Mahler's "Funeral March to Joy"
The Fifth Symphony
by Kelly Dean Hansen
The fifth symphony was completed during one of the happiest times of Mahler's life. It represented a completely new
direction in his output, or as he would phrase it, "a completely new style." This new style was concerned with virtuosic
orchestral technique, the abandonment of specific "programs," and a heavy emphasis on contrapuntal writing, which is seen
most clearly in the finale. It is the first of the central trilogy of works that abandon the use of voices and poetic texts, which were
an important part of the previous three symphonies. Yet this symphony, with its progression of moods, its use of a funeral
march, and the specific association of the fourth movement with his love for Alma Schindler, clearly possesses an inner
program, even if Mahler did not specifically give one. The most telling aspect of this "program" can be seen in the arrangement
of the five movements into three "parts," over the course of which the music moves from negative emotions toward positive
ones. The two movements of Part I are tragic and angry, and primarily convey negative emotions. The third movement, a
central Scherzo which comprises Part II by itself, contains moments of jubilation and moments of anxiety. The grotesque is
juxtaposed with the galant, and tension with repose. The Scherzo, then, represents a "transition" from the negative to the
positive side of the emotional spectrum. Finally, Part III conveys the feelings of love and jubilation, completing the motion from
one extreme to the other. In a way, this emotional progression mirrors the one from the Second Symphony, except for the fact
that it does it without voices and that the final movement is jubilant from the beginning, containing nothing like the apocalyptic
opening of the Second's finale. The progression from despair to joy is foreshadowed in the second movement, where a jubilant
brass chorale interrupts that movement's generally dark mood. This chorale is interrupted, however, and reaches its
culmination only when it returns at the end of the finale. The progression of keys, moving up a half-step from C-Sharp minor in
the first movement to D Major at the end, parallels the progression in mood. The pairing of the first two movements and the last
two is not based on emotional content alone; there are direct musical connections between the movements in each of the pairs.
The first movement is basically an introduction to the second, and the fourth similarly acts as a preface to the finale. One
remarkable thing about the symphony is that despite the large structure of each movement, none of them changes meter or
time signature in its course, which is unusual for Mahler, and provides a further element of consistency within each movement,
even the ambiguous scherzo.
First Movement--TRAUERMARSCH: In gemessenem Schritt. Streng. Wie ein Kondukt (Funeral March: In measured step.
Strict. Like a procession.)
2/2 meter. C-sharp minor. Primary emotion: DESPAIR
Leonard Bernstein once said that "(Mahler's) marches are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone
mad." In this symphony, we have examples of just such a march and just such a chorale. The opening trumpet call of this
funeral march immediately calls the audience to attention, and the succeeding music is as intense and frightening as any that
Mahler ever wrote. The main march itself consists of two elements: (1) the trumpet fanfares with their rapid triplets (which
Mahler directs should be played faster than the written note values indicate) and the succeeding music based on them; and (2)
a more smooth and elegaic melody in the violins and cellos. Each element is presented twice, and then an almost nostalgic
epilogue beginning in a major key brings the first main section to a close.
After the march comes to a full close, the trumpet fanfare returns again, introducing the first trio, or contrasting section
in B-Flat minor. Mahler directs that this should be "suddenly faster, passionate, and wild," and indeed the music bursts upon
the scene after the fanfares in great waves of intensity. Angry and rapid string figures are set against a trumpet melody that
literally wails in despair. At the height of intensity, the fanfare triplets are heard. This section brings to mind Bernstein's
comment about "heart attacks." This wild music eventually subsides, and the fanfare emerges again from the dust to introduce
a return of the main march. This presentation is altered significantly from the first section. The first element is abbreviated and
seems almost sapped of its strength after reaching a hard-won high point. The "elegaic" melody is also varied and intensified,
accompanied throughout by a punctuating rhythm in the trumpets and trombones that had only been introduced at the very end
of the first presentation. Again, the march comes to a full close.
A second trio in A minor (anticipating the key of the next movement) is now introduced in a novel way: the fanfare is
not played by the trumpet, but quietly and mysteriously by the timpani. This second trio provides the thematic connection to the
second movement, where it will play a more important role. Here, it serves almost as a kind of epilogue. The melody is
somewhat similar to the elegaic theme from the main march. It is accompanied by a new rhythm that is similar to the famous
motive that opens Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. This rhythm is constant and unrelenting. The music begins very subdued, but it
quickly and seamlessly works itself to an intense "lamenting" climax, which in turn collapses almost too suddenly. The main
march emerges from this collapse and functions as a coda, but it is now sapped of all its energy and simply dissipates. The
final fanfare figure is played by, of all instruments, a flute. A loud but dampened-sounding C-sharp in low pizzicato strings
brings things to a close.
Second Movement--Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz
(In turbulent motion. With greatest vehemence.)
2/2 meter (Alla
breve). A minor. Primary emotion: ANGER
To call the tremendous funeral march an "introduction" seems absurd until we hear what follows it. This massive and
complex movement is in many ways the main movement of the work (although it is not the longest). The movement is in A
minor, in which key the symphony neither begins nor ends. It is therefore not really correct to refer to the symphony as being in
"C-Sharp minor," as is often done, or even "in D major," where it ends, since the "main" movement is in a different key entirely.
Assigning "central" keys to Mahler symphonies is always somewhat unclear, and in this case it is not necessary, as the work is
unified in other, even stronger ways than tonality.
The movement is in a large and clear sonata form, but Mahler adds another layer over that of the sonata structure:
midway through the development section, a gradual buildup from almost nothing begins and continues through the remainder
of the development and all of the recapitulation, culminating in the tremendous (and seemingly incongruous) D-major chorale.
Although the movement includes vehement passion as well as more subdued despair, other than the chorale, the prevailing
emotions are all negative. This chorale seems completely out of place unless considered within the context of the entire
As would be expected in sonata form, there are two main themes of the exposition. The first is rough and wild,
characterized by angry and rapid string figuration and loud interjections of diminished seventh chords. Another element, first
heard in the winds, is a figure of a leap of a minor ninth (one note larger than an octave leap) and a descending second. This
very distinctive three-note figure is also somewhat demonic in nature and is heard in this theme group as well as the second.
The trumpet has several distinctive figures as well. The second theme itself (in F minor, the submediant) is a variation of the
second trio from the funeral march. Although the melody is quite divergent, its opening gesture is clearly recognizable. The
accompaniment, which was perhaps the most distinctive part of the theme, is persistent here as well, but it is also somewhat
Both the development and the recapitulation are introduced by a dissonant blast of a diminished seventh chord
followed by the angry rushing strings. Midway through the development, the music dies down completely and the cellos play a
lamenting version of the second theme in e-flat minor that is stripped of all accompaniment except for a timpani roll. From this
near standstill, the music gradually builds. First, the theme from the funeral march is heard in the form in which it appeared
there, confirming the already suspected connection. A little later, an even stronger connection is made when the elegaic tune
from the *main* section of the funeral march is heard in B Major. This reminiscence is immediately followed by a march-like
section in A Flat that further builds in intensity. Before the recapitulation, a sudden blaze of brass is heard in a strange A-major
fanfare that is suddenly aborted by the dissonant blast. This brief brass outburst is an anticipation of the chorale that will appear
at the end of the movement. The energy that has been building gradually from the lamenting cello melody continues across the
recapitulation. When the second theme arrives, this time in E minor, the dynamic level does not become quiet, as it did in the
exposition, and the theme itself is closer to its "funeral march" form. The final ascent toward the goal follows the second theme.
At the height of the buildup, of course, is the arrival of the D-major brass chorale. It is a moment that is fulfilling as well as
surprising, as the brass suddenly emerge from the inferno. The chorale reaches a feverish pitch, and Mahler even specifically
indicates the "high point" in the score. Just as this triumphant music is about to reach its resolution, however, it is rudely cut off
by the same dissonant diminished seventh chord that introduced the two previous sections, and the music rapidly moves back
to the minor mode. The ensuing coda, based on the first theme, gathers enough energy to reach a final climax which, like the
similar spot in the funeral march, collapses almost immediately. The resolution in A minor is eerie and strange, with high,
ethereal strings and odd punctuating woodwind thirds. The massive movement dies away, the final note being taken by the
timpani, Mahler giving a specific indication to give extra care to the drum's tuning.
Third Movement--SCHERZO: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell
(With strength, but not too fast).
3/4 meter. D Major. Primary emotion:
AMBIGUITY: REPOSE + ANXIETY
At over 800 measures, the central Scherzo is not only the longest movement in the symphony, but one of Mahler's
longest movements in any work. That this great length should be applied to the scherzo, a form that was traditionally the
shortest movement in a typical sonata or symphony, is certainly unusual, but there are precedents for such oversized Scherzo
movements, such as that of Schubert's "Great" C-major symphony, or even of Beethoven's ninth. Despite its length, the
movement manages to retain the outward trappings of scherzo form with two contrasting sections or trios (the use of two trios
being a legacy of Robert Schumann). The major sections themselves are thematically very diverse and consist of several
segments. In addition to this, a type of sonata structure is imposed on the scherzo form, with a real development after the
second trio and an abbreviated recapitulation. The emotions of the piece literally run the entire gamut. While the prevailing
sentiment is that of the rustic and genial dance (primarily the Ländler), there are also many elements that are not only
dissonant and strange, but even eerie and terrifying. The key is D Major, which we have heard in the chorale of the last
movement, and in which the symphony will eventually end. Of particular importance is the part for obligato solo horn, which
plays a leading role in many of the themes, and especially in the second trio. The horn soloist is typically placed apart from the
rest of the orchestra. With such a prominent role in such a large movement, the horn solo part is one of the most difficult in the
literature for that instrument.
The main Scherzo section consists of seven distinct segments with new melodies or variations, but all in the strong
and robust character that is typical of the Ländler. In the course of all of these waves, one figure is heard that will play a major
role in establishing the movement's ambiguous nature. It consists of chirping eighth-notes that are played in a shrill manner by
the woodwinds in their high register in overlapping entries. The resulting effect is very dissonant and disconcerting, and the
following dance figures move briefly to minor. The distinctive rhythm of this figure will come to pervade many parts of the
The first of the two Trio sections (in B-flat major) is far more relaxed than the robust main section, and has more the
character of a Viennese waltz. The waltz melody will play a major role in the later development of the movement, and indeed
will form (somewhat surprisingly) one of its most satisfying climaxes in the shortened reprise of all sections at the end.
After a return of the main Scherzo that includes a fugal section, the second Trio is heralded by a new figure of a
descending fourth in the minor mode that emerges from the fugato. It is first heard in the trumpet. Shortly thereafter, the main
theme of the second Trio emerges in the horns in a slower tempo (this is the second segment of the section). It is a somewhat
relaxed and even idyllic melody, made ambiguous by its minor mode. There are six segments of this second trio, all of which
treat this theme in new ways and in various minor keys: F, C, G, D, and E minor are all used, as well as a statement in A-Flat
major. The third segment increases in intensity and culminates in several horn blasts, the solo horn emerging with a lamenting
version of the theme. The tempo slows considerably for the fourth segment, and the theme is now presented in pizzicato
strings, along with the return of the descending fourth. It is at this point that very timid reminiscences of the first trio (the waltz)
are heard. The fifth segment introduces the major mode, and the solo horn gains prominence. The sixth segment introduces
the most varied statements of the theme in the trumpet and solo horn.
The long idyll, not without its share of disturbance, melts away into a development section that begins with the waltz
theme, which has great prominence for much of the rest of the movement. Following this long development, all three main
sections are heard again in abbreviated form, the waltz leading to a huge climax. After a brief treatment of the second trio
theme combined with the "eerie" eighth-note figure, the largest climax is reached, a huge dissonance after much intensification,
including further statements of the waltz theme. Out of this, a new setting of the slower elements from the second trio emerges,
a final reminiscence of the relaxing elements of the movement. The final coda combines diverse elements of the movement. It
is introduced by the rhythm of the "eighth-note" theme on a bass drum, and then the theme itself is heard, combined with the
descending fourth, the waltz theme, and the opening of the main scherzo itself. This final combination of most of the main
elements brings the movement, a world in itself, to a rather abrupt close.
Fourth Movement--Adagietto. Sehr langsam (Very slowly).
4/4 meter. F Major. Primary emotion: LOVE
This miniature slow movement is also the most famous of the symphony due to its use in the Visconti film "Death in
Venice" as well as its having been conducted by Leonard Bernstein during a memorial to John F. Kennedy. The movement is
rather unfortunately associated somewhat with death and mourning, and it is not entirely inappropriate for these sentiments (the
symphony began, after all, with a funeral march); it is more properly seen, however, as a love song without words, specifically
one written for Alma Schindler. The ambiguity of the scherzo has led to a more positive tone that will reach its culmination in
the finale, for which this Adagietto is really an introduction. The orchestration is reduced to strings and harp alone, and the form
is a simple ternary structure. The string scoring is brilliant and resonant throughout, with the harp making very important
contributions. The main melody is characterized by sighing motives and long suspensions. The score is littered with German
directions such as "seelenvoll" ("soulful"), "mit innigster Empfindung" ("with deepest emotion") and "mit Wärme" ("with
warmth"). These indications underscore the intimacy of this music, which yearns more with each prolonged suspension. The
melody itself is closely related to one of Mahler's most intimate songs, the Rückert setting "Ich bin der Welt abhanden
gekommen." It reaches a full and warm climax before the new material arrives.
The middle section introduces a bit more tension, modulating to various keys both minor and major. The harp largely
drops out here, and the strings finally include an allusion to the "gaze" motive from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," which could
be seen as an allusion to the movement as either a love song or a song of death. The return of the main melody is even more
restrained, with the note values augmented and the resulting suspensions lasting longer. Mahler leaves us more indications
such as "zögernd" ("hesitantly") to emphasize this. The final climax leaves the listener almost breathless, as resolutions are
delayed longer and longer. The final two suspensions, first in the bass, and finally in the melody, are stretched to their breaking
point before they are finally resolved.
Fifth Movement--RONDO FINALE: Allegro giocoso. Frish (Fresh).
2/2 meter (alla breve). D Major. Primary emotion: JOY
The final fading of the strings of the Adagietto is immediately followed by a single "A" from the horn as the wind
instruments enter the scene. The final two movements are connected without a pause, and the strings provide one final shadow
of what has preceded before the winds take over with the introductory passage to the jubilant finale. Fragments of thematic
elements are given by bassoon, oboe, and clarinet. These fragments will become part of the fabric of the movement,
specifically in its contrapuntal sections. The first of these is a direct quotation from Mahler's "Wunderhorn" song "Lob des
hohen Verstandes." The song's title translates as "In Praise of High Intellect," and perhaps is an allusion to the skillful use of
counterpoint and fugue, which often symbolize "high intellect" in music, in the movement to come. The final fragment is a
completely transformed figure from the end of the second movement's brass chorale, hardly recognizable until the chorale
returns in its original form at the end. It is notable that despite the many changes of key and rapid shifts, this jubilant movement
never touches the minor mode.
As sonata form had been imposed on scherzo form in the third movement, so it is here imposed on the rondo. A rondo
is characterized by a recurring main theme. This movement has the exposition, development, and recapitulation of sonata form,
but the main theme recurs twice in the exposition before the customary second theme is heard. The two statements of the main
theme are separated by the first of five fugal sections. The recurrence of the main theme before any development has occurred
is typical of a rondo. Development *does* occur later on, however, as in a sonata form. The resulting hybrid, called a sonata-
rondo, is not new, but had been used as early as Mozart. The scale here is simply much larger. The main theme itself grows
out of the final "chorale" fragment of the introduction and is presented in noble, warm, and rich horn scoring. Winds dominate
this bright theme, being joined only by the lower strings. Before the entrance of the first fugal section, a new and very important
descending figure in dotted rhythm is given by the woodwinds. This figure will play a key role in the fugal sections and
especially in the final chorale. The fugue itself begins with the neglected strings, but the winds soon have their say with the
motives from the introduction (including the chorale) and the new descending figure.
After the repeat of the main theme and a second contrapuntal passage, the second theme will immediately sound
familiar, but the listener may not know why. This is because it comes directly from the middle section of the Adagietto, providing
the expected thematic link in Part III, but it is utterly different in this new context. It is not only in tempo, but in its exuberant
(rather than intimate) presentation that the theme is so transformed. It is presented in the submediant key of B Major (the
second theme of the sonata form of the second movement was also in its submediant key, another connection).
The development section contains two more fugal passages as well as development of the second (Adagietto) theme.
The entire section moves through several keys, although the B and D Major of the exposition play the largest roles. It is here
that we see most clearly an aspect of this movement that is justly famous: abrupt avoidance of regular cadences and rapid
shifts of key. Adorno, while criticizing the overly affirmative nature of the finale ("Mahler was a bad yes-man," he said) admired
these rapid and sudden changes of key and deceptive cadences, which reminded him of film music technique. The main rondo
theme is largely avoided in this development, but it is varied and altered in the recapitulation.
This reprise arrives after the fourth fugal passage, which ends the development, works to a feverish climax. The main
theme is now presented in triplets and becomes more intense. It is now more string- than wind-oriented. The fifth and final fugal
passage is the most intense, and includes more of the rapid "film score" modulations and deceptive cadences. Further
development of the main theme leads to the second, or Adagietto theme, which is now given in G, rather than B Major. Unlike
the first theme, it appears in what is close to its original form from the exposition. After the second theme has had its final say, a
transition passage begins toward the final goal: the return of the D-major chorale. This transition passage is short, but an
extreme intensification of volume and tempo occurs over this brief span.
After so many points of arrival and repose have been arrested by deceptive cadences and key changes in this
movement, the arrival of the chorale is an immensely satisfying and fulfilling moment. The beginning is not identical to the
second movement chorale, but is derived from the descending dotted figure that followed the first presentation of the main
theme. Only in its second phrase does the material from the second movement return. Appropriately, it is the second part of
that chorale that is now heard, its first section being replaced by the new material. Finally, we know what the goal of that
moment had been. Although it had taken place in the context of anger and unrest, it anticipated the overwhelming joy of the
finale. Now the chorale will not be aborted as it was there, but it will reach its culmination, striving ever higher before it reaches
its final cadence. This cadence leads to a feverish coda based on the first theme. The music becomes more and more frantic,
combining various motives from the fugal passages and the chorale before the resulting energy screeches to a halt. A final
flourish, closing the symphony in the most positive manner possible, is like the explosive bursting of a balloon when it reaches
its point of capacity, a point the music has in fact reached. The funeral march has reached its goal: the logical emotional
progression of the symphony has marched from deep despair and anger to love and then pure joy. Mahler would begin his
sixth symphony with a funeral march-type movement as well, but the goal would be the opposite.