Mahler’s Fifth raises goose bumps at the Schuster

By Pat Suarez

Photo: A charicature of Gustav Mahler’s Musical madness, from Illustrated Vienna. artwork: Theo Zache


1901 and 1902 were busy years for Gustav Mahler. He was the director of the Court Opera in the Imperial capital, a post in which he flourished artistically but at the same time was saddled with constant strife over his heritage, accompanied by continuous battles with other conductors, his performers, and even the stage hands at the opera house. In his recent past, Mahler had conducted highly praised performances of Wagner’s Lohengin, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Vienna’s first uncut, complete Wagner Ring Cycle. Getting results in front of paying customers was one thing; but the road to achieving these triumphs was paved with peripheral clamor—what Mahler called his “quagmire.” One wonders if he ever got a good night’s sleep, given his job’s stress level and his highly amped personality. At 5-feet-4-inches tall, what Mahler might have lacked in stature, he compensated with an oversized temperament.

Mahler’s composing hut in Maiernigg provided the outlet that he needed. Situated in southern Austria, near the shore of Lake Wörth, Mahler found peace and quiet among the sounds of nature. In his summers there, Mahler’s pent-up emotion and musical ideas flowed from his pen onto the staves on the sheets of blank score paper. This unassuming building, the second of two huts he used to compose, was as important as any of the world’s opera and concert stages. Not only did Mahler regain some semblance of peace there, but these huts were also the birthplace of thousands of concerts and recordings that enchanted millions of appreciative music lovers.

Pundits generally group Mahler’s compositions into three periods. The first period was based on songs. Das Klagande Lied (an oratorio) and his second and third symphonies, both featured solo singers and choirs. His First Symphony has no human voices but was based on a handful of Mahler’s songs. In his first three symphonies, Mahler escalated scale, length, and emotion and then, suddenly, let the bottom drop out with his Fourth Symphony. The Fourth uses a soprano, making it almost a transitional work. Here was a quiet, relatively brief meditation after a hurricane of passion, a return to the musical lake after the turmoil of a musical metropolis.

After Mahler had completed his Fourth Symphony and had started two song cycles, Rückert-Lieder and Kindertotenlieder, each with five songs, he wanted to compose a major work that would move away from the human voice. With his Fifth Symphony, (to be performed by Maestro Neal Gittleman and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra on Feb. 3 and 4 at the Schuster Center) and the two symphonies that followed, Mahler abandoned the human voice in his symphonies for half a decade. Beginning with the Fifth and continuing until the middle of the last movement of the Seventh Symphony Mahler’s works grew progressively darker.

The Fifth Symphony sounds episodic, where each movement could almost stand on its own, as if Mahler had strung together five tone poems. This is due, in part, to Mahler’s goal of not repeating any phrases. This Fifth is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get.

In February 1901, Mahler suffered a hemorrhage that nearly cost him his life. It was that event that furnished the springboard for the first movement of his Fifth Symphony. That first movement,   Trauermarsch (Funeral March) begins with a notoriously tricky solo trumpet call that extends to 13 measures before the rest of the ensemble enters. This baker’s dozen can give principal trumpet players night sweats, as they set the tone for the rest of the symphony’s five movements, and all eyes are on the souls navigating them. For a funeral march, this movement has some life to it and, near the end of the movement, offers a hair-raising chord from the orchestra. Mahler marked it “klagend” (“lamenting”) and you’ll know it when you hear it because it normally raises goose bumps.

Mahler loved composing dance melodies and the third movement, Scherzo, is a dance riot, alternating between plaintive and raucous. While the basses and low brass rumble, the higher pitched instruments cavort over them, pushing toward breathlessness. A musician friend once quipped that there wasn’t an orchestra meant to perform Mahler twice in one day, and this movement offers some validation. At its conclusion, the players might feel a bit whipped, but they’ve got two movements to go!

The following movement, the illustrious Adagietto, is the Fifth’s most recognizable music. These 17 pages have been in at least one movie (“Death In Venice”), a soap opera (Emmerdale), a Gucci ad with Jared Leto, and, for those of a certain age, the music that Leonard Bernstein heart-breakingly conducted at Robert Kennedy’s funeral Mass in the spring of 1968. Radiant and glowing, it is marked “sehr langsam” (“very slowly”), but conductors have interpreted those two words liberally, with performances that range from seven to 15 minutes.

The symphony concludes with a spirited finale whose optimism did not carry over to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. Still, these 70 minutes or so are a roller coaster ride, guaranteed to exhilarate listeners. After conducting the first performance of his Fifth, Mahler said, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death.” He need not have worried. He set a standard that lives to this day.

The Dayton Philharmonic performs Mahler’s Fifth Friday, Feb. 3 and Saturday, Feb. 4 at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $8- $64.30. For more information or tickets, please visit

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at

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