Simon Rattle conducts Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

07 Apr 2011

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Henry Purcell
    Funeral Music for Queen Mary (20 min.)

    RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, Hans-Christoph Rademann Chorus Master

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 5 (80 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on performing Mahler’s symphonies (Part 2) (11 min.)

Anyone thinking about Mahler's Fifth Symphony automatically thinks of the Adagietto – since 1971 in any case, ever since the movement was used as the soundtrack to Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice, significantly contributing to the melancholy charm of the adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella. Visconti, however, reinterprets the music, turning the Adagietto into a cipher for a farewell to life. Mahler, on the other hand, wrote this music when he had just fallen in love with Alma Schindler, who was later to become his wife. And indeed, what the unbiased listener can hear in particular in the Adagietto is tenderness, dreaming, and a sense of yearning, full of hope.

Yet Mahler would not be Mahler if he were to colour a whole symphony with one unified romantic mood. So he starts the work with a funeral march, and in the following two movements he disseminates a vehemence that is partly cataclysmic, partly dance-like. The finale culminates in buoyant mood, which may have been unusual for Mahler, yet as he composed this movement while on honeymoon with Alma in the summer of 1902, it is perhaps no surprise.

As was customary in Simon Rattle’s Mahler cycle with the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2010/2011, the symphony is presented alongside a composition which demonstrates a relationship to the Mahler work. In this instance, it is the music which Henry Purcell wrote for the funeral of Queen Mary II, composed in 1695. Although we may exclude the possibility that Mahler knew Purcell’s music, the funeral march in his Fifth Symphony shows that both composers had a similar flair for the musical expression of grief.

In the Face of Death

Music by Henry Purcell and Gustav Mahler

Queen Mary’s funeral procession

There could hardly be a more apt piece of earlier music to preface the stern “funeral cortège” that opens Mahler’s Fifth Symphony than that written by England’s greatest composer in 1695 for the funeral of his queen – only a few months before his own death. Queen Mary, daughter of James II, has been called the “Princess Diana of the Baroque”. When she succumbed to smallpox on 28 December 1694, the 32-year-old monarch was widely mourned throughout the British Isles. In spite of the bitter cold, thousands lined the capital’s streets on 5 March 1695 to pay last respects to their beloved monarch as her seemingly endless cortège slowly made its way from Whitehall Palace to Westminster Abbey, underscored by the continuous and unvaried march rhythm of 30 military drummers. In addition, three funeral marches were performed in front of the hearse by oboists and trumpeters in alternation. One was composed by Henry Purcell. After the procession reached the Abbey, the choir sang the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer in the traditional setting by Thomas Morley. Only one of the funeral sentences was replaced by a new setting by Purcell (“Thou knowest, Lord”), but at the end of the service, Purcell’s newly composed Canzona was also heard.

So much for the historically documented event. In compiling a performable version of Purcell’s Funeral Music from his disconnected, disparate contributions to that occasion, the usual practice is to include two further anthems that he composed many years earlier. They are combined with the authentic funeral anthem from 1695, the funeral march and the canzona to form a musical compilation which, though not historically authentic, nonetheless evokes a powerfully atmospheric impression of Queen Mary’s funeral.

Symphony in three “parts”

Gustav Mahler composed his Fifth Symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902 at his new villa near Maiernigg on the Wörthersee in Carinthia. He divided the work into three “parts”. Two movements of tragic character – the C sharp minor Trauermarsch (Funeral March) and the A minor “Stürmisch bewegt” (Violently agitated) – make up Part I, while Part III consists of the Adagietto in F major leading to the triumphant D major Rondo-Finale. Separating them is a single movement, the monumental D major Scherzo. In Mahler’s conception of the symphony, the actual “main movement” comes second: “A symphony is identified with its main movement – but only when it occurs first, something that always used to be the case – with the single exception of this work.”

Funeral march

The Trauermarsch that begins the Fifth Symphony, pace frequent claims to the contrary, has no connection with the famous funeral marches in Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. The introductory trumpet fanfare stems from a totally different world: the military music of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Military bands marched daily past Mahler’s childhood home in the Bohemian town of Iglau (now Jihlava, Czech Republic) and the music they played were among the composer’s earliest memories.

That opening trumpet fanfare becomes a symbol of the inexorably tragic nature of human existence, not only setting in motion a weighty fatalistic march – “with measured tread, like a cortège” is Mahler’s indication – but also giving rise to a soundscape of strange enchantment. Two Trios interrupt the funeral march. The despair that has been smouldering beneath the march is brought to the surface by a “passionately wild” B flat minor Allegro with screaming suspensions and nervous string runs; an A minor Andante opens the gates to the abyss of profound grief that the march has also been carrying in its gentler second theme. In the sections between the Trios the trumpet fanfare is orchestrally “illuminated” in sinister new ways before evolving into a timpani solo that precedes the second Trio. At the end of the movement, the fanfare fades away into the distance: a quiet final trumpet solo that evaporates in a flute echo.

Orchestral polyphony

The polyphony that caused Mahler such trouble in orchestrating this symphony is channelled in the second movement into almost frightening counterpoint. A defiant motif on the basses lunges several times “with great vehemence” into dissonant chords, punctuated by piercing trumpet staccati that are answered with the screaming leap of a 9th. The tension is ratcheted up until the actual main theme erupts over scrabbling bass figures, rushing headlong into a striking major-minor shift, after which the music suddenly disintegrates.

The second theme enters “considerably slower”, a lament on cellos which is also provided with contrapuntal commentary. Unrelenting, the first theme returns, even more passionate than before, but after a while the music again breaks down into fragments until only a quiet timpani roll remains. Above it a “doleful” recitative is sung by the cellos, reaching a climax just as the violas enter with gentle dissonances. Gradually the texture is filled out again and the music aspires to regain its intensity and momentum. Following the development and recapitulations, a scherzando episode breaks in that seems to herald a turn to major. A cathartic chorale melody emerges briefly, then disappears. Towards the end of the movement it breaks through again, in triumphant D major and sustained longer this time, although the desperate gestures of the A minor Allegro return and lead to a ghostly coda.


The largely untroubled atmosphere of this huge Ländler, with its horn solos and elegant waltzes, but also its precipitous plunges into melancholy, was widely misunderstood by Mahler’s contemporaries. An audience member is reported to have remarked after the 1905 performance in Strasbourg: “He really has an operetta composer in him”. Mahler himself said of the movement: “All the elements are kneaded through and through till not a grain or cell of the mixture remains unmixed and unchanged. Every note is of a radical vitality, and the whole thing whirls around in an apparent chaos.”


Willem Mengelberg, the Dutch conductor whom Mahler so highly respected, posited a direct connection between the Adagietto of the Fifth and the composer’s “heartfelt, tender but passionate love” for Alma Schindler. Above this movement in his score he noted: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he confided it in this manuscript without a word of explanation. She understood and replied: He should come!!! (I have this from both of them!).” Ever since Luchino Visconti chose it as film music for Death in Venice, however, the interpretation of this movement has taken a somewhat different direction. For Mahler himself the “little Adagio” was breathing space before the monumental Finale, a “song without words” that he wove as tenderly from 4-3 suspensions and string sonorities as his 1901 Rückert setting Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. In his first letter after the premiere he reported enthusiastically to Alma: “Audience breathlessly attentive – even if dazed by the first movements! There was even a hiss or two after the Scherzo. The Adagietto and Rondo seemed to have hit the mark.”


Of all the Fifth Symphony’s movements, it was the Rondo-Finale that Mahler’s contemporaries found most convincing.” In an otherwise disparaging review of the Hamburg premiere in March 1905, even the Mahler antagonist Ferdinand Pohl wrote enthusiastically (in the Hamburger Nachrichten) of the “dazzling, marvellous, sunlit” virtuosity of the Finale, the symphony’s “most important and most satisfying movement ... Handelian trumpet chorales bring solemnly festive illumination to the dazzling picture, and the wondrous sunshine of this internally dynamic, joyously thrusting and superbly constructed polyphony ... In the rush of this orchestration we even forget the scanty eclecticism of the invention ... Everything else, except for a few shafts of light, is dreary and unedifying, dreadful and distressing.” Many others expressed similar views after the early performances. Mahler himself complained: “The Fifth is a cursed work. No-one comprehends it.” Luckily that state of affairs has since changed for ever.

Karl Böhmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

The RIAS Chamber Choir was founded in 1948 and was the first professional concert choir to apply the findings of historically informed performance practice to early music. The choir’s earliest recordings were intended to meet RIAS’s needs in Berlin and as such were largely restricted to the radio. Today, by contrast, the RIAS Chamber Choir works as a concert choir with many international commitments. Throughout its history, it has championed the music of the present day and has given the first performances of many works written specially for it by composers of the eminence of Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and Hans Werner Henze. Former music directors include Herbert Froitzheim, Günther Arndt and Uwe Gronostay, all of whom turned the RIAS Chamber Choir into an internationally acclaimed ensemble, a position consolidated by Marcus Creed, who led the choir from 1987 to 2001 and who introduced it to orchestras such as Concerto Köln, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, the Akademie für Alte Musik and the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées. Creed’s successor, Daniel Reuss, focused on 20th-century classics, while Hans-Christoph Rademann, who has been the choir’s principal conductor since 2007, has extended the Classical and Romantic repertory, promoting the music of Jan Dismas Zelenka and his circle, music that Rademann himself rediscovered in Dresden. The RIAS Chamber Choir has worked closely with the Berliner Philharmoniker since 1949. Their last joint undertaking was in January 2010, when they performed Bach’s Magnificat under the direction of Ton Koopman.

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