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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

Adagietto: 4th movement from Symphony No.5 by Mahler

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

#listeneveryday 4 Nov 2020

Gustav and Alma Mahler

The beginning of the 20th century saw Austrian composer Gustav Mahler deeply in love with Alma Schindler, whom he met in November 1901 and to whom he became engaged before the year was out. In this, the fourth movement from his 5th symphony and one of his most famous and most beautiful orchestral pieces, Mahler wrote a musical love letter to Alma, scored just for harp and strings.

Often just known by its tempo marking Adagietto, the movement was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at Robert Kennedy's funeral in 1968, and is used in the Visconti film Death in Venice, released in 1971. It sounds like a song, despite the fact that it comes from an instrumental symphony, and in it he quotes a motif from Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde which was associated with 'the look of love'.

Perhaps the reason that it sounds so song-like is due to another quote, at the end, of a melody that he used in a song (written the same year) called I am lost to the world. The melody goes with text that translates as "I live alone in my heaven, in my love, in my song". There's no doubt that Mahler was quite taken with Alma when he wrote this heartfelt and calming music.

Something to do

There's a great programme broadcast on Radio 4 in 2011, in which various people talk about the impact of this piece on their lives.

If you're interested in how Luchino Visconti used the Adagietto in his film Death in Venice, you can get an idea from its trailer.

More to listen to

Mahler's song I am lost to the world, which lent a theme to the Adagietto.

Wagner's iconic Liebestod from his opera Tristan und Isolde, performed by the late, great American soprano Jessye Norman. Mahler quoted from this in the Adagietto.

Mahler at his most spine-tinglingly dramatic - the finale (the 6th movement!) to his third symphony.

A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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