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By Jason Sundram

Adagietto from Symphony #5 (1904)



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Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–June 18, 1911)

Austrian conductor and composer of symphonies and song cycles, Mahler is remembered equally for both. As head of the Vienna Opera and one of the most important and influential conductors of the period, Mahler significantly upgraded the level of performance for vocalists and instrumentalists, and expanded the standard repertoire. He also ruled with an iron fist, helping to create the image of conductor-as-dictator, which has only recently begun to change. As a composer, Mahler drew heavily on Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and (to a lesser degree) Bruckner for inspiration. Mahler also supported the Second Viennese School of composers, who in turn supported him.

Mahler was known for the length, depth, and painful emotions of his works: his music not only reflects his experience of life, but also analyzes and recreates it. Aaron Copland said that “the difference between Beethoven and Mahler is the difference between watching a great man walk down the street and watching a great actor play the part of a great man walking down the street.” By this, he meant that even though both composers conveyed greatness, Mahler was insecure in his, and accordingly used bigger gestures to convey it, whereas Beethoven was supremely confident in his own mastery.

Mahler met Alma, his wife to be, on November 7th 1901 and composed his fifth symphony between 1901 and 1902. Its middle movement, the Adagietto, unfolds slowly and tenderly. Its impassioned notes center on Mahlerís feelings and longings for Alma. His friend Mengelbergís score of the symphony attests to this: “[The] Adagietto was Gustav Mahlerís Declaration of Love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this manuscript without further explanation. She understood and said that he should come [home to see her]! Both have told me this."

Mahler conducted the Adagiettoís premiere in 1904, although he continued to revise details of the orchestration until 1909. Fellow composer Ernst Krenek (1900—1987) said of this symphony “it is a piece with which Mahler enters upon territory of the ‘new music’ of the twentieth century".

Indeed, the Adagietto crystallizes the essence of Mahlerís heartbreaking melodic style.