Mahler, Gustav

Mahler, Gustav

Mahler, Gustav, 1860-1911, composer and conductor, born in Austrian Bohemia of Jewish parentage. Mahler studied at the Univ. of Vienna and the Vienna Conservatory. He was conductor of the Budapest Imperial Opera (1888-90), the Hamburg Municipal Theater (1891-97), the Vienna State Opera (1897-1907), and the New York Philharmonic (1909-11). He also conducted the Metropolitan Opera (1908-10). As a conductor Mahler achieved high standards of performance that have become legendary. His refusal to compromise artistic integrity aroused intense personal opposition in Vienna and New York. Composing mainly during summers, he completed nine symphonies (the unfinished tenth has been completed by Deryck Cooke) and several songs and song cycles, mostly with orchestral accompaniment. Of the cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [songs of a wayfarer] (1883-85), Kindertotenlieder [songs on the death of children] (1901-4), and Das Lied von der Erde [song of the earth] (1907-10) are most notable. Mahler followed Bruckner in the Viennese symphonic tradition. He added folk elements to the symphony and expanded it in terms of length, emotional contrast, and orchestral size. He used choral or solo voices in four symphonies: the Second, Third, Fourth, and Eighth; the Eighth is known as the Symphony of a Thousand because of the enormous performing forces required. The thinner texture, wide-ranging melodies, and taut, intense emotionalism of Mahler's late works strongly influenced the next generation of Austrian composers, especially Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.

See his letters ed. by A. Mahler and D. Mitchell (3d ed., tr. 1973); biographies by B. Walter (tr. 1941, repr. 1970), K. Blaukopf (tr. 1972), N. Lebrecht, ed. (1988), and J. Carr (1997).

The Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler was written in 1901 and 1902 mostly during the summer months at Mahler's cottage at Maiernigg. It is arguably the best known Mahler symphony. Among its most distinctive landmarks are the funereal trumpet solo that opens the work and the frequently performed F major Adagietto.

The musical canvas and emotional scope of the work are huge. Herbert von Karajan said once that when you hear Mahler's Fifth, “you forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath.” After its premiere, Mahler is reported to have said, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”

The symphony is sometimes described as being in the key of C sharp minor, but Mahler himself objected to this assignment: "From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the 'whole Symphony', and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted.


The piece is scored for a large orchestra made up of:Woodwinds:
4 Flutes (3rd & 4th doubling Piccolos)
3 Oboes (3rd doubling english horn)
3 Clarinets in B-flat (2nd doubling Clarinet in E-flat, 3rd doubling Bass Clarinet)
3 Bassoons (3rd doubling Contrabassoon)Brass:
6 Horns in F1
4 Trumpets in B-flat and F
3 Trombones
Bass Drum
Snare Drum

Violins I, II
Double Basses

1Mahler uses a Solo obbligato Horn in the Scherzo. However, this does not usually count as a seventh horn because only four other horn parts play in that movement.

Revisions of the score

The score appeared first in print in 1904 at Peters, Leipzig. A second "New edition", incorporating revisions that Mahler made in 1904, appeared in 1905. Final revisions made by Mahler in 1911 did not appear until 1964, when the score was re-published in the Complete Edition of Mahler's works.


The work is in five movements:

  1. Trauermarsch (Funeral March) (C-sharp minor)
  2. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) (A minor)
  3. Scherzo (D major)
  4. Adagietto (F major)
  5. Rondo-Finale (D major)

The first two movements constitute Part I of the symphony (as designated by Mahler in the score), the long Scherzo constitutes Part II, and the last two movements constitute Part III.

The piece is generally regarded as Mahler's most conventional symphony up to that point, but from such an unconventional composer it still had many peculiarities. It almost has a four movement structure, as the first two can easily be viewed as essentially a whole. The symphony also ends with a Rondo, in the classical style. Some peculiarities are the funeral march that opens the piece, and the Adagietto for harp and strings that interrupts the booming score.

A performance of the work takes around 70 minutes.


The fourth movement is arguably Mahler's most famous single piece of music, and is the most frequently performed extract from Mahler's works. It is best known for its use in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film Death in Venice. However it was frequently performed on its own before then, chiefly because in the early 20th century music programmers did not believe whole Mahler symphonies would be acceptable to audiences. Indeed, the British premiere of the entire Fifth Symphony came thirty-six years after the Adagietto itself had been introduced, by Henry Wood at a Proms concert in 1909.

It lasts for approximately ten minutes, and Mahler adds the instruction sehr langsam (very slowly). This has led to some conductors taking the movement well over its normal duration, in some cases over eleven minutes (11'43" as performed in a recording by Eliahu Inbal, 11'52" in a recording by Herbert von Karajan, and 11'55 in a recording by Claudio Abbado). However in recent years the trend moved away from extreme tempi, notably 9'33" in the inaugural recording from Simon Rattle as the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Adagietto was also performed at the mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York on 8 June 1968, the day of the burial of Robert Kennedy.


Mahler wrote his fifth symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902. This was a time of great change for the composer. On the positive side he moved into his own lakeside villa in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia in June 1901. Mahler himself 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 had one of the best jobs in the musical world as Director of the Vienna Court Opera and was the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, one of the world’s great orchestras. His own music was also starting to be successful. But he had not yet found the love of his life. This last missing element in his life fell into place later in 1901 when he met Alma Schindler. By the time he was back at his summer villa in summer 1902, they were married and she was expecting their first child.

On the negative side, Mahler had experienced severe health problems in February 1901 when he suffered a sudden major haemorrhage and his doctor later told him that he had come within an hour of bleeding to death. The composer spent quite a while recuperating and doubtless was shaken by the experience.

With so much going on in an artist’s life it is no surprise that the music Mahler started writing in summer 1901 was noticeably different from the music he had previously written. With hindsight we can see that this was the beginning of what was to become Mahler’s middle period. Symphonies five, six and seven all belong to this period and have much in common. They are also quite different from the first four, which all have strong links to vocal music. Symphonies two, three and four all include singers while the first symphony borrows music from earlier songs Mahler had composed. But none of the middle three symphonies have any vocal music, although the fifth does maintain some links to songs Mahler wrote while composing it. The middle symphonies are pure orchestral works and are, by Mahler’s standards, taut and lean. As his wife said of the composer at this time, “he was at the height of his powers”.

Nostalgia begins to creep into the music during Mahler’s middle period. The first four symphonies were written during the composer’s twenties and thirties. The middle three were written by a man in his forties while the last works were written in the shadow of some terrible personal tragedies that struck Mahler in 1907. This nostalgia in Mahler’s music is often linked with music associated with the composer’s love of nature. This is particularly true in the sixth and seventh symphonies where Mahler includes distant cowbells in the orchestra. In the fifth symphony this longing is most clearly heard in the middle movement with its solo horn.

Counterpoint also becomes a more important element in Mahler’s music from the fifth symphony onwards. The ability to write good counterpoint was highly cherished by Baroque composers and Johann Sebastian Bach is regarded as the greatest composer of contrapuntal music. So it is no surprise that Bach played an important part in Mahler’s musical life at this time. He was a subscriber to the edition of Bach’s collected works that was being published at the turn of the century. He became a great admirer of Bach and later conducted and arranged works by Bach. Mahler’s renewed interest in counterpoint can best be heard in the third and the final movements of the fifth symphony.


Other appearances

  • The Trauermarsch was also used as the theme music for the BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles, a dramatization of the fall of the European dynasties incident to the Great War of 1914-1918 (World War I).
  • The English soprano singer Sarah Brightman adapted the fourth movement of the work in the track "Schwere Träume" on her Symphony album.

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