5 Things to Love About Mahler 5
I love Mahler. He was from Vienna and played an enormous part in my musical education. Mahler’s Fifth Symphony plays a big role in Mahler's work. There is so much information in the music, in every phrase. The more I study the score, the more I fall in love with it. Here are five of my favorite things about it:
1. It marks a big shift in Mahler's composition style.
He had already composed the four so-called "Wunderhorn" symphonies and now he composes a symphony with a completely different texture. It's technically written in five movements, but really this is a symphony in three movements: the first two belong together, the third stands alone, and the famous Adagietto and the last movement also belong together.
2. The opening fanfare is typically Austrian.
There's that tragic element right from the beginning, and it's no wonder he starts with a trumpet fanfare. This is an Austrian fanfare. Not a German fanfare, or any other kind of fanfare. It's amazing. The desperation continues in the second movement, getting rid of every pain and sadness. There are some climaxes, but they immediately collapse. We don't get the real climax until the end.
3. The third movement is not a waltz, it's a ländler.
You cannot perform the third movement in any way other than Viennese style. Mahler knew Johann Strauss's music and all his wonderful waltzes and polkas and marches. You find it all in this symphony and especially in the third movement. A lot of people think that the movement is a waltz, but it's a ländler, an old-fashioned country dance in Austria. There are as many different types of ländler as there are landscapes in Austria, and Mahler plays with that. An innocent, beautiful ländler changes into a desperate dance. He changed the character of the ländler into something very dark.
4. The Adagietto is not about death. It's about love.
Many people know the Adagietto because of the film Death in Venice, but in fact it has nothing to do with death. It has everything to do with his love for his wife, Alma, and that's something that I think we must always keep in mind. The Adagietto is definitely the most challenging part for me as a conductor and for the orchestra. It's a question of tempo. You cannot execute it too slowly, but you cannot do it so quickly that you lose their feeling for the music. You have to find a way that is always fluent and makes it feel like a love song. Only if we hear it as a love song, can it prepare us for the last movement.
5. The final movement is pure joy.
We see the whole concept start from total darkness then travel through countryside music—the Austrian ländler—where sadness and happiness exist together. But the last movement is only happiness. We've gone from dark to light.
CODA: When did you know that you wanted to be a conductor?
I had the opportunity to attend the New Year's Day Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic when I was a boy about 13 or 14 years old. We had no money, we had a big family and I got a very cheap ticket in the standing area in the back of the Musikverein. I was standing amongst these two hundred people, and I was small and everybody was taller than me. I had no view, I could not see anything. This would be only a listening experience. But an usher—an old man—saw me in the middle of this and he took me out and put me in front of all the people. I was so impressed by the orchestra, by the music, and by the conductor. I remember I went home and tried to conduct in front of a mirror—completely stupid—but I understood for the first time that I wanted to be on stage. That was my first experience and I was extremely thankful for this old man.
Manfred Honeck is Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and was selected as the International Classical Music Awards “Artist of the Year” 2018. For the final performance in Lincoln Center's Great Performers 2018/19 season, he'll lead the orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 5—along with Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto featuring soloist Till Fellner—on May 19 at David Geffen Hall.