Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is probably the most well-known of Mahler’s symphonies and one of his most celebrated. The historical background of the piece is interesting in that the work was composed between 1901 and 1902, during a summer spent in Mahler’s cottage in the town of Maiernigg and remains one of Mahler’s most complex and ambitious works. The work was not necessarily well-received by music critics upon its premiere, with one critic commenting: “Part II (Scherzo) begins nicely but soon loses energy, plodding along spiritlessly” (Smoley 107). This is an understandable reaction because the music’s tone throughout most of the Symphony, excluding of course, the famous Adagietto for harp and strings which provides a reprieve from the sustained, booming volume and numerous crescendos from the previous movements: “Trauermarsch (Funeral March) (C-sharp minor), Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (A minor), Scherzo (D major)” (Smoley 107).
The melody and harmony of the first three movements of the piece are bold, imploring and somewhat strained as though the kinetic energy of the musicians themselves is trying to physically leap out of the instruments and into the listener’s brain. There tonal clashes and bombast evoke an epic, heroic quality — when there are occasional quiet shades, the tone is still heroic and there is an imploring suggestion in the slow tempo of the piece which build through volume and not through rapidity. The structure of the Symphony is quite rigid with five movements; the symphony itself is in two parts, and the scherzo is, itself, of extensive length.
Although I would call myself a Perceptive Listener, I found myself “turning off” of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 from the opening section. I belive my failure to respond favorably to the work may have something to do with the purpose of the music, which,a s I understand it, was composed while Mahler faced some health-issues and marked the beginning of the “middle-period” of his work. The work, despite the possible personal genesis (and purpose), certainly exhibits a strong, anthemic quality in tone, volume, tempo,and repetition. I found myself wishing that the contrast which was evident between certain movements, say the scherzo and the Adagietto, were evident within the movements themselves. Another aspect of why I may have not found the symphony to my particular taste is because the work is scored and arranged for a very large orchestra with a lot of sound going at once. The orchestra includes: “woodwinds, flutes, piccolos, oboes, English horn), clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, whip, glockenspiel, harp, violins, violas, double basses” (Smoley 107) and I typically find it difficult to follow complex arrangements especially when they are at a slow tempo or loud volume.
I belive that Mahler’s ambitions and scope for this symphony were enormous; one of my impressions was that the repetition of the musical motifs and the sustained volume of the work seemed somewhat like a cacophony at times because Mahler’s ambition had, itself, never been fully “refined” into the music, and somehow the music: melody, harmony, and unity of the musical themes had been lost under the unity of mere ambition. And the feeling which results in the recognition that ambition, rather than musical illumination, seems to underscore the score, blunted my feeling for this work.
By contrast, I deeply enjoyed Avner Dorman’s: Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! This symphonic work, arranged with the idea of “multi-cultural polyphony” (Schirmer.com) and this includes a wide range of percussion instruments, as well as extended drum solos. The tempo of this piece is very fast and lively and energetic. I found myself wanting to clap along, and although the melody and tempo of the piece are every bit as repetitive as in the Mahler symphony, I did not find myself “shutting off” of becoming bored by the music at all. The purpose of the piece, which was released in 2006, was to create a work which was “markedly Israeli and would reflect young Israeli culture” (Schirmer.com). The heavy use of percussion “four Darbukas and Tom-Toms in addition to the Marimbas” (Schirmer.com) made the music seem both vibrant and exotic to me. The tempo was fast and playful rather than slow and plodding; the harmony and tone of the instruments was joyous and rapidly shifting.
As far as the organization and form of the piece is concerned, there is an exoticism present in the compositional construction: “The piece is largely based on Middle-Eastern and Indian scales and uses the Indian system of Talas for rhythmic organization’ (Schirmer.com); there are three movements and within the movements there are many examples of theme-transposition and melody modulation which create a varied sound-scape for the listener.
The three movements of the piece are supposed to show a range of evolution (or de-evolution) is sensory and emotional experience which range from “the seductive to the dangerous” (Schirmer.com). There is an interesting tonal blend of Middle-Eastern music and jazzy sounding tones in the second movement, the “perfumes” movement which particularly moved me due to its surprise-value and its melodic resonance. If the intention and purpose of the composer was to create “a humanistic whole that express the diversity of our time and culture” (Schirmer.com), I am not certain that this objective was reached except in cases where the listener was devoted, and immersed in a careful study of the form and contrasts evident in the work. For a casual listener, or even a sensitive listener such as myself, the unity of the work was achieved in melody and harmony rather than in ethnic or cultural melding.
Anonymous, Programme Note. Schirmer.com. http://www.schirmer.com/default.aspx?
Smoley, Lewis M. Gustav Mahler’s Symphonies: Critical Commentary on Recordings since
1986. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.