Looking at Mahler Symphony no. 5

Welcome back to Mozart For Muggles, the series that explains classical music in an understandable way to people who’ve never really “gotten” it before. We keep things simple here. No jargon, no technical terms, very little theory. Just lots of good music!

We’re going to look at the first minute or so of Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. The first movement is called “Trauermarsch” or “Funeral March.” This subtitle is pretty puzzling because while there’s a lethargic misfortune evident in the music, there’s also a sense of dramatic triumph — sometimes even celebration. Makes you wonder who the heck died.

The symphony itself was completed in 1902, and features a few shout-outs to our homeboy Beethoven and his own 5th symphony (which you might have heard once or twice).

Alright, enough chit-chat.

Let’s jump in and listen to the first minute of Mahler’s 5th symphony, from 0:58 to 2:08. Go ahead, give it a go. I HIGHLY recommend that you use headphones for the sake of the experience. Trust me. Go grab your headphones.

Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra

Listen from 0:58 until 2:08

The fanfare!

All finished? Cool. Now go back and listen again to the beginning from 0:58 to 1:23. We’re going to start by talking about this introduction, this beginning fanfare.

It is a fanfare, isn’t it?

I mean, this is a real fanfare. And this. And this! You get the idea. But what Mahler wrote? It sort of sounds like a fanfare, but something’s a little off…

What’s the difference between Mahler’s intro fanfare and these others? Well, first of all, Mahler’s fanfare starts off quietly. It’s unnerving. It’s like a distant call to arms, someone shouting from far, far away. Another difference is that in the other fanfares, there’s a whole band of brass instruments cheering together, while Mahler’s starts off as a single trumpet playing all by itself. And what’s more still is the slight lagging in Mahler’s fanfare. Try clapping with the trumpet as if it were a march. You can’t. The tempo (the “beat”) isn’t steady. This slight lag creates uncertainty. It adds to the drama and suspense.

A release at last!

Now at 1:23 everything has built up and we’re waiting for an explosion. And we aren’t disappointed! 1:26–1:27 is just WOW. It’s like the dam has broken! This is the fanfare energy that we’ve been waiting for!

And keep listening, 1:23 to 1:33. Here’s the march-like, steady tempo we were missing before. Finally. It just keeps getting better and better.

And then at 1:33 something weird happens, something unexpected. We have another blast of sound, another eruption of energy. And it builds again. And again. 1:33 leads to this chord that’s unleashed in 1:37–1:39. This terrifying, unexpected chord.

What do you feel now? Might. Power. Terror. How did we get here? How did we end up in Hell? Is that what the trumpet was calling upon us not so long ago??

Down to the depths of Hell

And from 1:39 to 1:54 we just spiral down, down, down. The trilling in the violas and cellos and the roll of the snare drum (somewhat resembling a swarm of bees) combined with the violent plucking of the string basses (like a firm poke in the gut) incite anxiety. You can feel a hint of despair, a hint of lethargy and exhaustion, and still the presence of some powerful overlord.

And from 1:54 to 2:08 we go deeper still. We’re stumbling in a state of exhaustion, being pulled in deeper. We neither collapse into nothingness nor willingly sit, but resign. Empty nothingness…

Now that we’ve examined each of these parts as they come, let’s listen to the whole thing again and look at the whole picture. Go on, listen again without stopping. From 0:58 to 2:08.

What’s the story here?

As previously discussed, music is made more meaningful and powerful by stories. So what’s the story of what we were just listening to? Let’s piece it all together.

The trumpet at the beginning sounds like a fanfare from far, far away, remember? It’s like a lone call to arms. And as it gets louder and louder, it sounds like it’s getting closer and closer until it surrounds us in 1:23. But it doesn’t immediately dawn on us just who or what this fanfare is for. We start to have an idea at 1:33 that maybe this army isn’t who we think they are. And the reality finally shakes us in 1:37:

This is the army of Hell.

But it’s too late now. We’re being dragged along down, down, down into this world of exhausting, empty nothingness… but is it so empty? Is it so exhausting? Is it so terrible or terrifying? These are some of the questions that we ask as we continue to listen to this symphony. Along with, “Who in God’s name is this wacky funeral march for?”

Predictability (of lack thereof!) is what makes music cool.

The thing that makes this introduction to Mahler’s 5th symphony so cool is that it’s completely unpredictable. From the very beginning, the style of the fanfare is unexpected. We already talked about how the trumpet is alone, how he starts of quietly, how he drags out each phrase.

It was unexpected how suddenly the fanfare erupted. It was unexpected how dark everything turned. And then it was unexpected how suddenly Hell’s march descended into nothingness. We went from this massive explosion in 1:37 to total silence in 2:08.

If you continue listening to this symphony beyond what’s examined in this article, you’ll continue to be surprised with unpredictable and unexpected turns the music takes. I encourage you to continue the adventure on your own and share what you discover!

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