Variations: Gustav Mahler’s Anguish and Ecstasy in “Adagietto”

Don’t judge a piece of music by its genre. It’s as simple as that. Atwood Magazine’s ‘Variations’ column discovers and discusses pieces, composers, conductors, old and new, all of which have contributed to the growth and expansion of the Classical genre. Turning grey from misrepresentation and preconceived notions, engaging with Classical music can dissolve the elitist, rule-bound confines of its historical origin and remind the mainstream of its relevance and significance.

The Romantic period yielded compositions with incredible emotional effectiveness – and one of the most heart-wrenching is Gustav Mahler’s “Adagietto,” the fourth movement from his Symphony No. 5 in C Sharp Minor. Mahler, late Romantic Austro-Hungarian pianist, composer and conductor, wrote his Fifth Symphony over 1901-1902. The composition is known to be a love letter to his wife, Alma ⏤ yup, Alma Mahler ⏤ whom he met and married within that time span.

Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2010
Simon Rattle conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2010

“Adagietto” demonstrates anguish and ecstasy ⏤ the ways in which they exist together, the reason love is so bittersweet. Mahler communicates his “longing for the infinite” by taking full advantage of music’s agency to manipulate time, evident explicitly in the title (“Adagietto” means fairly slow), but also in the piece’s deceptive melodic moves. You’ll hear a natural end approaching, your ear will be prepared to hear a resolution, and that “resolved” chord will end up beginning the next phrase. The inescapable progression forward and the repetition of cycles and patterns mimic the brain-on-love ⏤  content with lingering in bliss, but undeniably conscious of inevitable loss. Playing for your heart, not your head, and overwrought with emotion, “Adagietto” seeks to capture you in a mood rather than tell you a story.

Calling for just the string section and a solo harp, each instrument contributes a distinct voice to “Adagietto,” yet at the same time, without the diverse range you might hear from a full orchestra, the piece is quite focused and simple texturally. The solo harp is indispensable adding dark shade without burdening the majestic violins with weight. The cello and bass contribute significant depth and gravity, but sparingly.

Simon Rattle’s interpretation plays up the piece’s inherent theatrics. He ties the piece together with long legato strokes ⏤ it feels like a waltz in slow motion. Rattle emphasizes the cinematic qualities of the “Adagietto” allowing it to feel dramatic and coloring it with a very specific flavor of romance. It’s not the understated emotion of two coy lovers from your favorite indie film ⏤ it’s the silent film passion, smooching-in-the-rain kind of emotion. It’s the kind of glorious romance that only exists in, and can only be communicated through, music.

“Adagietto” – Gustav Mahler, Sir Simon Rattle

‘Mahler: Complete Symphonies’ – Gustav Mahler, Sir Simon Rattle

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