Work: Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor: 4th movement, Adagietto
About This Work
After conducting Mozart's Die Zauberflöte at the Vienna Court Opera on the night of February 24, 1901, Gustav Mahler almost died. He suffered a severe internal hemorrhage and lost a third of his blood. Although Mahler had seen ten of his
brothers and sisters die, had seen both his parents die, and had written a funeral march into every work he had so far composed except the Fourth Symphony, death, his own death, had never seemed quite real to him before that night. Nor would it be too much to say that the experience changed his life.
That summer was the most prolific he had as a composer: eight songs plus the first two parts of the Fifth Symphony. Almost all the songs were sad; indeed, three of them would become part of his cycle of songs called the Kindertotenlieder. And the music for the Fifth was predominantly somber: a severe and anguished Funeral March in C sharp minor, a nearly nihilistic Allegro in A minor, and a D major Scherzo with a pizzicato void at its center. But, as yet, Mahler had no idea how the Fifth should conclude.
The conclusion of the Fifth came from out of nowhere. Invited on November 7 to dine at a friend's home, he met the "most beautiful girl in Vienna," Alma Schindler. She was 22 to his 41, vivacious and gregarious to his introverted and isolated. She had by this time already had as suitors Max Burckhard, the director of the Imperial Theater, and Gustav Klimt, the leader of the group of avant-garde artists known as the Secession, and was currently involved with the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. She was brilliant, beautiful, and young, and Mahler fell almost instantly in love with her.
Within two months, they were engaged. At some point during that time, Mahler composed the movement that was to become the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony and sent it to Alma as a sort of musical love letter. She immediately understood: after all, it included not only a quotation from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, but also a passionate text by Mahler himself. But the Adagietto needs no quotation from Wagner nor any text to make its meaning clear. In simple three-part form and set for string orchestra and harp, its opening melody is full of endless and ineffable longing. Its central section increases in intensity until its sublime and quiet climax. The return of the opening melody builds to a climax of earth-shattering passion and then subsides into a long, lingering coda of profound contentment.
Through modulations and suspensions, through chromatic nuances and appoggiaturas, Mahler composed a musical act of love. Of course Alma immediately understood.
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