Gustav Loved Alma: An Adagietto of Timeless, Undying Love

In 1901, Gustav Mahler held the position of Director of the Vienna Court Opera, which was possibly the most prestigious conducting position in Europe. In that same year, Alma Schindler was a young beauty courted by artistic and aristocratic men throughout Vienna. She was also an artist in her own right — a good musician and talented composer. On November 7, Gustav met Alma at a social gathering. He was 41. She was 22.

Soon after they met, Gustav sent Alma a copy of the fourth movement adagietto from his new symphony in C-sharp minor. Although the adagietto contained no singing and therefore no lyrics, Alma understood the music contained a message. Gustav had sent Alma a love letter written with musical notation. He used the movement as a song without words to dedicate his love to the young woman he had just met. Alma understood the message and reportedly asked Gustav to pay her a visit. Within days, only one month after they met, they were engaged to be married.

In a larger context, Mahler had composed the Adagietto for the beginning of the third and last part of his Fifth Symphony. The first part of the symphony (movements one and two), provides a musical exploration of the various emotions of how people deal with death. The second part (the third movement) provides dance music as a metaphor for life, an expression of how life goes on. The third part (movements four and five) explores the life-sustaining power of love and a reaffirmation of life.

It was the beginning of the third part — the fourth movement’s expression of the power of love — that Gustav sent to Alma. Although the movement is composed in common
duple meter, Mahler scored the music so that groupings of the beat are difficult to hear. It’s not a stretch to say that this can be heard as a metaphor for the timelessness of love.

The fourth movement also provides music that can be heard as an acceptance of death, a feeling that we cannot experience love without ultimately experiencing loss. In the end, Gustav had sent Alma a message of timeless, undying love, a love that would last until death.

Watch the performance I have embedded below and try to hear the Adagietto as I have described it. My interpretation, although quite standard, may not be the only way to hear the movement, but it’s an interpretation that I feel should make sense for most people.

The movement is organized in three sections (ABA).
  • Section A — 0:00
  • Section B — 3:47
  • Section A — 6:32
Maher, Symphony No. 5, Fourth Movement, “Adagietto"
Valery Gergiev conducting the World Orchestra for Peace