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The Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony

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The Adagietto1 from Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 5 is one of the best-known, least-understood and most abused pieces in the entire canon of classical music. In its rightful place, it is the fourth movement of one of the great symphonies of the late Romantic period, composed in 1902 and given its first performance in Cologne in October 1904.

The tender melody of the Adagietto - the 'Big Tune' - is in the true Romantic tradition, and that is the main seed of its misfortune. It has consistently been torn from its parent to be paraded, parodied and distorted by all and sundry. It appears consistently in music polls and on compilation CDs of the World's Greatest/Best Loved/Favourite/Most Relaxing Music/Love Themes/Adagios [sic], Volume 27 variety.

There is of course nothing at all wrong with musical extracts becoming far better known by the listening public than the works from which they originate. What, however, is inexcusable is to distort that extract until it is dripping in saccharine-sweet sentimentality. In the case of Mahler's little Adagietto, the two principal sins committed are excessive slowing of the overall tempo, and the imposition of unmarked ritenuti2 in order to wring more emotion from the music.

So How Long Should the Piece Last?

As is the case with all of Mahler's music, the score does not bear a metronome indication, so it is ultimately a matter for interpretation by the conductor. However, Mahler was fastidious in annotating his scores with copious instructions as to variations in tempo and other performance directions - where ritenuti are required they are marked, as are the subsequent returns to the prior tempi. Thus for example, bar two is marked molto rit3, whilst bar three is marked a tempo4.

We do not know how long the Adagietto movement took at its première, but we do know that at its second performance in Hamburg in 1905, conducted by Mahler, it lasted about nine minutes. This does not, however, set an automatic yardstick by which to judge all other performances. It is only after a bit of experimentation with different tempi that what does, and does not work, emerges. Also Mahler had a keen ear for the acoustics of a concert hall and would adjust the orchestration at the rehearsals to suit, in the same way that conductors today hopefully take care to balance their orchestra to suit the hall in which they are playing. It is therefore reasonable to assume that variations in tempi to gain best advantage of the acoustic would be made. It is interesting to note that at a performance in St Petersburg in 1907, again conducted by Mahler, the movement was timed at about seven minutes, two minutes shorter than the 1905 performance.

Two conductors who were close to Mahler and who both knew his working practices very well were Willem Mengelberg5 and Bruno Walter6. Both men later made recordings of the symphony, and we therefore have their respective timings:

  • Willem Mengelberg (19267) - 7 minutes, (1939) - 8' 20"
  • Bruno Walter (1938) - almost 8 minutes, (1947) - 7' 40"

More recently, we have recordings made by, amongst others:

  • Simon Rattle (2002) - 9' 30"
  • John Barbirolli (1969) - 9' 50"
  • Riccardo Chailly (1997) - 10' 15"
  • Bernard Haitink (1970) - 10' 30"
  • Leonard Bernstein (1987) - 11'
  • Herbert von Karajan (1973) - 11' 50"

However, the longest recorded performance known to this Researcher is Bernard Haitink's second recording, made in 1988, at a massive 13' 55". This gives us a range of timings of between seven and almost 14 minutes.

Whatever the timings, there is no absolute right and wrong speed. All tempi must be judged in the context of the whole work. Listening today, the performances at seven to eight minutes do seem rather fast, while those between about 9½ and 10½ minutes are the most comfortable. When considering the faster versus slower balance, it is worth a reminder at this point that an Adagietto is defined, as in footnote one below, as being a tempo a little quicker than an Adagio. It has been noted by other writers on Mahler that the Adagietto is in effect a song without words, and given that, the tempo should be such that a singer could 'sing' it wordlessly quite naturally.

By Arrangement

The Adagietto, as played in the symphony, is scored simply for string orchestra and harp. For many composers writing this piece, the string orchestra alone would be sufficient, but Mahler adds the harp and in doing so, transforms it into something quite exquisite. However, over the years recordings of it have appeared arranged for solo piano, piano and orchestra, organ, synthesizer, viola and harp, harp and organ, harp and cellos, voice and orchestra, chamber choir, plectrum orchestra, flute and dance orchestra and jazz ensemble, to name but a dozen.

Mahler's symphonic movement of course is not the only piece to have been treated in this way - Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings comes readily to mind. That lovely little piece first saw the light of day in 1936, when Barber wrote it as the second movement of the String Quartet No 1, Op11. In 1938, the composer himself arranged the movement for string orchestra and it quickly became very popular. Like Mahler's Adagietto, Barber's Adagio also appears on those ubiquitous compilation CDs, and has been arranged for several alternative ensembles.

To balance the historical record, it must be acknowledged that Mahler himself once performed the Adagietto in isolation from its symphony, as part of a concert he conducted in Rome on 1 April, 1907, at which the principal work played was Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Is it a Love Theme?

The nature of the principal theme of the Adagietto readily lends itself to being considered as such. Willem Mengelberg claimed that both Mahler and his wife Alma had told him privately that it had been composed as a love token for her. Mengelberg is normally a reliable source for biographers, but nowhere in Alma Mahler's memoirs does she make any reference to this. This is odd, since despite her well-recognised lapses in accuracy, she was fiercely proud of the pieces that Mahler did write for her, such as the song 'Liebst Du um Schönheit', composed in the same summer as the Adagietto.

He left the newly-finished composition in a piano score of Richard Wagner's opera Die Walküre, expecting her to find it the next day, as she was playing from it regularly that summer. However, as is often the way with best-laid plans, she did not pick up the score for some time. Eventually, unable to wait any longer, Mahler handed the score to her and she found the gift as soon as she opened the book. Straight away, they sat down together at the piano and played it repeatedly - Alma was overjoyed. Later, after Mahler's death, she kept the manuscript on the wall of her New York apartment. Could it be that Mengelberg either misunderstood what he was told, or simply confused the two pieces?

Death in Venice

The Adagietto was played in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy in June 1968, but probably its highest profile use was by the film director Luchino Visconti in his 1971 film version of Thomas Mann's novella, Death in Venice. In the film, the Adagietto's yearning theme is used as a recurring background to Mann's story of the love of a middle-aged man, Gustav von Aschenbach, for a young Polish boy, Tadzio. He sees and becomes obsessed by Tadzio while holidaying in Venice8. Despite learning of an outbreak of cholera in the city, which the authorities are trying to hush up, the man stays in order to continue observing the young boy. Inevitably, he contracts the disease and dies.

The actor Dirk Bogarde, who played the role of von Aschenbach in the film, is said to have based his appearance on that of Gustav Mahler, although it would have to have been when Mahler was in his early thirties, much younger than von Aschenbach at the time of the story.

Mahler's music has become firmly wedded to that film, in much the same way that the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 in C major, K467, has with the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan, and the beginning of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra with Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Back in its Place

In the Fifth symphony, the Adagietto is followed by the concluding Rondo-Finale movement. At the end of the Adagietto, the score bears the instruction attacca Rondo-Finale, indicating that the next movement is to be started without a pause - in effect a prelude to it. It is a feature of the symphony that fragments from the first movement re-appear in the second; and fragments of the fourth movement, the Adagietto, re-appear in the fifth, the Rondo-Finale. Only in the Rondo-Finale, when we hear the theme of the Adagietto again, at a much faster tempo and in its correct context, does its true character become apparent.

It actually re-appears three times as contrast to the main Rondo material; on the first occasion, it is quoted at length and sounds rather jolly. At the subsequent appearances, it becomes more edgy and frenetic, a parody of its former self. Indeed this is the real point - Mahler is progressively parodying himself, or to be precise his own work, and in doing so cocking a snook at the musical critics. Right at the start of the fifth movement, Mahler gives us a clue to this, by quoting from one of his own Wunderhorn songs9. This little song tells the story of a singing contest between a cuckoo and a nightingale, the two contenders being judged by a donkey (the musical critics), who of course declares the cuckoo to be the winner.

Is it likely that Mahler would have used a theme written as a love token for his wife in this way? It does not seem plausible.

1Italian: Literally 'a little Adagio', indicating a tempo just a little quicker than an Adagio - the term Adagio itself meaning 'at a slow pace'.2Ritenuto is Italian meaning held back; therefore slower, but applied immediately, not gradually.3Italian: Much held back.4Italian: To tempo.5Conductor of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1895 to 1945.6Worked with Mahler at both the Hamburg and Vienna opera houses.7The first ever recording of the symphony.8Eagle-eyed viewers of the film can look out for television aerials on the rooftops of the Venetian houses.9'Lob des hohen Verstandes' (In Praise of Lofty Intellect), from the collection of songs entitled 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' (Youth's Magic Horn).

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