September 24, 2016 7:30 PM
Mozart: Don Giovanni Overture, KV527
David: Concertino for Trombone
Samantha Keehn, trombone
Marcia funebre (Andante)
Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No 5
Shostakovich: Symphony No 5
in D minor, Op 47
Moderato - Allegro non troppo
Allegro non troppo
Gustav Mahler - Adagietto from Symphony No 5
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) composed his Symphony No 5 during the summers of 1901 and 1902, at his summer cottage at Lake Wörthersee in central Austria. The symphony's premiere took place in Cologne in 1904. It proved such a failure that Mahler seldom programmed the work save for independent performances of the fourth movement, the Adagietto.
Mahler was often at odds with the way other conductors performed his symphonies, to the point that he felt that he himself must set the standards for their interpretations. For example, after the poor receptions of his Fifth in Berlin and Prague the following year, Mahler said to a friend:
So I thought to myself: Is it the fault of the symphony or the conductor? . . . We musicians are worse off than writers in that respect. Anyone can read a book, but a musical score is a book with seven seals. Even the conductors who can decipher it present it to the public soaked in their own interpretations. For that reason there must be a tradition, and no one can create it but I.
According to his wife Alma, "It was Mahler's wish to hand down his own interpretations as a tradition." Mahler believed in tradition, but only when it was set by a composer. The Adagietto, then, if modern conductors adhered to Mahler's example as evinced in his notes to his score and other performers' recollections of Mahler's own performances would certainly be considerably different than the standards established by our most noted Mahler conductors - Abbado, Haitink, Bernstein, Gielen, and others.
According to Gilbert Kaplan, a business man and Mahler scholar, most conductors today take Mahler's notation at the beginning of the Adagietto too literally.
Mahler often complained that conductors tended to "exaggerate and distort" his indications -- "the largo too slow, the presto too fast." But in the case of the Adagietto...though the preferred definition in musical dictionaries is "slightly faster than adagio," Mahler complicated matters further by adding "sehr langsam" ("very slow").
Kaplan takes exception to the "false tradition" of "ultra-slow performances" though he concedes that such performances "can be moving." He points out further that "the most experienced conductors of Mahler's music" take the piece as a "lament, conveying feelings of melancholy, despair, and even death."
So why is the tradition of ultra-slow interpretations false? The answer lies in information...that provides compelling evidence that Mahler never intended the Adagietto to be music of great solemnity. Nor is it likely that he would have approved of somber interpretations performed at a funereal pace. For Mahler, the piece was a simple expression of love.
The Adagietto was the composer's love letter to Alma Schindler. Mahler friend and conductor Willem Mengelberg, in his personal copy of the Fifth Symphony, wrote:
This Adagietto was Gustav Mahler's declaration of love for Alma! Instead of a letter, he sent her this in manuscript form; no other words accompanied it. She understood and wrote to him: He should come!!! (both of them told me this!).
Mengelberg's own description of the Adagietto was "love, a love comes into his life."
Alma explained that the Fifth Symphony had a special place in their relationship for they both worked together to prepare the symphony for publication - he scored the symphony while she copied it out. In fact,
We had a race to see who got through first, he scoring or I copying.
For this and other reasons, Kaplan proposes that the Adagietto is not a dirge, or a piece fit for a solemn or lugubrious situation. He maintains that today's conductors have established a tradition in performing the work that is alien to the composer's intent. According to the notes that Mahler made to his personal score, he times the Adagietto for seven minutes, considerably less than the timings of most of our contemporary conductors. Friend and fellow conductor Bruno Walter timed the movement at the premiere performance in 1904at seven and a half minutes. This timing is confirmed by rehearsal notes made by a double bassist for a St. Peterburg's performance in 1907.
Early recordings also show that faster timings were adhered to by Mahler's followers, those who had witnessed his conducting of the Adagietto. Mengelberg made the first recording of the piece in 1927; the timing was just over seven minutes. Likewise, Walter's recording of the full symphony in 1947 shows a similar timing of seven minutes and fifty-eight seconds.
Modern conductors such as Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink have taken Mahler's marking of sehr langsam to mean not "very slow," but to be "extremely slow." Bernstein's recordings show a timing of over eleven minutes while his concert times may run more than fifteen minutes. Haitink's recordings give timings of about fourteen minutes, with concert performances exceeding fifteen minutes. Such are the vagaries when conductors seek to interpret other men's music through their own prisms.
Mahler tried to set the precedents for playing his music. Music should be played as the composer wished, not as the conductor was wont. He sought to set a "tradition" for his own music as Mahler, the conductor, but like others before and after him, Mahler, the composer, found himself at the mercy of the men with the batons who layer their own meanings on top of his.
Program notes© William H Driver and Clinton Symphony Orchestra