The slow fourth movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, the Adagietto, played an important role in Luchino Visconti’s famous film Death in Venice (1971). Visconti was not only a film director but also a gifted opera director; he chose Mahler’s music for the important extra layer of meaning and emotion it would bring to the film. Death in Venice is based on the novella of the same name by Thomas Mann. Written in 1912, it tells of a writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who becomes obsessed with the absolute beauty of a Polish boy in Venice; he then dies from this desire — and from cholera. Visconti changed the writer into a composer, transforming Dirk Bogarde into the image of Gustav Mahler. He added scenes in which the composer is seen relaxing with his wife and two daughters, one of whom dies — precisely as in Mahler’s own life.
In the film, the music illustrates Aschenbach’s feelings and thoughts. Visconti transforms the Adagietto into a song of melancholic longing, of barely-forgotten grief and of deep uncertain feelings. This interpretation continues to haunt the piece even today — remarkably so, given that it was composed in a time when Mahler was actually at his happiest: he had just married Alma and she was already pregnant with their first child. He had already begun the symphony in the summer of 1901, before he had met Alma Schindler, but completed it during their honeymoon in the summer of 1902. Alma relates in her memoirs that they arrived at the villa in Maiernigg with sketches for the Fifth Symphony in their baggage – two movements were already complete, the others were still in sketch form. The entire work was finished by the end of August; Mahler took Alma by the arm and led her solemnly to his studio, where he then played the entire symphony through for her. He dedicated the score to his 'dear Almscherl'.
Mahler signed a contract with Henri Hinrichsen of the publishers C.F. Peters for 10,000 guilders in the summer of 1903, although it would take a considerable while before the score was finally ready for publication. Hinrichsen and Mahler wanted to wait until after the first performance in 1904 and Mahler therefore continued to work on the piece; the result was that there was no fully definitive version of the score available. Otto Singer, Hinrichsen’s assistant, lost his patience: 'Working with Mahler is a disaster. He changes his mind about the corrections that need to be made from one day to the next, he accepts what he had first rejected, without any further thought and without listening to my detailed suggestions. He first said that he thought that every note of the last two movements was exactly as it should be — and now he is busy changing large sections of these'.
The premiere finally took place in Cologne on 18 October 1904. The rehearsals went reasonably well, but Mahler was seized by terrible uncertainty. Alma was ill and was not able to be present. He wrote to her that 'Everything went acceptably. The Scherzo is a terrible movement! It will have a long life of struggle! Conductors will take it too quickly for the next fifty years and make a mess of it, the audiences — oh heaven! What should they make of this chaos, where a new world is born in one moment only to be destroyed in the next — of these primaeval sounds, this seething, screaming, shattering sea, these dancing stars, these gasping, shining, sparkling waves?! How can a flock of sheep react to an 'Ethereal feast of song' other than bleat!? […] Oh, I wish I could perform my symphony fifty years after my death!' Mahler set out for Amsterdam immediately after the work’s Cologne premiere, where he would conduct his Fourth Symphony for the first time later in the month. He took the score of the Fifth with him.
Mahler conducted the Fifth Symphony in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in March 1906. The score he used for this concert contains all sorts of technical and contextual remarks — and one personal annotation. Mahler himself marked the Adagietto sehr langsam — very slowly. He and Mengelberg played it in seven minutes, although later conductors took more time over it, sometimes extremely so: Mariss Jansons took nine minutes in 2008, Von Karajan and Abbado took almost twelve minutes. These slower tempi give the work a tragic and languid character that Mahler had not intended: Mengelberg noted that the Adagietto was a pure declaration of love for Alma, and that the melody played by the first violins was inspired by a poem that Mahler had written for his wife.
Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir's nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.
How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you in words.
I can only pour my longing and my love out to you.
Translation: Peter Lockwood