When Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Was New Music

Emil Orlik, Gustav Mahler (1902)

Emil Orlik, Gustav Mahler (1902)

Would that I could perform my symphonies for the first time fifty years after my death!
—Gustav Mahler, letter to Alma Mahler (October 14, 1904)
Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler 692

And who can blame Mahler, when he got reviews like these?

Chicago Premiere, March 3, 1907

From the Examiner review:

Mahler V Examiner Review Excerpt 3-23-1907

From the Journal review:

Mahler V Journal Review Excerpt 3-23-1907

(click here for both reviews)

New York Premiere, December 3, 1926

From the Olin Downes review in the New York Times:

Mahler V NY Premiere Review Excerpt 2

(click here or here for the complete review)

And it was indeed about fifty years after his death that his works finally entered the repertory.
—Jens Malte Fischer [Gustav Mahler 692]

Additional Resources

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Program Notes

Stephen Johnson, Discovering Music “Stephen Johnson looks at Mahler’s songs and discusses how they shine a light on the character of his Symphony No. 5.”

Jens Malte Fischer, Gustav Mahler, Chapter 23, Fifth Symphony, 385-391

Mahler's composing hut at Maiernigg

Mahler’s composing hut at Maiernigg

Listening List

Mahler Symphony No. 5 (1901-02, with subsequent revisions)


four flutes and two piccolos, three oboes and english horn, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, harp, bass drum, cymbals, small bass drum, snare drum, glockenspiel, slapstick, tamtam, triangle, and strings [citation]

The lone trumpet call that opens this symphony launches a whole new chapter in Mahler’s music. Gone is the picturesque world of the first four symphonies—music inspired by folk tales and song, music that calls on the human voice and is explained by the written word. With the Fifth Symphony, as Bruno Walter put it, Mahler “is now aiming to write music as a musician.” Walter had nothing against the earlier works; in fact, he was one of the first serious musicians to understand and to conduct those pieces long before it was fashionable to champion the composer’s cause. Walter simply identified what other writers since have reemphasized: the unforeseen switch to an exclusively instrumental symphonic style, producing music, in Symphonies 5 through 7, that needs no programmatic discussion. [citation]

On Spotify (Bernstein/NY Phil; Kubelík/Bavarian Radio SO; Nott/Bamberg SO, with the caveat that Spotify’s metadata is so poor I can’t be sure these are the recordings about which David Nice writes below)

Kubelík’s live 1981 Mahler Fifth is a reminder that you can have everything in Mahler – intricate texturing, characterful playing, purposeful phrasing and a cumulative impact which leaves you breathless with exhilaration. Only Bernstein, also captured before an audience, can do the same, and although Kubelík pulls some very theatrical stops out as the clouds part in the second movement and the light fades from the scherzo, his generally faster-moving picture tells a very different story.

David Nice, BBC Music Magazine

Click here for a review of the Nott/Bamberg recording.

On YouTube (mesmerizing performance from Abbado/Lucerne Festival Orchestra)


Credits: The images at the head and foot of the post may be found here and here, respectively.  The quotations (including the review screen shots) may be found at the sources linked in the post.











11 thoughts on “When Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Was New Music

  1. Brian Long

    Those original reviews are great finds, Susan. Olin Downes wrote that Mahler’s music “certainly … will perish”. Mahler, on the other hand, once famously said that “my time will come.” Only one could be right! It is a good lesson for critics and commentators on the arts more generally: predict the future at your peril!

  2. shoreacres

    Poor Mahler. I suspect he had a rough afternoon or two in his composing hut, especially if he spent much time there reading his reviews. The tone of the reviews you included made me think of Dorothy Parker: perhaps not the best association in the world.

    I had to look up “allopath,” and “slapstick.” I knew the latter as a form of comedy, of course, but I didn’t know the instrument — as least, not as something used in orchestras, rather than in kindergarten rhythm bands. I was happy to discover a man on YouTube who invented the perfect double slapstick, which apparently is necessary to get the opening bars of Sousa’s “Easter Monday on the White House Lawn” just right. Who knows? It might have made it into Mahler’s battle fanfares, had he known about it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: “Allopath” was a new one on me, too. I was fascinated to find that in a review. Dorothy Parker, yes, I can see it. I wonder if you might have been thinking of this:


      Razors pain you;
      Rivers are damp;
      Acids stain you;
      And drugs cause cramp.
      Guns aren’t lawful;
      Nooses give;
      Gas smells awful;
      You might as well live.

  3. David N

    All the right interpretations there, then. ‘Allopath’ – love (hate) it. Disappointed in Olin Downes, whom I thought knew better. None of this is serious, balanced criticism, but then from collating all those New York reviews for the Prokofiev biography, I quickly concluded that American criticism was way behind the Russians. I wonder if it has ever caught up. But then in every generation there are only a few critics whom true musicians respect. I was finally drafted into the Critics’ Circle (useful to have some sort of press card abroad) and dismayed by the same-olds on their list of performers of the year. I couldn’t (didn’t) vote for any of them…

    Worth pointing out, of course, that the trumpet fanfare which launches the Fifth has already been heard after the collapse in the development of the Fourth’s first movement…so, a new chapter, but very much a chapter in the ongoing narrative of the 11-chapter epic symphonic novel.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Priceless, aren’t they? Critic’s Circle, eh? Well-earned, to be sure, and of course I’m intensely curious about the list of performers you were asked to assess, though I’m sure you can’t disclose that. Most of all, I enjoyed your insight into the relationship between the Fifth and what came before. Though I’m still making my way through the whole of that “symphonic novel” (with significant pleasure), “very much a chapter in the ongoing narrative of the 11-chapter epic symphonic novel” seems to me the perfect way to think of Mahler’s symphonic output.

  4. wanderer

    That’s the thing David – the monumental span, as if it was all there inside him, as I’m sure it is when you are connecting to the Higher Sources, as he was, although I don’t believe he really came to an inspired glimpse of the transition to another existence/reality (afterlife) but was at his greatest grappling with and mourning this world, unlike (say) Elgar who could be equally but less creatively earth-based but In Gerontius did grasp the horror of the Great Love, driven by Newman’s text, I believe.

    Speaking on American critics: I was unaware till our recent Berlin performance that The Love for Three Oranges was a commission (Chicago Opera Company) and the critics were scathing – along the lines of this rubbish gives and takes, gives nothing and takes from those who coughed up for tickets!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: “as if it was all there inside him” strikes me as so right, as does your comment that he “was at his greatest grappling with and mourning this world.” Yes, that is what makes sense to me, as well. Now, on the subject of American critics, it’s interesting indeed that Downes was so negative about Mahler and at the same time was Sibelius’s champion. I’m reminded by this of Taruskin, who could get it so very right in some instances, but at other times went well off the rails. Is this what comes of being called upon to have opinions? Perhaps David might be willing to shed some light.

      1. David N

        It always amazes me that great composers have blind spots when it comes to others – Britten’s detestation of Brahms, for instance and (though I don’t think he’s quite in the great league) Ades on Strauss (lots of top folk don’t ‘get’ Strauss R, though).

        I wonder about how inspiration works. The themes, the melodies, come from who knows where – leading even Vonnegut to comment on music as the only possible indication of a God – but then the grappling into shape is pure hard work, don’t you think?

        Just engrossed in Nielsen’s little book of essays, Living Music. What a marvellous start when he talks about the light, springy steps of the Mozart ‘type’ versus the gloomy, furrowed brows of a Beethoven. But that’s another story altogether. One phrase I will select: ‘young men…always find it a good deal more interesting to peer into a volcano, even an extinct one, than to gaze at the blue sky through the top of a green tree.’ The older I get, the more of a trees-and-blue-sky man I feel.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: That’s a wonderful quote from Nielsen. Living Music certainly sounds like a book I’d enjoy. (At the moment I’m reading Berlioz’s Memoirs. What a character he was, the embodiment of the Romantic in word and deed as well as music.) As to how inspiration works, yes, the ideas might come from every which way, but exacting craft is surely essential to achieve a satisfactory final result. I’m reminded of what Sibelius said, “Music is, for me, like a beautiful mosaic which God has put together. He takes all the pieces in his hand, throws them into the world, and we have to recreate the picture from the pieces.”

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