Sunday, 30 April 2017

Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony (1902)


The 2nd (and main) theme of the BBC Phil's Transfigured Night was Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Mahler objected to it being described in any key: "From the order of the movements (where the usual first movement now comes second) it is difficult to speak of a key for the 'whole Symphony', and to avoid misunderstandings the key should best be omitted."


Mahler wrote his fifth symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902. In February 1901 Mahler had suffered a sudden major haemorrhage and his doctor later told him that he had come within an hour of bleeding to death. The composer spent quite a while recuperating. He moved into his own lakeside villa in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia in June 1901. Mahler was delighted with his newfound status as the owner of a grand villa. According to friends, he could hardly believe how far he had come from his humble beginnings. He was director of the Vienna Court Opera and the principal conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. His own music was also starting to be successful. Later in 1901 he met Alma Schindler and by the time he returned to his summer villa in summer 1902, they were married and she was expecting their first child. I think this is reflected in the music. It is fundamentally optimistic in its grandeur.

The Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan once said that when you hear the symphony, "you forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath."


The Adagietto is said to represent Mahler's love song to his wife Alma. According to a letter she wrote to Willem Mengelberg, the composer left a small poem:

How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing
and my love, my bliss!

The Adagietto features prominently in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 Italian- French film Death in Venice. The clip shows the final scene with a dying Dirk Bogarde, looking wistfully on as his youth disappears enigmatically into the blurring sea, striving for Avalon against the waves. There is something very utopian about this music, which delights in getting caught up in the fronds of reality.


After its premiere, Mahler is reported to have said, "Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death."  

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