Symphony No.5 in C-sharp Minor
New York Philarmonic, conductor - Leonard Bernstein
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Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein are inextricably linked in history. If one believed in reincarnation ... well, let's just say that the parallels are extraordinary between these psychologically complex, angst-ridden, Jewish pianists-turned-conductors-and-composers. Though primarily known today as a composer, in the decades following his death in 1911, Mahler was remembered more for his work on the podium than for his compositions. Bernstein might be similarly viewed today if recording technology hadn't reached the point where his conducting legacy, as well as his compositions, could remain perpetually before the public.
When Bernstein became the New York Philharmonic's music director, in 1958, he walked into a Mahler tradition that was unparalleled anywhere in the world. In Central Europe, and certainly in Vienna (the hub of Mahler's career], the composer's symphonies were viewed as problematic. Whatever "Mahler tradition" was established there early on was uprooted when the Nazis banned his works because of his Jewish heritage.
The United States did better by Mahler. Music-lovers are often surprised to recall that Mahler served as the New York Philharmonic's music director for two years, from 1909 until 1911; he did not live long enough to fulfill his three-year contract. During those years he conducted his own First and Fourth Symphonies, the Funeral March from the Fifth and Kindertotenlieder. Other conductors kept his music in the orchestra's active repertoire -Josef Stransky, Willem Mengelberg, Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Sir John Barbirolli, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leopold Stokowski and Artur Rodzinski among them - and since the 1940-41 season not a year has passed in which the New York Philharmonic has not played at least one Mahler work.
Though he had served in 1943 as second conductor (assisting Rodzinski] for Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, Bernstein first led Mahler before a Philharmonic subscription audience in the winter of 1960. The occasion was a Mahler festival, and within the space of ten weeks he led the Symphonies No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4, as well as Das Lied von der Erde, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Kindertotenlieder and several orchestral songs. Thus began the public fruition of an obsession, and in the course of the sixties Bernstein boosted Mahler's music onto the pedestal it deserved, and clarified the modern view of Mahler as (to quote Bernstein) "a colossus straddling the magic date of 1900," without whom "twentieth-century music could not exist as we know it."
-James M. Keller
"To write A Symphony," said Gustav Mahler on one occasion, "is to construct a world with all the means at our disposal." This statement is crucial to his attitude toward art, for it describes his general approach to composing: it is not just a question of "fine passages," or successful effects, but of a whole world with its light and shade, joy and sorrow, hope and despair. The worlds that confront us in his symphonies are different, each one being highly distinctive and complete in itself, by no means cast in a single mold, but with corners and rough edges; full of contradictions yet, in a higher sense, a unity. One might also think of them as different human individuals; each symphony has its own "physiognomy." They can no more be reduced to a single feature, a single mood, or anything like that than can any individual; they are highly complex beings with many-sided characters, often torn hither and thither by violent emotions. And yet they are all characterized by specific features. The Fourth Symphony, for example, is basically cheerful, the Sixth tragic, while the Ninth is a curious mixture of resignation and hope.
Looking at the Fifth, one is struck - in comparison with its sister works - by its basically melancholy character, and one may well think, particularly in the brief central Adagietto, of one of the contemporary Ruckert Lieder: "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I have become a stranger to the world). This sentiment might well serve as a motto for the Fifth Symphony. Written during his summer composing holidays in 1901 and 1902, it introduced a new creative period after the first four "Wunderhorn Symphonies," so called because each one contains either references to particular songs or song-like instrumental sections. New technical elements are the polyphonic work in the symphony (Mahler's intensive study of Bach occurred during this period) and an even greater multiplicity of levels in terms both of form and of expressiveness.
The Fifth is arranged in three parts. The first includes the Funeral March and the second movement, headed Siurmisch bewegt. Mil grosster Vehemenz (Stormily and with utmost vehemence). The second part consists of the lengthy Scherzo - the most extensive in any symphony - in which the traditional form (scherzo with trio interpolations) is extended into a large-scale symphonic complex with development sections. The third part contains the Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale, which follows without a break. There are thematic links, not only within the individual parts, but also between them; thus in the Finale there are variations on the Adagietto and also quotations from the second movement. This cyclical treatment creates - despite all the contrasts - a compositional context.
In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (With measured tread. Strictly. Like a funeral procession) - these are the expression marks for the opening for the first movement, to which the music reverts after having .suddenly adopted quite a different tone: Plotzlich schneller. Leidenschafllich. Wild (Suddenly faster. Passionate. Savage). The juxtaposition of different tempi and styles is also to be found in the remaining movements. Mahler wrote to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner about the most complex of these, the Scherzo: "The movement is enormously difficult because of its construction and . the great artistic mastery which all its relationships and details demand. The apparent confusion must, as in a Gothic cathedral, be resolved in complete order and harmony. You cannot believe how hard I find it and how there seems to be no end to the difficulties, with all the obstacles and awkwardness which it poses. This is due to the simplicity of its themes, which are built entirely on the tonic and the dominant. No one would dare to do this nowadays. That is why it is so difficult to handle the chords, particularly in the light of my principle that nothing may be repeated, but that everything must evolve from its own material. The individual parts are so demanding that they really require soloists to play them. Knowing the orchestra and instruments as I do, I have given birth to the boldest possible pas-: sages and configurations." In spite of his euphoria while the work was in progress, Mahler was subsequently dissatisfied with the orchestration and complained - according to Bruno Walter - that he would never become really expert in handling the orchestra.
The Adagietto, played only by strings and harp, and thus contrasting with everything that precedes or follows it, is alone in being pervaded by a single basic atmospheric character - although this is in itself somewhat ambivalent; on the one hand the fundamentally elegiac mood, redolent with the experience of solitude and resignation, but, beyond that, hope. As the conductor Willem Mengelberg claimed, this movement was Gusfav Mahler's declaration of love to his future wife Alma. Mengelberg wrote the words "How I love you, my sun, I cannot tell you in words. I can only pour out my passion /and my love,/ my delight!" in the margin of his score, and there can be no doubt that these words echo Mahler's own feelings.
This short movement is something quite special; it was no accident that it gave rise, at the beginning of the seventies (through the medium of Lucchino Visconti's film Death in Venice, based on the novella by Thomas Mann) to a worldwide enthusiasm for Mahler. The Adagietto became for many people the musical key to the whole fin de siecle period, its melancholy, sickly morbidezza. But expressive qualities of this type are only one aspect of Mahler's symphonic world and its special topicality. In addition - on quite a different level - there is the crucial significance his world acquired for many modern composers, who return repeatedly to certain pioneering compositional principles derived from Mahler, above all to the practice of musical collage which is clearly displayed in the Scherzo and the Rondo-Finale. Thus the unusual situation arises that, today, representatives of the most modern music look to the same model in whom a wide section of the public has found "its composer."
-Volker Scheruess (translation 1992 Gery Bramall)