Where We’ve Been:
Part 1 of the symphony consisted of the two dark movements, Movement I, the elegant funeral march, and Movement II, the storm of chaos that climaxed in a big brass Star Wars moment. Part 2 was the third movement, the crazy scherzo that starts out like a waltz and then goes into some truly strange places.
Now we begin Part 3, the two light movements. And this one, Movement IV, is the slow movement of the piece (it’s marked Adagietto which means “fairly slow”), so take a deep breath and relax a bit for this one.
Mahler’s Entry Into “Top 20 Relaxing Classics”
One of the interesting things about Mahler is that he almost never shows up on those chirpy compilation albums (100 Favourite Classics, Your Top 20 Best Classics, Classic’s Greatest Hits, etc). I think that’s why a lot of people outside of classical music circles haven’t heard of Mahler – because he simply doesn’t appear in general-public-consumption classical music collections. You really only hear Mahler on recordings of complete Mahler symphonies, in the concert hall or when a radio station decides to broadcast an entire symphony.
The reason for this is that, mostly, the pieces of music that lend themselves to showing up on classical compilation albums (or even just becoming greatest hits in general) generally have what I would call a “continuity of mood”. In other words, if it’s slow and beautiful, they want the movement to stay slow and beautiful for the whole piece. That way you can string together 20 slow, beautiful pieces and call it a “Relaxing Classics” album.
But the problem with Mahler is that he rarely supplies you with a continuity of mood. He can start a movement beautifully, but then go some pretty dark and jarring places in the middle of it. Likewise, he can start in some pretty dark places and go to amazingly beautiful places. So if you weeded out all Mahler movements with a split personality like that, plus any that are longer than 12 minutes, really the only thing that you’re left with that has a general continuity of mood and that doesn’t go for too long – is the fourth movement of the Mahler 5.
Death in Venice
What also helped cement its fame in previous generations (it certainly didn’t do anything for my generation on up) was a film from the 70s called Death in Venice. It’s based on a novella by author Thomas Mann and tells the story of an aging author who goes to Venice during an outbreak of cholera and becomes obsessed with a young boy. In the film, made by famous director Luchino Visconti, the climactic scene show ***SPOILER ALERT*** the old author dying in a deck chair on the beach watching the boy standing down next to the water in the sunlight.
But what cemented that scene in the mind of the arthouse set was that it was set to the slow movement of the Mahler 5. (You can see it here if you’re totally curious: https://youtu.be/jEVVXMPUTiA). From then on, like so many classical pieces that show up in arthouse movies, it became a bit of a fan favourite.
However, I would suspect that many people nowadays haven’t seen the Visconti film and don’t have those connections, which might just be a good thing. Because the problem can be that when you hear it in the film setting, you start thinking of the piece as being rather slow and sad.
In fact, what has happened over the years is that conductors (that would be you, Leonard Bernstein) have discovered that if you take it at a snail’s pace, it will sound really soulful.
However, there are now another group of voices who are arguing the case that just because you can play something super-slow, doesn’t mean that you necessarily should. It appears that Mahler’s original intentions were that it was meant as a love-note for his girlfriend, Alma Schindler (later to become his wife) and that it’s actually meant to be more sweet. And faster. Like 8 minutes.
So depending which recording you’re listening to is how long it will run for and thus affect a little bit what kind of experience you have with it. The Chailly recording is somewhere in the middle, clocking in at just over 10 minutes.
The structure of the piece is pretty straight forward and there’s not a lot to describe because it moves so slowly and it is essentially an atmosphere piece. There are two big themes, the first of which is the most beautiful, but the second of which is probably the most important, because Mahler borrows it to play funny games with it in the last movement.
(0:00) Big Tune 1 – Gentle rocking on the harps. Beautiful-sounding string moment. Dies away darkly in the low strings.
(2:26) More of the same.
(4:09) Things become a bit more passionate. (I would say that if it’s a love note, it’s definitely one of the most moody love notes ever written.) But things clear and calm down pretty quickly.
(4:58) Big Tune 2 – A new theme begins. This is the one to remember because it comes back in the last movement, but transformed into something completely different. It has a kind of searching quality to it, as if it’s constantly reaching upward and then fading.
(6:54) Back to the beginning. Builds slowly towards a soaring ending.
And there you go. Mahler’s greatest hit. (Arguably.) My own personal opinion is that this slow movement is a bit overrated compared with some of the other slow movements which are to come in other symphonies, but what did you think? Stunningly beautiful? Bit too slow and you can’t wait for things to ramp up again?