Mahler 5- It was NOT all just a damn dream

Feb, 2009: I’m deeply immersed in the score of Mahler 5 these days, as our performance of it with the Best Damn Redneck Orchestra on Earth is fast approaching, and I’m hoping to write as much as I can about what I’m discovering and what is challenging, perplexing and even worrying me about the piece. I’m re-visiting a piece I’ve loved and studied for many years, and so it’s time to through aside old assumptions and try to take a totally fresh and unprejudiced look at the work.

I thought I’d start today with the Scherzo. It’s as good a place as any to begin- even though it is the third movement of the piece, Mahler seems to have written it first, which seems to tell us that somehow, it is the heart of the symphony and it’s generative spark.

There are lots of lovely essays and program notes out there describing this movement, so I want to focus on the two things about this movement I find most vexing for me as a conductor.

First off today, is its place in the whole of the symphony, and the question: how are we supposed accept the rambunctious humor of the Scherzo when it follows immediately something so completely different?

Mahler 5 is in five movements but only three Parts- the first two movements make up Part I, the Scherzo is Part II, and the Adagietto and Finale are Part III. Part I, the Funeral March and the even more violent second movement, is some of the strongest music Mahler ever wrote. The “strong-”ness of these movements is not simply a question of their incredible emotional power, but also of their resilience in the hands of almost any performer- they almost always “work” in concert.

I remember a performance of M5 by a great American orchestra on tour a few years ago in which the all-important principal trumpet had one of those nights where absolutely everything goes wrong. He fluffed the opening badly, then played out of tune, way too loud, and behind on almost everything, cracking more notes than he played. After a while, you could feel the audience’s apprehension every time he lifted his horn. In spite of this, Part I in that performance was still harrowing (in good ways as well as those I’ve alluded to), moving and effective. Likewise, I’ve seen many performances in which a conductor’s complete lack of understanding of Mahler’s style and language didn’t become apparent until Part II of this symphony. Put simply- if you want a guaranteed good night out with Mahler 5, leave after Part I.

There are two reasons for this- first, and perhaps most obviously (but less importantly), there are the many challenges in Part’s II and III that are absent from Part I. There is a need for a real sense of style and rubato (the Scherzo is his most “Viennese” movement, and needs all the nuance of a Strauss waltz, even though I think commentators who call it a waltz are making a somewhat grave mistake). The writing becomes more exposed- there is a mountain of virtuoso music for the strings in Part I, but it is mostly in the context of  full-throttled orchestral-tutti Sturm und Drang writing, which covers a lot of flaws. The virtuoso writing in Part’s II and III leaves the players rather more vulnerable to a more unforgiving inspection of their technical accomplishment. Compare the first virtuoso passage for the strings in the Trauermarsch at figure 7 (you can download a score for free here!) with the first one in the Scherzo at figure 8. Obviously, the heavy brass are going to make that savagely difficult violin writing in the first movement feel a bit safer for the players than the transparent textures in the Scherzo, which can leave them feeling hung out to dry. Part III is even tougher for the strings- there are few passages more demanding for intonation than the return of the Adagietto in the Finale. Yikes.

On top of this, the Scherzo is orders of magnitude harder to conduct than the first two movements. Mahler has pretty-well conductor-proofed Part I- the Trauermarsch only requires you to be able to go from beating slowly in 2 to beating quickly in 2, while the 2nd movement requires you to go from beating quickly in 2 to beating slowly in two. (This is a gross over-simplification- the 2nd movement is one of the most contrapuntally dense and complicated things ever written, and to conduct it well, with full awareness and control of all that density of information is really tough, but a great orchestra can play these movements well under the leadership of a mediocre time-beater, but Parts II and III NEED an artist on the podium).  More on the technical and musical challenges of the Scherzo to come. In the meantime, if technical polish and stylistic accuracy are non-negotiable for you, and you don’t entirely trust the conductor or players, leave after Part I.

However, I think the most basic reason we often wish we left after Part I has little to do with the complexities and challenges of the Scherzo or Part III. Instead, it has to do with the transition from the end of the 2nd movement to the Scherzo, which, handled badly, can be one of the most disappointing moments in all of music. Fortunately, the problem is not in our stars (Gustav Mahler), but in our selves.

Mahler’s constant flirtation with programs in his symphonies show him as a composer who thinks in terms of linear drama. He wants us to hear a narrative in his music, he just doesn’t want that narrative to be limited to a single, simplistic storyline (that’s why he withdrew all the programs he ever published for his works).

The Finale of the 2nd Symphony (which you can read about here and here) couldn’t be more linear- it is the culmination of an epic saga. This is a natural continuation and heightening of Beethoven’s dramatic and narrative approach to abstract symphonic form. Whether in Beethoven or Mahler (at least up to the Fifth), we have adversity, which is overcome. (Remember- the point of abstraction in instrumental music is not to do away with narrative, but to make narrative universal, to let narrative speak with equal power to all listeners). Think of Beethoven’s 9th, in which the tragedy and cataclysm of the first movement is worked out through the course of the remaining three movements. It is as if the 2nd and 3rd movements of that piece are two different kinds of reactions and reflections- the second movement a sort of Totentanz, full of rage and violence, and the third a somber meditation full of hope born and tested by suffering. In the Finale, Beethoven finally overcomes the tragedy of the first movement. This model- tragedy overcome by struggle, meditation and transformation- is the model of Beethoven’s 5th, Brahms 1st and Mahler’s 2nd. In Mahler 2, we’re even told that death is nothing to fear, because we can overcome even that.

However, as many commentators have pointed out, in Mahler 5, it seems as though all the darkness of the work is concentrated in Part I, after which, the mood is one of pervading optimism and joy. The effect can be jarring, and the Scherzo can sound quite trite given what it follows.

Imagine you’ve been following your favorite TV show through a season of high drama, and in the season finale, most of the main characters are killed and the bad guys win. You spend the whole summer thinking this is not just a cliff-hanger, we hung from the cliff and plummeted. The hero is not just in a tight spot, he’s dead. You wonder how the show’s writers are going to carry the story forward for another season with most of the characters it was built around dead, BUT– the show was brilliant, so convincing and so full of completely unforeseeable plot twists, that you spend the summer convinced that the coming season will somehow be worth the wait. Somehow, the writers will find a way to continue the story.

And after all those months of waiting, you tune in for the season premiere, and after the credits, the main character, killed off in the final scene of last year, awakes comfortably in his bed in the arms of his lady-love (also killed last season), and all is well with the world because…..IT WAS ALL A DREAM. “What a load of crap,” you might exclaim, and with good reason.In his Second Symphony, Mahler says explicitly that even death is not the end, that the struggle continues and that we can overcome even that. In the Fifth, by the end of Part I, in which hope is so mercilessly negated and extinguished, Mahler has said that death is final, and the struggle is over. It seems to me that the abyss one is left in at the end of Part I is so powerful, so all consuming, that the symphony fails to cohere unless Parts II and III are not simply joyful celebrations, but somehow represent a coming-to-terms with the tragedy of Part I that culminates in a return to life.

So, for me as a conductor, I feel like the entire success of the piece depends on my ability to forge a logical connection between Part I and Parts II and III. We can’t simply wake up, cozy and happy and think “it was all only a dream- honey, will you get me a coffee?”

Mahler would have been more aware of this difficulty than anyone because of his background as a performer as well as a composer. Were there any models he could turn to in trying to make sense of tragedy not through struggle, but via another path? If we abandon struggle after Part I, how do we plausibly account for the joyful mood of the Finale after the total cataclysm that opened the symphony?

There is such a model, and it is also by Beethoven. While in the 5th and 9th symphonies, Beethoven seems to overcome tragedy through struggle, in the 3rd, he finds another path.

Like Mahler’s 5th, Beethoven’s 3rd has at the heart of its drama a Funeral March, which in fact Mahler modeled his Trauermarsch on. Like Part I of Mahler 5, the Eroica Funeral March ends in complete negation, complete despair- falling totally into the abyss. The first movements of the 5th and 9th, or the Coriolan Overture may all end in tragedy, but the 2nd mvt of the Eroica is altogether darker, and ultimately, more hopeless. It ends with hope extinguished.

Like the Mahler, Beethoven follows this black moment with a dance. The Scherzo of the Eroica, with it’s pianissimo beginning, seems to me to represent the re-creative force of nature dancing new life into the world after a cataclysm. To make the beginning of that Scherzo sound both infinitely hopeful and infinitely vulnerable seems to me to be the key of making the whole of the Eroica work as complete symphony. Otherwise, as in the Mahler, you might as well leave after the 2nd movement.

Given that, you might be able to envision a program for the Beethoven that looks something like this-

I- A fearless hero leads his brothers-in-arms in a mighty and epic struggle against the forces of evil (in this case, played by the note c-sharp). His own unwavering courage makes possible victory; by never admitting the possibility of defeat or death, his forces storm unstoppably to victory, but…..

II- No victory comes without a price. At the battle’s end, the forces of good have been triumphant, but at what cost? At what horrible, unimaginable cost? The fallen return from the battlefield, and one by one the funeral cortege passes carrying the caskets, and at the end of the cortege, in the last casket, is the hero. Lost. A great scream is heard, and grief devours all

III- All hearts seem to have known nothing but winter since discovering the magnitude of our loss, but eventually, bidden or not, spring returns. Life awakens, Laughter awakens. When humanity cannot heal the world, nature heals it for us.

IV- Life is back, joy has returned. The end of this symphony is simply the celebration of a new beginning. The victory our heroes fought and died for has delivered on its promise of a new hope. However, we remember. We remember. In the last slow variations of the symphony, we come together and remember, first in terms hopeful and grateful, but later with deeper memories of the pain of our losses, but in the end, we know that all that was sacrificed was sacrificed so that we could have the new life this movement celebrates, and so, we embrace it. We celebrate it. This is a beginning.


I  wouldn’t begin to claim that this is Beethoven’s program of the Eroica- it’s just one logical way of looking at the shape of the work that makes sense of what at first seems to be a strange and unbalanced design, and one in which the narrative carries forward coherently from movement to movement.  After all, on it’s surface it seems that you can’t have two huge, highly dramatic  movements which carry us into a black whole be balanced by two short, relatively emotionally stable movements which begin and end in relative happiness and have the whole thing make any sense.

Beethoven understood that defeat (let’s say for the moment that the first movements of LvB’s 5th and 9th symphonies end in defeat) is not the same thing as death (let’s say for the moment that 2nd movement of the Eroica ends in death, nullification). Defeat can be overcome through heroic struggle, but when the hero is destroyed rather than defeated, struggle is no longer an option. However, rebirth or regeneration might be an option.

I can’t help but think that the Scherzo of Mahler 5 must represent the beginnings of rebirth and regeneration after a cataclysm as does the Scherzo in the Beethoven, but the opening of Mahler’s Scherzo is more problematic from this point of view- it is not a delicate awakening like the Beethoven Scherzo, but a boisterous assertion. What happened? We can’t simply accept that Part I was all simply a dream, and that suddenly, life is all happy and nice. Something must account for the sudden shift in mood. Is the 3rd movement a flashback? Is it a sudden cut to a new plotline that we’ll spend the rest of the season trying to learn its connection to Season I?

This is what I’m working on now- understanding what happens between the last note of Part I and the first note of Part II. Some part of the drama happens off camera in this symphony. Perhaps even the key part of the drama of the symphony happens off camera, in that long pause Mahler asks for between the 2nd and 3rd movements.

I’m convinced that Mahler was looking at the Eroica for ideas of how to move forward from the utter despair of Part I, but the poetic outline I’ve come up with above for the Beethoven doesn’t entirely fit the Mahler, and it would have been unlike him to simply re-visit something Beethoven had already done. Finding a new poetic concept that doest make sense of this moment is going to demand a musical analysis that makes sense of what happens BETWEEN Part I and Part II of this symphony, and that shows, in abstract, musical terms, how happens in Part I is addressed in Parts II and III.

In the meantime, I told you there were two questions uppermost in my mind about this movement, and so far, we’ve only asked the first one.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Mahler 5- It was NOT all just a damn dream”

  1. Kevin

    Brilliantly written. I just purchased a copy of Mahler 5 (Bernstein, NYP, DG) and will listen to it soon. Your remarkable insights make the work that much more compelling.

  2. Bruce


    This is wonderful. I read this whole blog entry and made little notes in my score as I ate my dinner prepping for tonight’s rehearsal. When I first sat down with this piece, the first thing that came to mind were soldiers (trumpet call/taps 1st mvt), going into battle/death and destruction (2nd mvt), soldiers having flashbacks to good times (3rd mvt), the widow/grieving process (4th), and a remembrance of the soldier’s life several years later (5th mvt).

    I’ll e-mail ya tonight on how rehearsal goes and other questions that are floating around 🙂


  3. Erik K

    Cool post. A further question I would ask in this narrative is “what is the function of the solo voice?” Furthermore, what role does the chorale in mvt. 2 play in the tragic aspects of Part I? Foreshadowing the impending triumph of the finale? This is fun…

  4. Doug R

    I’m 5+ years late here to a very interesting post. I have no idea whether the author or anyone else will be prompted to read this, so I’ll keep it short for now, but could elaborate a lot. In my “narrative,” it is the Scherzo and the Adagietto that are the dream sequence — Part I is quite real. And it is the message conveyed in the dreams that leads to the 5th movement; which, feels for me as though Mahler sucked the essence out of one of the most fun, joyful days of anyone’s life and set it to music. In my version, there’s also a very good reason why that movement ends the way it does. Anyway, that’s it, for now . . . .

  5. Bill Dodd

    What a wonderful look at M5! I got so tired of the Adagietto being EVERYWHERE, that I blocked out the whole symphony for a time. But one day I really heard the final movement! I call it the “Joy To The World” movement because I hear the echo of that other piece in the often repeated phrase, but more importantly because the whole movement seems to capture such joy. Anyway— Thanks for this and the other posts. I’m just beginning to scratch the surface! Yours is some of the best writing I’ve seen on music.

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