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Concert III, 2019-2020 season

Two Great 5ths

Symphony No. 5
Franz Schubert

By the time he was nineteen, when he wrote this symphony, Schubert had already written not only four previous symphonies and some other orchestral music, a couple of operas, several sacred works for chorus and orchestra, other choral music and, most famously, hundreds of songs, several of which (such as, “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” or  “Der Erlkönig”) are among his most celebrated and most quintessentially “Romantic.” Unlike the songs, which were at the cutting edge of the genre for its time, his youthful symphonies are distinctly conservative. If we were not told that the composer was Schubert, we might well think they were written by Mozart or the young Beethoven (they are not quite full enough of oddities to be mistaken for Haydn). The Fifth was performed privately shortly after it was written, but did not reach the public until many years after Schubert’s death.

If we are looking for what we think of as the “true” or “mature” Schubert in this work (and one can ask why we feel compelled to do that, rather than enjoying the work simply as a lovely homage to earlier Viennese orchestral music), we may note both the easily singable melodies in all four movements (a characteristic attributable both to his forebears and to his gift for vocal music), and some striking harmonic changes, especially in the slow movement, where he leads us like magic into new acoustic landscapes, and then climbs right out again. Schubert had always exploited the visceral effects of harmonic changes in his songs, usually as a response to their lyrics, but they became an identifying feature of his instrumental music as well.

Symphony No. 5
Gustav Mahler

Unlike some composers, who spread their talents across many genres, Mahler was primarily a symphonist. The other genre in which he specialized was songs, often with orchestral accompaniments. Despite being a renowned opera conductor he (again, unusually) had apparently no interest in writing operas: indeed, the human drama that opera offers composers is found in spades in Mahler’s nine (or ten depending on how you count) symphonies.

Like his First, (Fourth), Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies, the Fifth is written for orchestra without voices. (The Second, Third, and Eighth include chorus, and the Fourth includes a soprano solo in its last movement.) Also like his other purely instrumental symphonies (with the possible exception of the first), the Fifth avoids an explicit “program” (story or sequence of images). Nonetheless, the music of this work—as of Mahler’s style in general—is highly suggestive of emotional states and gestures. Taken as a whole these do not tell a coherent story, exactly, but they do give the strong impression of one or several human protagonists having a series of intense experiences.

Mahler achieves this in several ways. First of all, the flow of the music through time seems to mirror subjective experience in being simultaneously very vivid and extremely capricious. The vividness is achieved by his extraordinarily colorful use of the orchestra, by the use of extreme dynamics (both terribly loud and very soft), and by his constant deployment of musical models (funeral march, waltz, song, etc.) that are entirely familiar to us. However, these appear always somewhat askew—either actively distorted or just not quite as we would normally expect. This combination of familiarity and strangeness can work a bit like a dream and, like a dream, remain in our consciousness long after the music has stopped. The capriciousness is achieved by Mahler’s incessant use of disruptions—completely new musical ideas that just barge in to whatever happens to be prevailing at a given moment. Sometimes that disruption seems to signal a move from a public point of view to something painfully intimate (or vice versa).

For example, the first movement of the symphony (entitled “Funeral March”) opens with a solo trumpet fanfare—a public gesture if ever there was one. The funeral seems to be a mass occasion. The strings join in the fanfare rhythm briefly before the brass takes over again. But then, in a kind of “jump cut” experience, the listener is suddenly transported to a private moment of desolation played mostly by the strings; the public venue seems to have melted away. This in turn transforms (more like a panning shot) into the opening fanfare, which is again abruptly interrupted by private desolation. This sequence is blasted away by a section that Mahler marked “wild”—hysterical waves of sound in the high winds and strings, and the trumpet fanfare audible above it all. This comes as a complete shock, but also (dreamlike) as a logical combination of the public fanfare and the intensity of the desolation we’ve already heard.

I’ve used film terminology in part because it’s part of our modern experience, and I think it helps us hear the kinds of moves Mahler makes to get from one “scene” to another. We don’t know whether Mahler ever watched a silent film, though it was theoretically possible. But along with Northern European artistic explorations of painful emotions (think Munch’s famous “Scream” painting from 1893) and operatic explorations of the fraught interfaces between public and private (think Verdi’s Otello or Don Carlo), all of which Mahler would have known, the sensibilities that produced the jerky surrealism of early film were part of Mahler’s mental world, and do, I think help us make sense of his hugely long and sometimes overwhelming works.

The second and third movements of the Fifth Symphony feature similar cuts and transformations to the first. The fourth movement, designated “Adagietto” (“little Adagio”) by contrast, sustains a mood of timeless introspection—sometimes wistful, sometimes passionate—for its whole ten-to-eleven minute length. Like the other movements, its basic material is of a familiar, even banal, type — in this case a sentimental parlor song. But Mahler uses the slow tempo and churning dynamics to stretch and re-form the material (much as Munch does with a human face in “The Scream”) so that it seems to express something simultaneously alien and deeply (if not comfortably) familiar.

The last movement is also “about” music, but (at least to my ears) in a less psychologically intense way. It opens with a self-consciously naive, country-like tune, which Mahler turns into a kind of fugue (something like a round—think “Row Row Row Your Boat”). The mix of folk-like and clever is an old musical joke—Haydn and Beethoven were masters at it. Then Mahler introduces much faster material, beginning in the double basses. This also turns into a fugue, sounding almost Bach-like. This kind of fugue was common in the last movements of nineteenth-century symphonies, but it usually came close to the end of the movement, not right at the beginning. (And this play with counterpoint goes on through the whole movement.) One might regard the references to earlier symphonic fugues as a joke, if a rather heavy-handed one, but I think that in the context of this symphony it’s part of the overall pattern of manipulating familiar material to create an experience of simultaneous familiarity and distance—a story both about music “itself” and about emotional life—at least as it was figured in turn-of-the-century Europe, and as that continues to resonate today.


© Mary Hunter 2019