“Strange enough Mahler took note of me immediately; not only because of my face, which could be called beautiful at the time, but also because of my sharp, tense manner.  He looked at me through his glasses long and searchingly.”

  • Alma Mahler, on her first encounter with Gustav

If you have only heard one piece of Mahler’s music, it likely would have been this slow movement from the Fifth Symphony.  Scored for just strings and harp, it has garnered a life of its own as a separate piece.  It has been used in films, most famously in the Luchino Visconti film,  “Death in Venice.”  A number of first rate choreographers have used the music in their dance programs.  Leonard Bernstein played it at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy.  Bernstein played it in a memorial for his mentor Serge Koussevitzky.  When the news of Bernstein’s own death traveled in the fall of 1990, orchestras around the world played this music in his honor and memory.


It is easy to think of the great solemnity of this music as another vision of death, in the middle of this Mahler-led journey through an emotional grieving process.  We started with a funeral march, of all the dark places to begin things.  However, the origins of this Adagietto may be quite different than a lamenting dirge.  This might actually had been a love song without words, or at least one of the most successful pick up lines in human history.

Alma Schindler Mahler
Alma Schindler Mahler

Gustav met the then 22 year old Alma at a party in November of 1901, when he was halfway through the composition of the Fifth Symphony.  She was 19 years younger than him, beautiful, smart and musically talented.  She engaged the already esteemed conductor in a conversation about opera, and held up her point of view with the bravura of youth.  As the story goes, shortly after this meeting, Gustav sent Alma the manuscript of the Adagietto without any further explanation.  The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Fifth Symphony, wrote: “This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler’s declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).” Mengelberg’s own description of the Adagietto was “love, a love comes into his life.”  Some girls get flowers and candy, other apparently get Adagiettos.

As a profession of love, the Adagietto was very successful.  Gustav and Alma were engaged only one month after their first meeting.  Four months after that dinner party, the two were married and Alma was already pregnant at the time.

So how does this love music get turned into a lament, a dirge associated with loss and funerals?  Admittedly, Gustav is giving us an outpouring of love of the “I would die for you” sort. But how does one get from that to music for a memorial service?  The metamorphosis is accomplished with a change of tempo.  Mahler is recorded as having performed the Adagietto in a little over 7 minutes.  Mengelberg and the great Bruno Walter, who both knew Mahler, performed this movement in 7 ½ to 8 minutes.  Walter also had attended the premiere of the work with Mahler conducting, so he would have known the composer’s intentions  In the years since Mahler’s death, conductors have performed the Adagietto at slower and slower tempos.  In my collection of recordings, Solti clocks in at 9:51, Bernstein at 11:02, and Karajan at 11:53.  Some performances have stretched the fourth movement to 13 and 14 minutes long.  At that speed, we definitely get a vibe that is more lament than love. It is a testament to the genius of the music, that it can withstand such varied interpretations.

Compare the two performances here.  First Bruno Walter, with an 8 minute Adagietto.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement IV, Adagietto, Bruno Walter conducting

And now, Leonard Bernstein in the performance with the Vienna Philharmonic we have been working with in these posts.  Here Lenny gets it done in 12 minutes.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, movement IV, Adagietto, Leonard Bernstein conducting

Gustav himself is partly to blame for the confusion of tempos.  He has titled the movement “Adagietto” (less slow than Adagio), and then marked the first measure “Sehr langsam” (very slowly).  You are free to prefer whatever rendition you choose.  Currently, I tend to think I would conduct the Adagietto at a tempo closer to the Bruno Walter version (no disrespect to Lenny).  I have three reasons for my line of thinking.  First, it is closer to how we think Mahler performed it, and the composer’s intentions should hold a fair amount of weight.

Secondly, Medgelberg wrote a short poem into his conducting score, which are the words to go with our “song without words” melody in the first violins.

Wie ich dich liebe,
Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen
Nur mein Sehnsucht
kann ich Dir klagen
Und meine Liebe
Meine Wonne!

How I love you,
You, my sun,
I cannot find words to tell you.
Only my longing
Can I lament to you,
And my love,
My delight!

That clearly puts me in the love song camp of the slightly quicker tempo.  The third bit of evidence to support the love song argument is a quote of music from Wagner.  In the middle section of the Adagietto, Mahler includes a motif from Tristan und Isolde, and then Mahlerizes it a few times.  Tristan und Isolde is a great love story, and the motif Gustav borrowed is known as the “gaze” motive, sort of a “love at first sight” moment in the opera.  Alma was a knowledgeable enough musician to have gotten the reference and understood the hint.  Or maybe it was some sort of test, whereby,if she was clever enough to get it, she was worthy of Mahler’s attention.

There are hundred of recording of the Adagietto, both as the fourth movement of the symphony and as a stand alone piece.  I have collected five performances in a Spotify playlist, with performance times ranging from 7:39 to a stretched-out 16:48!  I think an 8 or 9 minute version keeps the balance of the movement within the symphony as a whole, but please enjoy your favorite from beginning to end.

Mahler, Symphony No. 5, Adagietto   Spotify Playlist

Next up, finally, the fifth movement Rondo-Finale


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