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Exploring Mahler’s Symphony No. 5

Published April 19, 2024

Exploring Mahler’s Symphony No. 5

by Scott Faulkner

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”
- Gustav Mahler

The Reno Phil is about to climb a mountain. 

No, that doesn’t cover it. In performing Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the Reno Phil will be embarking on an epic journey that includes glorious mountain highs, but also funereal lows. It will cross oceans of stormy conflict. It will waltz genteelly, and it will sing folk songs in intimate nightclubs. It will confess love of transcendent beauty and tenderness. From sorrow to joy, from trial to tribulation, it will do nothing less than create the entirety of human life and emotion in a single musical sitting.

If the previous paragraph seems to drip of nauseating overstatement, it is only because the piece we will be playing really is that big and that ambitious. As a Reno Phil musician, approaching this piece feels like attempting to summit a major mountain peak. First, it is really hard to play, and one must be in shape musically to have a chance. While professional musicians can often rely on their sight-reading ability to get through many of the pieces they play, the intricate and original note patterns that Mahler writes don’t come easily and they often fly by at breakneck tempos. The ability to execute these passages is hard-won and comes after hours of practicing them. But that is just the beginning of it. Perhaps no other composer wrote as many details into their music as Mahler. From schizophrenic, adjacent softs and louds to different accents and attacks to a verbosity of long, descriptive German words and phrases, he couldn’t be more explicit about exactly how he wants one to play these fiendishly difficult notes, and what the emotional impact should be. This is true in lots of his music, and especially his fifth symphony. 

In light of this devotion to detail, and Mahler’s view that a symphony must contain the world, it is not surprising that he employs a huge orchestra for this and most of his symphonies. A wonderful and distinctive aspect of Mahler’s huge musical palette is that he doesn’t throw all the colors at you all the time. Yes, there are times when everyone plays at “blow-your-hair-back” overwhelming volume levels, but much more often he deploys very specific groups of musical color to accomplish his goals. The huge orchestra is much more like the 64-crayon box of Crayolas vs. the 8-primary color one. A creature this huge that is able to produce whisper-quiet delicacy is an amazing thing.

The composition, which was written in 1901-02 and premiered in 1904 has become one of the monuments of the symphonic repertoire. It starts with a famous four-note military funeral fanfare from the trumpet, which is reminiscent of another fifth symphony’s well-known four note opening; Beethoven’s. I say “famous,” but for trumpet players the word can be “terrifying,” because it is so exposed. It is also a passage that they all adore and live their lives waiting to play. The Reno Phil’s Paul Lenz will skillfully open the concert with this theme. And then we are off on our adventure. Although the piece is written in five moments, Mahler conceived it in three parts. The somber first movement and frenetic second movement are a unit. Then the whirling and massive third movement scherzo, the longest movement and literal centerpiece of the work takes place. A scherzo is in a meter of three, just like a waltz. And in this movement Mahler ingeniously takes that rhythmic DNA, and with something of a musical narrator or tour guide in the solo horn, leads the orchestra through Viennese waltzes, stormy ocean voyages, and triumphant human existence. It’s really something.

After the scherzo comes some of the most sublime, and well-known, music in the Western canon: the Adagietto. Using only the strings and harp, Mahler calls for this movement to be played very slowly. Musicologists and conductors argue about how slow, and largely this is determined by whether one believes the composer wrote this as the music of mourning (as Leonard Bernstein performed it at RFK’s funeral), or as a love letter to Mahler’s wife, Alma. Depending on the mindset, recordings of this movement can be from seven minutes long to a glacial 12 minutes plus. It’s such perfect music, the duration is fairly irrelevant.

The final movement of the piece is a Rondo, which takes us out of the tender Adagietto to an energetic and life-affirming finale. At around the time he composed this work, Mahler had acquired a set of the complete works of JS Bach. In studying the Baroque master, and especially his use of counterpoint, Mahler was inspired to inject his own brand of polyphony into the work to give the culmination energy and momentum. 

Photo: Laura Jackson

Pondering the place of Mahler’s Fifth in the modern world is a fascinating exercise. On one-hand, it is the sonic equivalent to a Hollywood blockbuster or Tolkien novel. On the other, it is a sprawling 75-minute work in a time of dwindling attention spans and two-minute TikToks. Fortunately, there aren’t just these two hands. The hand this piece rests in is the one that holds multitudes of contrast, contradiction, tension, and release. It contains the world; it contains everything. Just like Mahler intended.

The Reno Phil, under the direction of Laura Jackson, performs Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on April 20th (7:30 p.m.) and April 21st (4:00 p.m.). Also on the concert is Poulenc’s Gloria, featuring the Reno Phil Chorus (Jennifer Tibben, director) and guest soprano Jacquelyn Stucker. Tickets and information at

Scott Faulkner is principal bassist of the Reno Phil and Reno Chamber Orchestra. He is also faculty director of the League of American Orchestras’ Essentials of Orchestra Management seminar, and the director of the League’s Alumni Network.

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