Jean-François Lesueur, Berlioz’s first teacher, said that all music is Program Music and that the object of all music was imitation. For him — and for the many others who share his view — even the most “absolute” music (a Haydn string quartet, for example) carries with it a narrative, coming from a specific time and place and telling a cogent story. Conductor-writer Kenneth Woods articulates it this way: “The point of abstraction in instrumental music is not to do away with narrative, but to make narrative universal, to let narrative speak with equal power to all.“

A narrative may not be explicit therefore (as in, say, a Strauss tone poem), but will tell a psychic or emotional story nevertheless. Plainly, a symphony may not express its meaning in language, but will carry a message, frequently a profound message, in a way that explicit narrative can’t.

Gustav Mahler constantly wrestled with ideas of “meaning” in his work, writing programs and withdrawing them, composing supremely dramatic music while at the same time conflicted about revealing the drama’s plot. Something of great import is happening, but he leaves it to the listener to determine what it is.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is an ideal work for examining the shifting, elusive concepts of “program” and “abstract” music. The fifth is a turning point in the composer’s career, in which he breaks from the dominance of vocal music as expressed in the previous three symphonies, invests himself more fully in counterpoint, and sets course for more abstract, purely orchestral expression as seen in his Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7.

Guest conductor Donald Runnicles will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in concerts Oct. 9, 10 and 12.

Yet … there’s a story here. We begin with a despairing funeral march and end in a paroxysm of joy. As in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (and countless other examples), adversity is overcome. Yet how? What exactly is Mahler saying about adversity and the human condition?

As he began work on the fifth in summer 1901, he was enjoying one of the happiest periods of his life. He was a newlywed, freshly installed as the proud owner of a grand estate, director of the Vienna Court Opera and the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, and filled with transformative musical ideas that would prove a break from his earlier style. At the same time, he had just had a stark reminder of his mortality, a severe intestinal hemorrhage earlier that year that left him an hour from dying. His thoughts: “While I was hovering on the border between life and death, I wondered whether it would not be better to have done with it at once, since everyone must come to that in the end. Besides, the prospect of death did not frighten me in the least … and to return to life seemed almost a nuisance.”

What an unusual state of mind. Enjoying the supreme pleasures of married life and worldly success, while at the same time being violently reminded that such pleasures are ultimately transitory. Love and death. No trivial themes for him.

The symphony begins in despair, and subsequently moves us movement by movement (roughly speaking) through anger, repose, love and joy. It seems simple enough. We all face obstacles, but we can overcome them and find happiness in spite of it all. Right?

Let’s look at the funeral march more closely. Commentators have interpreted it in a hundred different ways — a fight between oppressed and oppressor, a meditation on death, a struggle between darkness and light. Regardless of the interpretation, we have a bleak landscape before us, and out of that sheer desolation, the emotional plotline begins. Woods, once again: “By the end of Part I, in which hope is so mercilessly negated and extinguished, Mahler has said that death is final, and the struggle is over. It seems to me that the abyss one is left in at the end of Part I is so powerful, so all consuming, that the symphony fails to cohere unless Parts II and III are not simply joyful celebrations, but somehow represent a coming-to-terms with the tragedy of Part I that culminates in a return to life. … I feel like the entire success of the piece depends on … forg[ing] a logical connection between Part I and Parts II and III. We can’t simply wake up, cozy and happy and think, “It was all only a dream! Honey, will you get me a coffee?”

The power of the movement is such that Mahler firmly establishes death as the great constant, and any subsequent joy is in light of this inescapable fact. We don’t escape death, and there is no triumph over it, except by going through it. Musicologist Jody Nagle puts it this way: “The philosophical statement of the symphony is not simply that tragedy will eventually yield to victory, but rather that tragedy must occur and must be accepted before any true victory is possible.”

Is that closer to Mahler’s implicit meaning here? Nagle suggests a clue may be found in how Mahler uses key signatures throughout. The funeral march starts the symphony off in the key of C-sharp minor, and the glorious finale leads us home in the key of D major. It is easy to read that half-step up with the same naiveté we looked at the emotional plotline earlier. We endure tragedy, and then conquer it. We start “low” in a minor key, and ascend into a major key.

Nagle would suggest otherwise, that we did not get to the higher key by ascending a half-tone, but by descending by thirds throughout the work. “The descent by 3rds, rather than a mere ascent of a semitone, from C-sharp to D symbolizes Mahler’s belief that tragedy does not simply eventually lead to victory but, rather, that tragedy is necessary for any meaningful victory, that descending into the deepest sorrow and pain are prerequisites for being able to truly experience the deepest joy, and finally perhaps, that even death is necessary for life to have any real fulfillment or any real meaning.”

The joy comes about through sorrow, transfiguration only happens through death. Per ardua ad astra (“Through struggle to the stars”). Not an explicit message, not programmatic in the strictest sense, but a reasonable interpretation given the events Mahler had experienced at the time, his musical development, and his lifelong fascination with themes of mortality and spiritual transformation.

Peter Lefevre, based in California, writes about music for the Orange County Register and Opera News.

PHOTO: Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” (1971), starring Dirk Bogarde as the composer Aschenbach, borrows the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as a recurring theme on the film’s soundtrack.