1904, work on it was actually already completed, but up to the year of his death (1911) Mahler repeatedly made corrections and changes, and even referred to the work as “cursed” (see also the quote below). Today, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is one of his most popular and most performed works. It is most famous for the funeral march in the first movement and for the Adagietto, which Luchino Visconti used as the score for his 1971 film “Death in Venice”. After using chorus or solo voice in Symphonies Nos. 2, 3 and 4, Mahler returned to purely instrumental scoring with Symphony No. 5.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Mahler's Symphony No. 5

Highlight 1: Funeral March (trumpet solo)

Mahler’s fifth symphony begins with a funeral march opened by a devilishly difficult trumpet solo:

Highlight 2: Adagietto

Perhaps the most famous movement from Mahler’s 5th Symphony (thanks in part to its use as film music) is the Adagietto. It marks the resting point of the work:

Highlight 3: Difficult start

The Adagietto is followed by the final movement, which only gets going with difficulty: various instruments seem to be “throwing in” incoherent motifs, without wanting to create anything substantial. I always feel a bit reminded of the primordial soup idea from Beethoven’s Ninth:

Highlight 4: Furious end

After the hesitant beginning, one would hardly expect how Mahler’s 5th Symphony ends. The final movement rises continuously and ends in unbounded jubilation:

3 Questions and Answers about Mahler's Symphony No. 5

Question 1: Who performed the premiere of Mahler's 5th Symphony?

The Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne played the premiere. Mahler conducted himself.

Question 2: How was Mahler's 5th Symphony received by the audience?

As so often with Mahler, the 5th Symphony was not really well received by the public. Negative reviews piled up. Only after Mahler’s death did the 5th Symphony develop into one of Mahler’s most popular symphonies.

Question 3: Is Mahler's Symphony No. 5 program music?

A program for Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 has not survived. However, certain associations with the scheme “per aspera ad astra” (as in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, for example) cannot be denied: After the somber funeral march in the 1st movement, the symphony develops all the way to the frenetic final jubilation.

2 Recommended Recordings of Mahler's Symphony No. 5

Recording 1: Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, François-Xavier Roth (live, 2019)

I really like the fact that more and more Mahler recordings with François-Xavier Roth are now being released. Roth cares deeply about all the subtleties in Mahler’s articulation and dynamics, which he brings out meticulously with the fantastic musicians of the Gürzenich Orchestra (the world premiere orchestra!):

Recording 2: L'Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, Myung-Whung Chung (live, 2015)

Thanks to Myung-Whung Chung’s sensitive (and comparatively terse) conducting, the collaboration with the Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France produces a performance of Mahler’s Fifth that is perfectly balanced:

1 Quote about Mahler's Symphony No. 5

The Fifth is a cursed work. No one gets it.

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