Mahler kept revising the orchestration of this work until his death. He conducted the first performance with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne on October 18, 1904. It is scored for quadruple winds, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, tympani, three other drums, metal and wood percussion, harp, and string choir.
He'd begun the Fifth Symphony at Maiernegg in 1901 -- writing the third, first and second movements in that order, after a death-obsessed song, "Der Tamboursg'sell," and the Kindertotenlieder cycle ("on the death of children"). After nearly bleeding to death the previous winter (from an intestinal hemorrhage), Mahler's symphonic orientation underwent a profound change. During his recovery he immersed himself in the complete works of Bach.
A new appreciation of counterpoint was born, but not yet a mastery of orchestral balances or effects -- as subsequent events were to prove. Beginning with No. 5, he applied this new passion (which he called "intensive counterpoint") to five purely instrumental symphonies without Wunderhorn associations. Like the Resurrection Second and the first version of No. 1 (with the Blumine slow movement later abandoned) Mahler cast his Fifth Symphony in five movements that fall naturally into three parts.
The first begins in C sharp minor with a funeral march, of measured tread and austere (Movement I). A sonata-form movement follows, marked "Stormily, with greatest vehemence" (Movement II), which shares themes as well as mood with the opening.
The second part (which Mahler composed first) is a scherzo: "Vigorously, not too fast" (Movement III) -- the symphony's shortest large section, but its longest single movement. This emphatically joyous, albeit manic movement puts forward D major as the work's focal key. Although its form has remained a topic of debate since 1904, rondo and sonata-form elements are both present.
Part Three begins with a seraphic Adagietto: "Very slowly" (Movement IV). This is indubitably related to the Rückert song Mahler composed in August 1901, "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" (I have become lost to the world...I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song). A Rondo-Finale: "Allegro giocoso, lively" (Movement V) concludes the symphony, although Mahler devised a form far removed from classic models. While sectional, in truth episodic, this too has elements of sonata form. To weld its diverse components into a unity he wrote four "fugal episodes," with a D major chorale just before the final Allegro molto.
Mahler's search for a new vocabulary caused him no end of orchestration problems. Before his death in 1911 he had made several versions, the original of which was published in 1904. C.F. Peters failed, however, to emend either mistakes or revisions in the first pocket score, although they re-engraved orchestral parts (at Mahler's expense) to include his first set of corrections. Not even Erwin Ratz's "first critical edition" of 1964 was the last word. Revisions Mahler made just before his terminal illness didn't come to light until the "second critical edition," by Karl Heinz Füssl, published just around 1989.