Program Notes: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony

June 13, 2022

Herald, Holler and Hallelujah! (Colorado premiere, co-commission)

Wynton Marsalis
Born October 18, 1961, in New Orleans, LA

Herald, Holler and Hallelujah, a fanfare for brass and percussion, is a co-commission from symphony orchestras of New Jersey, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Germany’s WDR Symphonieorchester. This performance marks the work’s Colorado premiere. Its World Premiere was January 22, 2022, with the New Jersey Symphony conducted by Xian Zhang.

Wynton Marsalis, trumpet virtuoso, educator, and composer, is supremely comfortable in big band jazz, gospel, Afro-Caribbean, and classical music. Marsalis has created works for string quartet, ballet, and orchestras, as well as for jazz ensembles. 

Herald, Holler and Hallelujah! is scored for six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, tuba, a large percussion section requiring four players, and timpani.

Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor

Gustav Mahler
Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia; died May 18, 1911, in Vienna

Symphony No. 5 was begun in the summer of 1901 just around the time he met Alma Schindler, a brilliant and beautiful twenty-year-old composer. They married in March 1902. Mahler spent that summer completing Symphony No. 5 and devoted the autumn and winter in Vienna to orchestrating it. The audience was enthusiastic at the premiere, but Mahler said, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”

Mahler designated the symphony’s three parts in the score, with five movements dispersed among the three parts.

The first movement begins with a Trauermarsch (Funeral March) with trumpet fanfares recalling the military bands of Mahler’s childhood. This march sporadically erupts with violence and yields to a defiant trio with its outburst of grief, before returning. After a nightmare-like climax, the movement closes with the trumpet call.

The second movement, Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (“Tempestuously, with great vehemence”) includes demonic music that resolves into a hymn-like chorale. This movement is related to the first both emotionally and thematically. It is turbulent, angry, and savage, quelled by quieter passages. Close to the movement’s end, there is an optimistic brass chorale, but it falters, only to recur at the symphony’s end. 

The great central Scherzo, the third movement, immediately caused problems when rehearsals began. He wrote to Alma: “The scherzo is the very devil of a movement. I see it is in for a peck of troubles! Conductors for the next fifty years will all take it too fast and make nonsense of it; and the public—oh, heavens, what are they to make of this chaos of which new worlds are forever being engendered?” The Scherzo is the longest movement Mahler ever composed.It features his peculiar juxtaposition of ländler and waltz as an ebullient dance of life. 

The ethereal fourth movement, the Adagietto, Sehr langsam (“Very slowly”) is the most famous part of the symphony and is frequently performed alone. Associated with death and mourning, Mahler intended it, however, as a love song for Alma. It is for strings and harp alone. The melody is related to the composer’s Rückert song setting “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world … I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song”). 

In the finale, Mahler combines rondo and sonata form. The final climax is marked by a return of themes from earlier movements, heightened by a triple fugue. Near the end, the brass chorale from the second movement reappears, an expressive metamorphosis from grief and death to joy and life. 

The score calls for 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, tam-tam, triangle, and strings. 

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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