Classical Hour: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

  1. Symphony No. 5
  1. Manfred Honeck conductor

Manfred Honeck conducts Mahler’s fifth symphony.

The opening bars of Mahler’s fifth symphony leave little doubt that Beethoven’s ghost hovers above the grandiose, overwhelming march which introduces Gustav Mahler’s (1860−1911) work. The rhythmical knocking motive was to become an important part of Mahler’s musical development. The second movement picks up on the pain of the first movement, but exchanges a heavy sorrow with a chaotic, intense drama. The two first movements make up one of three unified parts of the symphony. The remaining part consists of solely one movement. It is both the longest and most unique part of the symphony, and is one of Mahler’s most curious masterpieces. Revealing a mastery of counterpoint and exceptionally inventive abilities of orchestration, the composer juxtaposes a folksy ländler with an urban waltz, everything adding up to a higher symphonic unity.

As a strong contrast to the chaotic and spectacularly colourful third movement, the irresistably sentimental Adagietto which follows represents one of Mahler’s most famous symphonic movements. The orchestra is stripped down to strings and harps, and its character is completely changed. The conductor Willem Mengelberg was convinced that the gripping movement expressed Mahler’s love for his wife, Alma, whom he had met just before embarking on the composition of the fifth symphony. In the finale the counterpoint and the kaleidoscope of sound from the third movement returns, now in life-affirming bursts of energy.

Mahler composed his fifth symphony mostly in 1901 and 1902. Not only had he just met, and become engaged to Alma, but he had himself just recovered from a serious illness, and his career was just about to take off. We might easily imagine that the symphony, its trajectory constructed from darkness to light, reflected this positive development in the composer’s personal life when it was performed for the first time in Cologne in 1904. Today it is a firm audience favourite among Mahler’s symphonies.

The music of Mahler found its way into the orchestra’s programmes early on. The year 1919 was only eight years after Mahler’s death, and his compositions were still very much disputed both in Europe and in Norway. The orchestra, spearheaded by their Principal Conductor Georg Schneevoigt, still wished to perform several of Mahler’s symphonies in the first seasons. In 1925 they programmed Mahler’s fifth symphony for the first time. It evoked mixed feelings among public and press. An excerpt by composer David Monrad Johansen’s review in Aftenposten following the performance, reveals some of the confusion which prevailed amongst Norwegian critics and musical personalities as they came face to face with Mahler’s gigantic creations:

“There has seldom been a greater discrepancy in a composer between the desire to create art and the ability to do so. And this manifests itself in a most curious way. Never before in the history of music can one discern a greater discrepancy betwen form and content, with an even greater discrepancy between ability and performance, and where freedom of form is to this extent confused with lack of form.”

(David Monrad Johansen, Aftenposten, 3.11.1925)

(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation  from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Manfred Honeck; Photo: Felix Broede)

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  • Adult: 120 - 340 NOK
  • Student: 120 - 170 NOK
  • Child: 120 NOK
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