Mahler began his Fifth Symphony in 1901. This had been a turbulent year: in February, after a near-fatal haemorrhage, Mahler had resigned as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; at about the same time he met his future wife, Alma Schindler, and fell passionately in love. All this seems to have left its mark on the Fifth Symphony’s character and musical argument.
But as Mahler was at pains to point out, that doesn’t ultimately give us the ‘meaning’ of the Fifth Symphony. For that, one has to look directly at the music. The first movement is a grim Funeral March, opening with a trumpet fanfare, quiet at first but growing menacingly. At its height, the full orchestra thunders in with an unmistakable funereal tread. Shuddering string trills and deep, rasping horn notes evoke Death in full grotesque pomp.
Then comes a more intriguing pointer: the quieter march theme that follows is clearly related to Mahler’s song ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ (‘The Drummer Lad’), which tells of a pitiful young deserter facing execution – no more grandeur, just pity and desolationtra