Tackling Mahler's Fifth Symphony A century ago, Gustav Mahler complained that few people understood his work. Today, it's seen as a masterpiece. Marin Alsop, who most recently conducted it in November, says it's an overwhelming experience.

Tackling Mahler's Fifth Symphony

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(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)


Gustav Mahler once said a symphony should be like a world; it must embrace everything. That's exactly what the German composer tried to do in his symphonies, and his best-known effort, his Fifth Symphony, features lyrical melodies and sudden mood shifts. But when Mahler introduced it to the world in 1904, conducting the symphony himself, he apparently was disappointed with its reception. He's reported to have said, Nobody understood it, I wish I could conduct the first performance 50 years after my death.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: Maestro Marine Alsop joins us now to talk about Mahler and the Fifth. She's conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Great Britain. She takes over as music director of the Baltimore Symphony next fall.

Thanks very much for being back with us.

Ms. MARINE ALSOP (Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra): Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And were those words borne of great self-knowledge? Did it take 50 years for audiences to appreciate this?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, that's tremendously insightful. A good friend of mine, John Corigliano, always says a composer's work really can't be judged while he's still alive. And I think there is a lot of truth to that. I think Mahler was so far ahead of his time. He was really on the edge of the new century and what was happening. And he reveres the classical tradition. You know, Beethoven is his idol, of course. And yet he really wants to push the envelope of what we know.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

Ms. ALSOP: It starts with the trumpet, bah-bah-bah-bah. Can you imagine being this trumpet player? I mean, my heart goes out to the guy or girl who is playing this opening. I mean it's an amazing moment.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

Ms. ALSOP: The key is a C-sharp minor. This is a very difficult key, a very dark key. And even if you're not a musician, you feel this.

SIMON: It begins with a funeral march. And I'm assuming maybe even then somebody said to him, forgive me, you can't begin an orchestral piece like this. I'm sorry, this is just too much of a downer.

Ms. ALSOP: It's really a fascinating idea. He's really starting from abject misery. I mean what can be more daunting than the thought of death? That's the ultimate life question. How do we come to terms with death and what happens with death? And for me, though, the opening of this symphony has a lot of other elements. Besides the funeral element, there is a relationship for me to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, because it's three repeated notes and then the third. But of course with Mahler it's inverted.

So I think there's an element of fate in that as well. You know, because you have to remember Mahler, the vocabulary of all the composers before him are second nature. So there are all these elements coming into play.

SIMON: What's it like to conduct this piece?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, it's really like almost being sucked into a vortex. You know, it's a trancelike experience because, you know, it's an orchestra of hundred and some odd people. I mean it's an enormous orchestra, yet he starts with one person, a single voice. And then when that first chord comes in, I mean it's huge, the brass and the percussion. So immediately there is this overwhelming sense of from the microcosm to the macrocosm.

SIMON: Is there a - for lack of a better word - a storyline, a narrative to the way the piece progresses? Or at least do you infer one, having conducted it so many times?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, I always have that sense with Mahler, because he's trying to write about a whole life experience. You know, it's never something simple like a walk outside or some...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: You know, just a...

SIMON: My day at the circus.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, right. Correct. Exactly. It's just with Mahler it's always let me think about life, let me think about death, let me think about the journey and let's wrap it up. I mean and that's hard to do quickly. So this is a piece, the first and second movements are very, very related thematically. This funeral march will come back and be varied. And then the second movement, which is much more intense, it's really a development of the material of the first movement, but we get these rays of hope and we hear this incredible chorale in D major.

And again, you don't have to be a musician to feel this. You go from C-sharp minor to D major. This is a very odd relationship and it's such a relief when you hear this beautiful chorale.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

Ms. ALSOP: And then the middle section of the entire piece is the scherzo movement, which - I mean for Mahler, it's really important to remember that he's trying to also integrate popular music of the time. So he's putting these minuets and these scherzos and, you know, that's part of the vernacular of living in Vienna, but it's so over the top, almost grotesque. You know, it just goes on and on and on. Every time think you're wrapping it up, it takes another turn. So it's huge.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

Ms. ALSOP: That's the middle section of the piece. And then, of course, while he's writing the Fifth Symphony, he falls in love with Alma. And he...

SIMON: Very famous woman, Alma.

Ms. ALSOP: Very, very famous woman. And he writes a movement especially for her, because she's an incredibly accomplished musician. And Mahler is not really a man of many words. He's man who speaks through his music. And he writes this beautiful Adagietto for her.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: This is perhaps the most familiar chords of the symphony.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes, the Adagietto is well known because it's been used as a film score and...

SIMON: "Death in Venice," right?

Ms. ALSOP: Yes. Right.

SIMON: And I believe played at Robert F. Kennedy's funeral.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes. And I see why people are drawn to it for monumental and tragic context. But to me, the amazing beauty of it is that it's scored for strings and harp. That's it. It's very, very intimate in the midst of this complete chaos.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: I think I can hear why they use it at so many funerals.

Ms. ALSOP: The reason it has this intense sense of anguish is because he uses what we call a appoggiaturas, which are notes that require resolution. And of course I think that's so much about what love and life and death are all about. It's interesting because when, after 9/11, I had a concert the day after and the question was what to play. And really, this was the only piece that came to mind. So that's what we started our concert with.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

SIMON: We have a quote from Alma Mahler I want to ask you about. She quoted Gustav Mahler as saying, I am thrice homeless: a native of Bohemia and Austria - that's where he was born - an Austrian among Germans - where he came to live - and as a Jew throughout the world. Everywhere an intruder never welcomed.

Do you detect those feelings in his music?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, absolutely. Because I think each one of us has a feeling of being an outsider in some way. And that's probably what draws us to art, because it's a way of expressing that sense of isolation and aloneness. And for Mahler, throughout his music, he's constantly trying to bring these two worlds together, whether it's, you know, his religious heritage, or whether it's the fact that he's from a very simple background. And he loves peasant music, and he loves marching bands, and he loves Klezmer music. And how do you integrate that into this elitist music, the art music that he adores so much?

So he's constantly trying to bring these two worlds together. And I think that's why the music of Gustav Mahler is so incredibly relevant to us today, because it's all about conflict and it's all about searching for some kind of faith and some kind of belief system that can transcend a variety of worlds.

SIMON: Always wonderful to talk to you. Thank you.

Ms. ALSOP: My pleasure.

SIMON: Marine Alsop, conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Great Britain. Starting this fall of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. We've been listening to Maestro Alsop's performance of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of Mahler's Fifth Symphony)

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