Mahler was a man who put his art above everything, including his physical well being. He took his role as conductor and music director very seriously and drove himself to conduct regardless of illness or fever. On February 24, 1901 he conducted an orchestral concert in the afternoon and an opera that same evening. He had just gotten over a bad case of tonsillitis (which didn't slow him down any). That same night his sister found him collapsed in a pool of blood. Mahler had horrendous hemmorhoidal problems that caused him excruciating pain (there were many occasions when he conducted in extreme pain from them) and many minor hemorrhages from them, but this one was life threatening. Surgeons were summoned and he came near death. The surgeon did an emergency procedure in Mahler's bedroom that stopped the bleeding, as Mahler told a friend the next day:
You know, last night I nearly passed away. When I saw the doctors… I thought my last hour had come. While they were putting in the tube, which was frightfully painful but quick, they kept checking my pulse and my heart. Fortunately it was solidly installed in my breast and determined not to give up so soon… While I was hovering between life and death, I wondered whether it would not be better to have done with it at once, since everyone must come to this in the end. Besides, the prospect of dying did not frighten me in the least, provided my affairs are in order, and to return to life seemed almost a nuisance.As soon as Mahler recuperated from the incident he had his second hemorrhoid surgery in March. This near-death experience may have been partially responsible for the change in his compositional style as reflected in this work. The symphony in in five movements, which Mahler grouped into three parts. As the symphony is progressive as regards to key, Mahler requested that no key designation be given to the symphony as a whole.
I. Trauermarsch (Funeral March) - Although some annotators and musicologists regard this symphony as the most conventional out of the first five, Mahler begins the symphony in C-sharp minor with a solo for trumpet that sets the mood:
Friedrich Rückert from his collection of poems Kindentotenlieder (Songs On The Death Of Children). The poetry of Rückert had became Mahler's preferred poems as his obsession with the poems of Des Knaben Wunderhorn diminished. All of the themes in the first movement go through a continual development process, but what doesn't change is the time signature. In the first four symphonies time signatures changed quite often, but in this symphony each movement remains in the time signature that it started in. The trumpet plays fragments of its theme as the orchestra slowly winds down. Violins accompany col legno, with the wood of the bow that produces an eerie clicking sound and the movement ends with one last subdued thump by the low strings.
II. Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) - Beginning in the key of A minor, this movement starts out brutally. The orchestra continues as Mahler directed until it slows down and changes key to F minor. Mahler gives the direction in Tempo des ersten Satzes Trauermarsch (In the same tempo as the first movement Funeral March). Not only is the tempo identical, but the thematic material is related to that of the first movement also. The ongoing variation of themes continues. The mood of the opening of the movement returns, along with music in the trumpet from the first movement. An extended section for low strings and timpani brings back the funeral march, which is incorporated into the section. Rapid shifting from the opening music to the funeral march happens until the funeral march is transformed into a high spirited march in the major. This vanishes into the chaos of the opening music until the funeral march returns in a richly orchestrated version. The march falls under the spell of the chaos of the opening and becomes more frantic. A section of music in the major interrupts and the music grows loud and majestic, only to return to the frantic music of the opening. Everything grows quiet, strings accompany in harmonics, the low strings pluck out two notes, and the timpani has the final say with an A played pianissimo.
III. Scherzo: Kräftig, nicht zu schnell (Not too fast, strong) - The second part of the symphony is the third movement, a scherzo in D major that takes on the shape of a type of sonata form. There are several themes within the movement as well as two separate trio sections. The movement begins with four horns setting the mood of the first theme, in the style of a country dance. This theme goes through continuous development as the themes in the previous movements. A second theme (that is derived from the first theme), the beginning of the first trio, is played delicately by violins that slide between notes. The first theme returns and leads to a section in counterpoint. A new theme is played leisurely by the horns with commentary by the strings. This is the beginning of the second trio, and the theme goes through many variants. A section that develops some of the themes is played, and comes to a climax. Other themes are touched upon in the coda, and this longest movement of the 5th Symphony comes to a hectic, abrupt close.
IV. Adagietto. Sehr langsam (Very slow) - Part Three of the symphony is comprised of the final two movements, the first of which is the Adagietto, arguably Mahler's most well-known and loved symphonic works. He scores it for strings and harp alone. The movement has been used in memorial services for dignitaries and heads of state, Leonard Bernstein conducted it at Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968, but it isn't funeral music as such, although the passion Mahler puts into it is definite. Willem Mengelberg, a contemporary of Mahler and champion of his works wrote that the movement was actually a musical love letter written to Alma Schindler whom he met while writing this symphony and who he later married:
This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love to Alma! Instead of a letter, he confided it in this movement without a word of explanation. She understood and replied: He should come!(I have this from both of them!)There is further evidence that when Mahler conducted the symphony that he took this movement faster than current conductors. Mahler's performances took between 7 and 9 minutes, according to the acoustics of the hall, while today's conductors run the range of 9 to 14 minutes. The movement is in simple three-part form, and while there are relatively few notes in it compared to the other movements of the symphony, Mahler peppers the music with all kinds of directions. It is written in F major except for a short section in the key of G-flat major in the middle section. As the middle section segues back to the first section a huge glissando is taken in the violins. The first section repeats in an abbreviated version until a final climax is reached, after which the music slowly lessens until the most elementary of chord progressions begins with a C dominant 7th chord, which in Western music naturally leads to F major, which Mahler does, but he takes a long time to resolve the C7 chord in the violins and basses. But as the music dies away, the harmony resolves to F major. The last movement begins without pause.
V. Rondo-Finale. Allegro – Allegro giocoso. Frisch (Fresh) - With the final movement, Mahler has moved from funeral music in the first part, to ambiguous music in the second part, to love and finally exuberant joy in the final part. Another Wunderhorn song is used in the finale, In Praise Of Higher Understanding, also known as The Cuckoo And The Nightingale, which makes up the main theme of the finale, which shows characteristics of both rondo and sonata form. The short sections of counterpoint heard earlier in the symphony were only a warm up to Mahler's five contrapuntal sections in the finale. An edition of J.S. Bach's works were being published and Mahler was a subscriber and was influenced by the older composer's mastery of the art. The theme of the fourth movement also appears in a faster and more jovial variant. Just before the ending, a theme from the 2nd movement appears in a noble variant maestoso, but the exuberance of the music sweeps it aside as it gallops to a final giggle and loud end.