Program Notes: March 21, 2004
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the course of Mahler's life underwent a remarkable series of changes. His triumphant return to Vienna three years earlier, as Director of the Opera and Conductor of the Philharmonic, had been marred by intense expressions of anti-Semitism aimed in his direction, but by the turn of the century those had abated somewhat. On a more personal level, his last ties with his former life were broken and the basis for a quite different one established. After the death of his parents and sister Leopoldine just over a decade earlier, he had -- as the oldest surviving sibling -- assumed responsibilities for what was left of the family, with mixed success. His youngest brother Otto committed suicide in 1895, but he married off his surviving sisters, Emma and Justine -- all that was left of a family that would have numbered fourteen children had they all survived childhood -- to respected colleagues Eduard and Arnold Rosé, in 1898 and 1902, respectively. The final decade of the nineteenth century had seen the deaths of many friends and influential advocates, including former schoolmate Hugo Wolf, Hans von Bülow, Anton Bruckner, and Johannes Brahms. Most significant of all, he terminated his curious relationship with the ever-faithful Natalie Bauer-Lechner, and began wooing Alma Schindler, with whom he was shortly to marry and start a family (although not precisely in that order) -- an alignment that would carry, as a by-product, a further alteration to his circle of friends, from which Alma would systematically weed out the most Jewish.
Small wonder, then, that his compositional career would also undergo a radical change at about this time, from his early song-based quartet of symphonies -- the Fourth was completed in 1900 -- to his Fifth Symphony, completed in 1902 and performed (and, of course, revised, and revised again) in 1904. The Fifth is the first in a series of three symphonies that depart from his voice-based, overtly programmatic early series, by being entirely instrumental and -- give or take a movement -- more or less conventional in their layout. But the departure is scarcely what it seems, for the Fifth, no less than each of his first four symphonies, concerns itself with issues critical to Mahler's gradual conversion to Christianity: death and resurrection. Thus, the first movement opens with a funereal motive derived jointly from the Beethoven's Eroica (the funeral-march movement) and Fifth Symphony (opening). Blending its two models of nearly a century earlier, Mahler begins with a funeral march as the beginning of a prolonged struggle for heavenly salvation across the symphony. That struggle seems poised to achieve an early triumph in the opening bars of the first movement, as the portentous opening trumpet call rises to throw open the gates of heaven, only to collapse into an extended funeral march, replete with internal reveries. The second movement then seems to replay some of the negotiation between Inferno and repentant spirit from the finale of the First Symphony (heard here last season). The scherzo, too, seems to look back to earlier works, with its interpolation of pastoral song and the intrusion of extended dialogues between low strings and horns, redolent of the "Forest" movement in Mahler's Third Symphony -- a resonance affirmed in the next movement, the famous, infinitely comforting Adagietto, which evokes the "Love" finale of the Third. But the final movement is a unique Mahlerian creation, a fully satisfying celebration of the arrival secured in the Adagietto. Mahler would attempt this kind of fully affirmative symphonic statement only once more, in the finale of the Seventh Symphony, but (most have felt) with much less success.
--- Raymond Knapp
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