Listening Guide – Movement 4: Adagietto. Sehr langsam


The adagietto is undoubtedly the single best-known piece of Mahler’s music. Its popularity skyrocketed primarily as a result of its use as background music for Visconti’s film Death in Venice. There was some controversy, however, about what Mahler intended the adagietto to communicate. Villa Mengelberg, an intimate friend and colleague of Mahler, and an early champion of his music claimed that Alma Mahler had confided to him that Gustav sent a manuscript of the finished work to her as a love letter when they were courting. Certainly, the romantic nature of the music can support this contention. Yet in purely musical terms, the adagietto was clearly related to the recorded song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, whose poetic text and emotive character convey a very different mood, one of loneliness, withdrawal, and estrangement. I agree with Henry-Louis de La Grange when he suggests that it seems to me improbable that Mahler could have written two pieces so related in every way with such different meanings. If Mengelberg story is true, wonders La Grange, why did Alma never mentioned it in any of her writings on Mahler, one might also consider that Mahler’s own expression of personal love would most likely consist of two principal elements, longing, the motive bearing this cognomen being of great significance in this movement, and angst, which may well be considered as characteristic of Mahler’s own romantic nature, that Gustav may have wished to test all his feelings at this early stage in a relationship might have been the reason for sending her the manuscript, in hopes that she would understand the message implicit in the music that she apparently did, may serve to support Mengelberg suggestion. Whatever Mahler’s intentions, Donald Mitchell considers the adagietto like an orchestral song without words.
Within the context of a symphony, the movement serves as a prelude to the finale, particularly because of its brevity and the thematic relationship between the two movements. Yet it is the only slow movement in the symphony, the one sustained expression of romantic love and the entire work that provides the key to resolving the tensions of part one, and overcoming the chaotic world of part two. Significantly, the introduction of romantic love substantially shifts the direction of the simply away from suffering and senseless abandon, to the redeeming value of love. The interconnection of the last two movements that comprise part three, through their common use of the adagietto theme, parallels the appearance of the funeral march theme in both movements of part one. The common theme appearing in each of the first movements of part one and part three is transformed in the succeeding movement, where it serves a different function or evokes a different emotional response. Such dramatic parallelism and transformation not only ties together the outer parts of the symphony but shapes the content and focus of the work as a whole. Mahler’s work orchestration is spare, employing only strings and harp to enhance the music’s lyricism and give it a serenade-like quality. The use of ternary form A B A, is simplicity itself. Inner harmonies are subtle and harmonic progressions are frequent for such a short movement, adding to the music’s impulsive character, impressionistic harmonies such as the Neapolitan sixth function as a means of shifting to a remote key.
Mahler uses overlapping sustained tones in transition passages, which anticipates their use in their op sheet from Das Lied von der Erde. The adagietto stream-like atmosphere begins with vague harmonies that lend a sense of weightlessness, and end with a long suspension of sustained chords that very slowly progressed to closure, creating a feeling of endless time. Could the momentary nostalgic reveries of the scherzo movement have elicited these tender sentiments? Although they do not share musical material, the scherzo and the adagietto have a conceptual relationship, being virtually the converse of each other, both in mood and musical content. This relationship conforms with the progressive development of the symphony, from profound grief and anger through revulsion with a senseless world of everyday life, to the emergence of human love that causes great happiness and thereby resolves the internal conflict with which the work began.

Much commentary on this movement has focused on the main tempo and the length of the movement. If the movement is taken at an excruciatingly slow pace, it can sound like a dirge, which would not be in keeping with the suggestion that Mahler intended it to be an expression of his love for Alma, others see the movement as an angst-ridden outpouring of the pain of love that can best be expressed at a very slow tempo. Part of the problem arises from the title of the movement itself, adagietto, which could be read as a tempo marking. As such, the tempo would be somewhat faster than Adagio, but slower than say, moderato. Thus substantiating the argument for avoiding a very slow pace, Mahler did provide titles for movements from this published symphonies, in fact, the proceeding movement is titled scherzo, but in this and other instances, these titles related to the form of the movement, not to its tempo. However, it is far from certain what Mahler intended to convey by using this musical term normally identified with tempo, for he also designates a tempo marking at the beginning of the movement, Sehr langsam. This seems to contradict the title of the movement if it is interpreted as a tempo direction.
Mahler also gives the finale of the Ninth Symphony, a title, Adagio, but places a virtually identical tempo marking immediately after it. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend, very slow and somewhat hesitating. Since it is unlikely that Mahler considered both Adagio and adagietto, as designating the same tempo, he must have had another reason for using these terms as titles for their respective movements. It had to become commonplace by the end of the 19th century to refer to the slow movement of a symphony as an Adagio movement, by the use of the diminutive version of Adagio, adagietto Mahler may well have intended to refer to its brevity, compared with for example, the usually longer Adagio movements in Bruckner symphonies. In fact, it has been suggested that Mahler was paying homage to Bruckner’s magnificent Adagio movements, by placing that word at the beginning of the ninth symphonies finale. Could Mahler have had similar intentions in regard to the Fifth Symphony slow movement, whether he did or not, the fourth movements titled is not a tempo designation, and should not be taken as evidence that the principal tempo of the movement should be faster than that indicated by Mahler, Sehr langsam.

The oboes and cellos open the movement softly with sustained open harmonies, over which the harp plays a breeze sequence of gently falling arpeggios, they create tonal ambiguity and evoke the sensation of floating on a billowing cloud.
In a slow restful tempo, the main theme that overlaps with the close of the descending harp arpeggios moves in the opposite direction, self-generated and contrary to what preceded it, beginning on an upbeat of three notes rising stepwise in the manner of the motive of longing, this tender sentimental theme is played softly, unhesitatingly in the first violins, unlike the usual form of the longing motive, the three-note upbeat is followed not by an intervallic leap upward, but by repetition of its top note, which then rises by a major second. Belonging motive shape here relates to its use as the principal theme of the second song or Kindertotenlieder, where it sounds more sorrowful than uplifting.

The main theme of Ich bin der Welt also begins with a variant of this motive, though in a more irregular manner, and elicits emotions more characteristic of the Adagietto’s theme.

Here’s the opening of the movement and its main theme.

The five notes tell of the longing motive becomes the primary component of the main theme and undergoes a number of permutations, sustained and passing tones and inner strings pizzicato punctuation in lower strings, and harp arpeggios provide a component throughout much of the opening A section. Cellos take up the theme playing and more broadly.

As the theme develops dissonant passing tones and violas and falling minor seconds, lend a touch of pathos to its bittersweet lyricism. After an incomplete cadence, cellos add a curiously clipped dotted rhythm on a rising third, that hints at the motive of childhood innocence.

Reprise of the main themes preceded by a brilliantly compact transition with layers of sustained tones in rising sequence in a manner that suggests but is slightly different from the opening measures. First violins enter softly, virtually melting into the theme on a falling dotted rhythm punctuated by quarter notes on the heart. Soon the music becomes more impassioned, Mahler extends a fragment of the theme, consisting of a rising minor second, an upward leap by widening the interval of that leap in sequential repetitions as the tempo presses forward to a climax.
On a long descending eighth note phrase that becomes more assertive, and changes key as it falls. The music reaches a climax, a sudden octave leap to a sustained F major chord with high A is the top note out of which descending arpeggios and strings against an ascending harp arpeggios break out in a fleeting moment of passion.

As the climax subsides and violins fall from their high A further extent then the main theme, Section A comes to a close on the rising second that remains suspended, against the same harp arpeggios with which the movement began. The middle B section begins with a new, more assertive theme in the first violins played ardently in a more fleeting tempo. Thrusting attacks on sustained chords and low strings add forcefulness to this more aggressive emotional outpouring.
Based upon the little arch-like figure on the third interval, played by the cellos before the first theme resumed during the A section, this new theme also includes the four-note motor song to the words Der Tag ist schön, the day is beautiful, at the close of the fourth song of Kindertotenlieder. Mahler may have intended this musical reference to convey his hope for a new day, made beautiful by the presence of his beloved.
A climax is reached in mid measure on an upward thrust to a strong dissonant chord that resolves to G flat, the key into which the tonality immediately modulates.

Softening quickly the music soon becomes more sentimental and dreamy. From this tender passage, Mahler will generate the music for the subordinate theme of the finale.
The motive of longing now becomes more prominent, soaring to great heights not with the strain of intense passion, but ever so gently like a caress. As the song like melody becomes more fervent, der tag ist schön motive reappears when the tonality shifts to E major Mahler’s heavenly key on its way to D major Mahler’s sunshine key violins continue to extend the theme. The B section comes to a deeply moving closed on an elongated version of longing that slows up and softens as it climbs to a high D, only to slide by super octave as a preparation for the reprise of the theme in F major in second violins.
Mahler’s heart heartfelt expression of yearning for the intimacy of love is thus cut short by a leap into the abyss that symbolizes a subconscious fear that his loved dream may not be realized.

With a sudden shift to a more introspective mood, the A section returns in its original key, with the main theme played softly and more broadly by the second violins, accompanied once again by harp arpeggios.
In a most unusual procedure, tempo one is not reached until the theme is in mid-course. Yet the transition is seamless because Mahler plays the elongated version of the themes first part while retaining the previous slightly brisker tempo. Cellos extend the theme on an arch-like phrase into a cadence, in a marvelous to measure transition, sustained C’s appear in overlapping entrances that rise through the string ensemble, entering at different parts of the bar and hesitatingly working their way up to the first violin. A long gentle sigh leads to the second part of the theme, while the elongate and upbeat of the theme rises in the second violins against falling pizzicato in the base, one feels drawn slowly back into the serenity of the opening. This brief leads into the main theme second part is one of the most beautiful transition passages in all of Mahler’s music.

After the theme continues to expand in the first violins, it suddenly bursts into flames of passion. Unlike at the climax of the first A section, the tempo does not press forward, and the descending phrase is cut short, leaping upward now to an octave above the A reached before. The super octave A is held by the first violins on a crescendo using as much of the bow as possible, while an undercurrent of 16th note figuration in inner strings, lunges into an F major chord, thrust upward by grace notes. In broad, forcefully accented tones, the violins received from the heights, their descent continuing in low strings, and then reverting back to violins. They hold on to fortissimo with all their might as they press forward to the last few measures. The music gradually falls from its great height, at first emphatically, and then more urgently, they’re falling phrases soon stretched out with strong emphasis on a suspended dominant seventh chord, which resolves to the tonic in a series of melting modulations. Holding on to the leading tone, as if in desperation, until it too falls to the tonic chord which slowly fades away.

This deeply moving conclusion to Mahler’s declaration of love shows that he is willing to endure the pain of his desire in hopes of its fulfillment. Long suspensions create the illusion of timelessness that implies that the love so ardently desired, may well be eternal. In this sense, the adagietto his underlying premise might very well be the converse of that have been developed a bond and the common Mahler’s sense of alienation and loneliness is dispelled by his longing for mutual love.

By Lew Smoley

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