Mahler-5 Adagietto, its historic tempo and changed emotional content. © Daan Admiraal, 2007
Though Adagietto implies a faster tempo and a lighter form and content than Adagio or Molto adagio the historic development in the performance-tradition of the movement was that it became slower and slower. Even the often praised Mahler-tradition in Amsterdam could not prevent that about 60 years after the first performances of the Fifth Symphony (1904) the majority of the conductors in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam had undergone the radical change in their performing-time of the Adagietto: from from Mahler's own 7 minutes to14 minutes. Performed in that very slow tempo the movement can be heard as one of Mahler's most personal utterances of tragic passion and even pessimism, growing despair and preoccupation with death. In that emotional context the music was used by Visconti in his film Death in Venice. The popularity of the film made it for the time being the most famous Mahler-movement.
Some pieces of music have the strange quality that they can be stretched out to a much longer duration without collapsing. This is in fact what many great orchestra's and conductors about 60 years after the first performance did prove with the Adagietto. In technical sense the conductors made the radical change from beating slow quarter-notes to beating slow eigth-notes. The sesult of doubling the length was a complete different emotional content of the music.The original conducting-score of Willem Mengelberg is preserved in the KB in The Hague. Mengelberg wrote (what Mahler never did) metronome-indications in his score that will result in a performing-time of about 7'. But Mendelberg's handwritten comments on the first Adagietto-page throw an other astonishing light on the interpretation of this movement. Alma Mahler informed Mengelberg in a letter that the Adagietto was in fact a love-song that Gustav Mahler composed for her. In the letter Alma wrote the words of Mahlers moving small poem and Mengelberg wrote the whole story and the poem in his score. Thus the Adagietto-melody is a 'song with words'.
The rediscovery of the original tempo and the original emotional content of the Adagietto after all those beautifull lies of slowness and emotinal depth is a radical change: melancholy makes place for tenderness, despair for noble longing. The only possibility to make this change from the lies of tradition to a new 'historic' approach of the Adagietto is to delete our Molto Adagio funebre e suicidale-memories and to try listening to the piece as a new composition.
But there is one remaining question. What was first, the music or the text? Did Mahler follow the old verdict prima le parole e poi la musica? Then the text of the poem is the best clue for the interpretation of the Adagietto. But I don't preclude that Mahler when fallen in love with Alma used a finished Adagietto and wrote a small love-poem that could fit the notes: prima la musica e poi le parole. When that is true the poem didn't play any role in the act of composing and Mahler's only issue when writing the poem was to win Alma's heart with his music. As he let her know in the poem: ich kann mit Worten dir's nicht sagen - I cannot tell it you with words. That his genius as a musician was a strong force in Alma's heart is well documentated. She told him later that she would leave him for a man with more genius.
The text of the love-poem in the Mengelberg-score enables us to reconstruct the song with its underlying words.