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.
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.
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.
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.