Everybody loves a grand finale. [Photograph by Jamsinux (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
Where We’ve Been: Part 1 of the symphony consisted of the dark first two movements: a funeral march and a swirl of chaos, respectively. Part 2 was the expansive scherzo, taking us down the rabbit hole. Part 3 is the happy ending and began with the beautiful slow movement.

Where We’re Going: And now we’re up to the big happy finale. I must admit, this is where I find I get a bit disappointed with this symphony. I don’t know why, but I find if Mahler is in a serious mood, whether it be dark (like the opening funeral march) or glorious and spiritual (like some of the symphonies we’ll come to later in the tour) I always find it convincing. But, for some reason, when he attempts to be light and happy (like he’s doing here), I find it a bit jarring. It feels like a grown man skipping down the street – it ends up being more odd than anything else.

Now, that said, the great thing about music is that you can bring your own sense of judgment to the whole thing and have a listen for yourself. Am I just being a sourpuss? Is it actually a glorious ending?

Let’s have a listen.


Before we begin the finale, there are three more bits of jargon that will be useful.

Rondo. Mahler called this movement a “Rondo-Finale”. I think the word finale speaks for itself but rondo is a particular type of music where there is one main theme that keeps alternating with other themes throughout a piece of music. So if you imagine that A was the main theme, and B, C and D were the other themes (though there could be more), the structure would look like A B A C A D A. So you’ll find there’s a slightly chirpy theme that shows up on the French horn that keeps cropping up throughout this movement.

However, just to be convoluted, this movement is also a lot like sonata form, where we have an exposition of the main themes and a development section at the end.

Counterpoint. I’ve often thought that this sounds like a kind of tapestry (but, no, that’s needlepoint), and there is a sense of weaving sounds with counterpoint. But strictly speaking, counterpoint is where you have several voices (in other words, several melody lines) that are all running simultaneously but they’re constructed carefully so that they don’t musically clash with each other. In fact, they’re picked because the sounds blend well together (or as Wikipedia puts it, in a much more complex turn of phrase, the voices “are interdependent harmonically“).

Counterpoint is one of the major differences between old Baroque music (like Bach and Handel) and the music we have nowadays. For instance, I happen to be listening to Mumford and Sons while I’m writing this, and if you listen to the way they construct their songs, there is one main melody line and all the other banjos, guitars, and piano, etc really provide accompaniment to that one melody line. That’s the melody you remember, that’s the one you’ll be humming later. But if you listen to Baroque music, it can actually be difficult to identify which is the main melody, because there are two or three main melodies all going at once.

Fugue. Finally, there is a type of music known as a fugue, which is probably the most well-known type of counterpoint, and furthermore, you may well have participated in a fugue at some stage in your life without realising it … A fugue is a piece of music where one voice starts out, then a bit later, a second voice comes in with the same melody line and then the two melody lines combine together (that’s the counterpoint part). You could then add in a third part and so forth.

The classic example of this is the children’s song “Row, row, row your boat”. If you’ve ever sung it as a round (which is a type of fugue) where one person starts, then another person comes in a couple of lines later and so forth, you may have noticed that the amazing thing about “Row, row” (at least when you’re 8) is that even though the person who started second is a couple of lines behind you, the melodies combine perfectly well and sound fine.

The reason for that is because the melody is constructed to obey the rules of counterpoint, so that the two melodies can lie over the top of each other and be separate, but yet combine harmonically. The part where one voice comes in staggered after the other is what makes it a fugue. (And, if you want to get super-technical, the difference between a fugue and a round is that, in a round, everybody sings exactly the same melody line, only staggered by time. But there are lots of other fugues where, apart from the opening part of the melody, the different voices have different melodies in the middle, which means you can do lots of interesting things with the counterpoint. So it means that all rounds are fugues, but not all fugues are rounds.)

Anyway, the point of all that is that in this movement, you will hear a repeating theme which keeps coming back (making it a rondo). And you’ll find another section that keeps appearing is a fugue (where one voice comes in after the other, starting with the same melody) and this layering of melodies on top of each other is called counterpoint.

The reason all this is interesting is that by Mahler’s day, counterpoint was a bit of an old-fashioned thing. It really belonged back in the days of Bach. But Mahler had been listening to a lot of Bach at the time and wanted to write something along those lines, while putting his own spin on it.

Let’s have a listen.

(0:00) Intro – This is a thing you’ll come to recognise in later symphonies – a Mahler “hinting” intro, where he hints at the tunes he’s going to use later in the movement.


(0:42) Main Rondo Theme – Starting with the French horn, a very happy theme.
(1:20) The Fugue – So here’s that counterpoint we’ve been talking about. It has lots of twitchy string playing but you should be able to hear how the voices come in one at a time and the way everybody is playing their own melodies, but they all combine together. I find it quite cute-sounding.
(2:49) Rondo Theme – Again.
(3:27) Fugue – Again, but more intense.
(3:51) Slow Movement Theme. Now here’s where Mahler does something rather surprising. If you listen carefully, this is actually the second theme from the fourth movement (4:58 on that movement, if you want to go back and compare), but it’s speeded up and turned into a jaunty little strut. Or ice skating music. Take your pick. Either way, Mahler has managed to take a tune that sounded soulful and reaching in its first incarnation when played slowly and has made it light and breezy the second time around. (Normally, composers work the opposite way – they take a theme that sounds lighter and make it more weighty. But this is Mahler in a good mood and he wants to be different.)
(4:45) Quiet Ending. Ends with a quiet little chamber music moment (i.e. just for a small group of instruments) on just the strings and woodwinds. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve moved from the stress of the opening movements, isn’t it?


(5:30) More counterpoint. Hang in there, folks. There are 10 more minutes of this to go.
(5:55) Building to our first climax …
(6:18) A great French horn theme. (Okay, I really like this bit. Leave me alone. I didn’t say I didn’t like the whole thing.)
(6:31) I’ve always thought this bit is a soundtrack in my head to trying to chase a bunch of mice with a hammer whilst drunk … or are the mice drunk? I’m not sure.
(6:53) And more counterpoint.
(7:16) Jaunty version of the slow movement theme again.
(8:08) Quiet Ending again. Then straight back into the counterpoint world.
(8:34) The brass come back in. Everything is speeding up – becoming a wee bit anxious around the (9:00) mark.
(9:13) The development climax, which kind of collapses in on itself. (Because there always has to be a collapse, even in the happiest of Mahler.)


(9:33) Woozy seasick string version of the main Rondo theme. This is about the time when I start to get over this piece and am ready for it to finish. And, look, I’m probably not supposed to say it’s woozy. He’s just varying the rhythm. Still …
(10:18) Back to the fugue part, but even more boisterous (adding brass will do that). Home stretch now. Hang in there.
(11:18) Everyone lands in a slump. Is it possible that the orchestra themselves are sick of all the jolliness? It certainly sounds that way …
(11:51) But the woodwinds – far too optimistic for their own good – start perking everybody up again, and things start to move.
(12:32) Back to the Slow Movement Theme, still in its Disney on Ice incarnation.
(13:33) Okay, here we go. The big climax. Are you ready for it?
(13:47) And it’s the big Star Wars climax from Movement II, this time with the fugue underneath. (They call this brass playing a chorale, because you could imagine it being sung by a choir.) All right, I will admit, this bit is pretty cool, but was it really worth waiting 13 minutes for?
(14:35) A bit of mucking around, and we’re all finished.

There you go – in my books, Mahler’s second-most irritating finale. (Number one, of course, goes to the finale of the Mahler 7, but we’ll tackle that one another day.)

But what did you think?

5 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No. 5: Movement V

  1. Thought it was great. He certainly covered a range of emotions across the board from movement one through movement five. Listened to it probably a dozen times over the past week, across a couple orchestras, but mostly the Chailly version. (Even my 15 year old son is humming along with Movement I by now.)

    By the time we came to Movement V, I’d heard it lots of times, but it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable until I could find some spare time to split-screen my computer to watch the Spotify time counter at the same time I was reading your notes.

    Thanks for the notes on counterpoint. Now I have the word for the concept that I enjoy so much. My family enjoys musicals, and a family favorite is (admittedly campy) Shrek the Musical. During that show, there are three separate numbers where two or three characters are singing different melodies, from different perspectives, at the same time. It requires that I go into full “mom mode” to multi-task and pay attention to everything that’s being said at the same time. It’s exhausting for the brain, but also exhilarating.

    Looking forward to the next Mahler selection.

    Oh, one question about Movement V at (0:00)…what’s up with that muffled single note right out of the gate? It lasted for a second or two, then we were waiting another ten seconds for whatever was going to follow. Very clever of Mr. Mahler to keep me on the edge of my seat.

    1. Hi Laura, I think what you’ve observed in Shrek the Musical (which I haven’t personally listened to) certainly sounds like counterpoint. It became a common trick in operas, and then later in musicals, because it allows several characters to express what they’re doing at the same time.

      I’m not sure exactly what the thinking was with that opening note except that, like you said, the pause does provide a bit of drama. It clears the air from the string sound of the fourth movement, tells the audience that something else is about happen and calls everyone to attention. It especially works for dramatic effect if you hear it live.

  2. That was a good finale; agree with you on the Disney on Ice comment (despite not being familiar with that genre beyond ads for the events).

    I was a big fan of playing Canons on piano in my AMEB days – it’s a mix of the physical accomplishment of playing two different things at once, and the cleverness of the composer in mixing it together. I’m a bit surprised to hear something like that in an orchestral setting, but maybe that’s just my ignorance (again) shining through.

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