WASO Principal Conductor Asher Fisch discusses Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, in the lead up to conducting the famous work with the Orchestra this week.

It is a very romantic idea to combine the themes of love and death in one work. Of course the greatest example of all is Tristan and Isolde which is a culmination of the two themes in what is called the ‘death love’ or ‘the love of death’, so the idea of love through death.

So of course all the composers after Wagner were really influenced by this idea; Strauss with Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), which is a similar approach to the same theme, and Mahler. But Mahler separates, he doesn’t combine the two together.


The first movement of the Symphony is definitely a funeral march. There’s no two ways to look at it; it’s a funeral march. But it’s more picturesque, a visual description of what happens when somebody dies, and the music that is associated with it which was so known to him from his childhood; the marches that the local band used to play when there was a funeral.

And of course, the Adagietto is a letter of love. They don’t combine; we don’t hear excerpts from the first movement in the Adagietto as he does in other symphonies, so I think for Mahler, unlike for Wagner and Strauss, there’s no search to fuse the two things together. I think it’s more the juxtaposition of “this is death” and “this is love”, and the end is neither nor.

And so the last movement is about life, about the joy that life brings us. Mahler himself wrote about the last movement that he got the idea by walking in the Prater in Vienna, which is the big park with the playground and the carousel, and that’s where people went to enjoy themselves and have fun on a Sunday afternoon, so it’s really visceral. The last movement is about life.


Asher conducts Mahler’s Fifth Symphony alongside Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 Prague on Friday 2nd July. Tickets are available here.

Asher Fisch appears courtesy of Wesfarmers Arts.