“A symphony must be like the world,” Mahler said, “It must embrace everything.” Mahler’s vast symphonies draw on all kinds of music, from the hymns of the Renaissance mass through to the marching songs of rural Austrian soldiers. Composed at the turn of the century, the Fifth Symphony looks forward while also looking back at the great symphonies of composers that came before.

Principal Trumpet Michael Fedyshyn unveils some hidden connections within Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, the featured work on the final concert of the 18-19 Season. Find Michael’s responses to our interview below, and be sure to see the symphony performed live in the Great Hall on May 11.


For you, what qualities of Mahler’s music are most distinctive?

Mahler was an interesting character. He was an exacting conductor, with a wry sense of humour, and a tremendous composer with a deep understanding of the human condition. His life was full of contrasts and dichotomies: music director during the main season, composer during the summer; Jewish, yet converted to Catholicism; looking back to the greats before him like Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, yet aware that it would be 50 years before his music would really be appreciated. His music reflects this and runs the gamut, from dark fatalist brooding to uplifting, transcendent triumph with lots of sharp irony for good measure.

For me if there is one composer who comes closest to capturing the whole of human experience in music it is Mahler. He knew from conducting opera what an orchestra was really capable of in terms of colour, so his writing for the trumpet (and really all the instruments in the orchestra) is very idiomatic. Somehow he knew exactly what would sound right for each voice. And while he typically used large forces in his compositions, there are many sections where only 5 to 10 players are used in a transparent and almost fragile “chamber music” fashion.


What were your first experiences listening to Mahler’s music?

My first experience of Mahler’s music was in high school, listening to recordings taken out from the library. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I remember thinking that this was what I imagined music could be like, it was so vivid. To realize that someone had not only written it, but that it was almost 100 years before was shocking.


Have you been a part of a particular performance of Mahler’s music that stands out for you?

I’ve played almost all the Mahler symphonies and have had many noteworthy and powerful experiences performing Mahler since first hearing it as a teenager. As a member of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, I played Mahler’s First Symphony on tour in Europe, which I still remember fondly. Just recently I performed Mahler’s Second Symphony with the TSO, and the Urlicht movement never fails to affect me deeply. Mahler 5 is, of course, very special for trumpet players. After No. 2 and No. 4, this will be the third Mahler symphony I’ll perform with the HPO. I expect it will be yet another powerful experience of Mahler I can add to my list.


The symphony opens with a lone trumpet call that returns through the first movement. How do you interpret this opening and the reoccurring instances of the theme?

Living in Vienna, Mahler was very conscious of the musical history there, and very aware of Beethoven, who towered over everything that came after. Brahms was so intimidated by Beethoven’s symphonic output that he was quite along in his career before publishing his first symphony. Mahler was rather more driven, and when it comes to his Fifth Symphony, he actually quotes Beethoven.

The opening theme that Mahler uses is directly influenced by Beethoven. The “fate” motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is inverted and put into C# minor, but the rhythm is the same and the first interval is still a minor third. A more direct quote of the theme can be heard in the second movement in a number of spots if you listen for the inner trumpet parts–you’ll hear that famous “ta-ta-ta-tah” a few times. Mahler gives this opening motif to the trumpet, in the low register, an interesting choice of orchestration. Similar to the low “fate” theme for trumpet and cello in Bizet’s opera Carmen, Mahler knew that trumpet in the low register is menacing and foreboding and this matches his score indication that the opening should be in a measured pace, strict, like a funeral cortege. One famous trumpet player likes to put the words “terrible news” to this figure and tries to call to mind a funeral during a cold rainy day in Vienna. When the music changes, we hear the wail of despair against fate, against this “terrible news”, but the triplets always come back, even to the end of the movement in the quiet muted trumpet and then the flute.



What other moments in the symphony should we listen for from the brass section?

The second movement and the third movement scherzo feature the brass prominently, with quiet solos in all of the brass sprinkled throughout. Those are some of my favourite moments actually, when Mahler asks us to play sweetly or distantly. Mahler often uses pastoral imagery in his music, so you’ll hear wonderful horn calls and echoes that are meant to evoke being out in the countryside. Interestingly, he mixes two dances in the scherzo, a ländler and a waltz–again the dichotomy in Mahler as the ländler represents the country and the waltz the city. In the final movement you’ll notice an interesting effect Mahler often asks for: bells up! During certain sections Mahler indicates in our parts that we should hold our bells up to accentuate the sound, so look for the trumpets and especially the horns to lift their bells quite high, which livens up the sound considerably. The winds get to do it too.

French horn players in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra perform a passage of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with bells up. Photo from Sarah Willis, Twitter.


If you had to describe Mahler’s Fifth in one word or phrase, what would it be?

I’m not sure I can come up with one word or phrase that can do it, there’s so much in there. There is a story I like about Mahler that gives an idea of the scope and the intent of his music: While Mahler was composing his Third Symphony, famed conductor Bruno Walter went to visit him in his summer cabin near Steinbach, Austria (think The Sound of Music landscape). While they were out on a walk, Walter stopped to admire the mountain view and Mahler said, “No need to look. I have composed all this already.” In other words, I guess I’d be happy to play Mahler every week!


What a composer, and what a symphony! Hear Michael open this great work on Mahler’s Fifth taking place Saturday, May 11, 2019 at FirstOntario Concert Hall. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to hear this music live in Hamilton. Be sure to read our interviews with Principal Horn Jessie Brooks and violist Brandon Chui to learn more about the work.