First, some business. Since Mahler’s Fifth has five movements, the two-weeks-per-movement plan of the last two months won’t work. Since I, and many of my readers (I assume there are readers…) have Spring Break in March, the right move seems to be to spend 10 days on each of the first three movments, then fifteen days on the other two. Three movements in March, two in April, with one day left (although I confess to not thinking about this project every day, so that isn’t entirely accurate). Keep up with me!
To the music. This movement is a lovely song setting. In my reference recording, by Bernstein with Vienna, Bernstein took the indication that the voice be as child-like as possible to the extreme of assigning the part to a boy soprano. There is an innocence gained through this, one that Bernstein used in his own Chichester Psalms to great effect. The first time I heard this piece in performance, the Cincinnati Symphony used a grown woman rather than a child, and I don’t remember it as being any less effective.
Like the symphony, this movement begins in G major. The form is basically strophic, and this means that there is a great deal of repetition both in the solo part and the accompaniment. The introduction is very typical of the German lied in that it simply presents a melodic idea (in the clarinet) that is repeated as interlude and which also accompanies the solo part as a countermelody. Like the third movement, Mahler’s harmonic language is centered around functional phrases rather than the long pedal points of some of his earlier work. In this last Wunderhorn symphony, Mahler chooses to end with a movement that seems to suggest an earlier world.
Measure 36 and the following measures are the first appearance of material that three times will close the song sections. Each time it ends on a different chord, but segues into material from the opening of the first movement–a somewhat unexpected tying together that brings the somewhat disparate expressions of the piece full circle.
In comparison to Mahler’s purely instrumental compositions, and especially, for example, the finale of the Second Symphony, this song setting is relatively simple, but therein lies its beauty and its charm. Mahler’s previous use of children’s voices (again, not what is strictly called for here despite Mahler’s note about the soloist’s vocal quality) in the fifth movement of the Third Symphony is much more complex in texture and orchestration than this light, clear movement.
Only one aspect of the movement is really troubling to me, and that is Mahler’s decision to end it in a remote key–E major. When the symphony so far has been very centered on the home key, G major, it seems very strange indeed that Mahler would end the piece elsewhere. I have spent some time thinking of reasons for this decision, and the best I can come up with is that lowering the tonal center by a minor third has the effect of a relaxation, a release of tension in some way. While so many popular songs in our era feature a modulation up to ramp up excitement, Mahler’s downward shift of key center may have the opposite effect. It may also suggest that the piece, a setting of a poem depicting the heavenly life, is not really finished, just as the eternal life discussed has no end.
One strays from a purely compositional analysis here–into a realm of symbolism and implied extra-musical meaning that I have largely avoided here, but as the only vocal movement of the piece, it seems to cry out for this type of discussion.
What does one take, then, from this symphony, so unlike Mahler in so many ways? Mahler’s compositonal technique is relatively unchanged from the previous two works–not for nothing are they grouped together. Instead of the enormous orchestras with chorus, though, Mahler steps away, conforming to a standard symphonic plan in four movements for the first time since the First Symphony (and even that piece was not originally so). Mahler is not the only composer to step back from gigantism–one thinks of Tchaikovsky following the bloated 1812 with the sublime Serenade in C, and of Liszt’s later works in comparison with the enormous symphonies of his middle years. At any rate, Mahler’s orchestra is still very large by Mozart’s standards, and there are moments in the piece that are very reminiscent of the big moments in the other symphonies. It is completely possible that my conceit of the Fourth as the “little one” is only the result of my own instrument being left out! But there is none of the darkness here that one associates with the low brass in the earlier symphonies–the tuba of the First’s funeral march, or the trombone of the Third’s opening movement. They simply aren’t necessary.
Onward, then, to the Fifth, a favorite of mine since I first encoutered it up close as an undergraduate!