You know there is something truly apocalyptic about Mahler’s Symphony No.
5 when a deeply menacing funeral march starts up in the trumpets in the darkest
key of C sharp minor. When he launched this work on an unsuspecting Vienna in
1904, audiences were at a loss to explain it, perhaps the more so because after
this foreboding opening movement comes a second of even greater intensity and
escalating fury – the direction is Stürmisch bewegt. Mit größter Vehemenz,
that is ‘stormily, with utmost vehemence’.
It really does seem to be that in the Fifth, Mahler is
prophesying the end of the world. And in a way he was. This was fin-de-siècle
Vienna, a city that was a hotbed of rebellious artists and intellectuals, many
of them Jewish. Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka scandalised
gallery-goers with their decadent, hyper-sexualised artwork, and writers like
Hugo von Hofmannsthal gathered in coffeehouses to hatch their anxiety-fed,
apocalyptic visions of the future.
Rubbing shoulders with these figures was Mahler. An outcast
in Vienna due to his Moravian background but used to outraging audiences with
his enormous symphonies, he had an instinct for the subversive and once
declared, “Everything I write is too strange and new for the listeners, who
cannot find a bridge to me.”
But in approaching a work as complex as the Fifth Symphony,
there are no easy answers. Its opening Trauermarsch commemorates no
fallen figure and defies any other obvious literal interpretation.
Instead, it takes a conductor to see the big picture.
Nicholas Carter, who conducts the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Fifth
for the Adelaide Festival, says the work expresses universals but stems from
the composer’s personal experiences of how death surrounded him starting in his
childhood. Eight of his 11 siblings died at an early age, and as an adult
Mahler would suffer great grief at the loss of his first-born daughter, Maria,
to scarlet fever at age four.
“Death always followed Mahler, which gave him such a
fatalistic world view,” says Carter. “He had siblings die, his own children
die, so despite his innate drive to create, to compose, his mind was seemingly
always menaced by the pall of death. Interestingly with the fifth, it’s the
first of his symphonies since the first not to have any human voices. No text.
This lends the work an extra layer of abstractness. ‘Meaning’ is of course
obfuscated. So in a seemingly successful and relatively happy time in his life,
where he’d recently taken over the reins at the Vienna Staatsoper, what drove
him to write a symphony which opens with this almighty and cathartic
existential scream? Despite the best efforts of so many, this remains a largely
Carter insists that Mahler’s death fixation, as exhibited
in many of his works and particularly in the Fifth Symphony’s Trauermarsch,
should not blinker our view of the entirety of vision. Later movements in this work
take us to very different places.
“Of course he takes us on a remarkable journey from this
incredibly dark place through the heady opulence of Fin-de-siècle Vienna,
namely the dizzying Scherzo, via the tender Adagietto – surely a
most poignant love letter to Alma, his soon-to-be wife – all the way to a
life-affirming Finale, a homage to Bach replete with glorious polyphony and
radiant chorales,” he explains.
“So, no doubt inspired by those magnificent examples of
‘darkness to light’ symphonies by Beethoven, namely the Fifth and Ninth,
Mahler’s Fifth similarly guides us through moments of trauma to moments of
giddying bliss and transcendent beauty ultimately to see the soul triumph over
all of life’s perils.”
Carter suggests that journey, that struggle going from
despair to redemption, is key to fully understanding the Fifth. The work is not
all about gloom and terror as expressed in its first two movements. Finally, it
is about ecstatic joy when, in a mighty show of exuberant contrapuntal
splendour, its rondo fifth movement sweeps all those former sentiments aside.
Fundamentally he believes this symphony projects overpowering optimism.
This will be the first time Carter has conducted the Fifth.
To date, he has done the First, Fourth, and the composer’s later song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. “But my first
foray into this symphony,” he notes. “What’s it like to conduct? Ask me in a
It happens that just 10 minutes away where he lives in
Klagenfurt, southern Austria, exists the hut in which Mahler actually composed
his Fifth Symphony. A tiny stucco-walled structure tucked away in the nearby
woods, it contains various mementos from the composer’s life including
autographed scores, photographs and letters. What inspiration to carry with him
back to Adelaide when he conducts this work here.
Busier than ever, Carter has done a lot since he last
appeared with the ASO in July 2019. He made his debut at the Vienna Staatsoper
over New Year with four performances of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. This was, he recounts, “an amazing experience to
have conducted that magical orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic. It’s a theatre
that breathes tradition. To work with such an orchestra with such an unbroken
connection to so many of the great masters, not least Mahler, is something to
Carter has also directed many other productions in
Klagenfurt, including Wagner’s Tannhäuser,
Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and
Massenet’s Cendrillon, as well as a
full plate of orchestral concerts with the Kärntner Sinfonieorchester.
His Adelaide Festival program will feature the much
acclaimed violin concerto Concentric
Paths by Thomas Adès. He may not be well known in this country, but Adès is
one of the most performed contemporary classical composers in his native UK and
Europe and this is a work Carter says he has loved for years.
“I had the great pleasure of working with Thomas Adès about
10 years ago when I was the assistant conductor of the Sydney Symphony. He came
to conduct his Asyla, and I worked closely with him on the preparation.
I’ve been fascinated by his music for such a long time. The Violin Concerto is
a piece of only 20 minutes, but possessing such spine-tingling iridescence. As
the title suggests, the music takes us on journeys of sometimes conflicting
trajectories, with violin and orchestra at times at odds, at times in perfect
consort with each other.”
was especially written for Anthony Marwood, and it is a major coup that he will
be joining Carter for this ASO performance.
“Anthony is indeed one of the finest musicians of the generation and someone so bound to this piece,” Carter adds with characteristic modesty “I’m looking forward to studying the piece with him and taking my understanding of it to a completely different level.”
Update (14 March, 11am): The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has now cancelled its Adelaide Festival Mahler 5 / Adès program on 14 and 15 March, while also foreshadowing its upcoming performance with Ben Folds will also be cancelled. “The well-being of ASO musicians, staff and audiences is our highest priority, and we continue to work with our presenting and venue partners to ensure the health and safety of the wider ASO community,” ASO management said in a statement.
14 – 15 March
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