Mahler started to write his Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp Minor in 1901 and completed it in the following year. It premiered in Cologne on October 18, 1904, with the composer conducting the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne. The first edition was published in Leipzig, also in 1904. The second edition with Mahler’s revisions came out in 1905. Mahler made further alterations in 1911, but the edition that reflects his final thoughts on the symphony only appeared posthumously in 1964, approximately half a century after the composer’s death. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is the first symphony since his Symphony No. 1 not to include any vocal parts (his Symphonies between Nos. 2 and 4 call for singers). The piece requires a large orchestra, scoring for four flutes (all parts doubling piccolo), three oboes (the third doubling English horn), three clarinets (the third also D and bass clarinets), three bassoons (the third doubling contrabassoon), six French horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and other percussion instruments, harp, and strings.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is divided into three parts, the first comprises the first two movements, the second, the third movement, and the third, the last two movements. The opening movement is titled “Trauermarsch (Funeral March).” It begins with a fourteen-measure-long passage played almost entirely by solo trumpet with a pickup eighth-note triplet, which is often performed like a military fanfare. Mahler seems to have had a difficult time bringing himself to be completely satisfied with this movement, reworking the orchestration more than once after the work premiered. Mahler keeps the somber mood set by the opening trumpet fanfare in much of the movement, except for those places where calm and soothing themes and melodic figures appear. The second movement, marked Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moves stormily with great vehemence), is energetic and fast. Here, elements of the opening movement are incorporated to achieve a tight relationship between the two movements of the first part of the symphony. Mahler borrows, for instance, the figure with a large leap that symbolizes a sigh in the first movement to form thematic materials in the second movement.
The second part (the third movement) is a scherzo, another fast movement. The tempo here, however, should not be taken too fast, as the composer instructs so in the score. The sonority of the movement is entirely different from that of the previous section. Written in the key of D major, the music is much brighter and less intense. It opens with a brief fanfare played by French horns in unison. Unlike the trumpet solo at the beginning of the symphony, it sounds as if it is a horn call announcing the arrival of the spring. It is followed by the obligato (solo) French horn, which plays an important role throughout the movement.
The final part of the symphony begins with a slow and calm movement that calls only for strings and harp. The main theme here, accompanied by harp arpeggios, is written in a peaceful but melancholic manner. The movement itself is brief, functioning as an introduction to the finale. The last movement opens with a solo French horn note, joined by lively melodies played by a bassoon, a clarinet, and an oboe. The finale is in D major, creating a sharp contrast to the C-sharp minor of the first movement. The bright sonority of the D major brings the piece to a magnificent end.