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Composed: 1901-1902

Length: 10 minutes

Orchestration: 7 first violin, 6 second violin, 5 viola, 4 cello, 3 bass, harp

About this Piece

Mahler composed his Fifth Symphony during the summers of 1901 and 1902, spent at his new summer-house looking out over the W├Ârthersee in central Austria. At its premiere in Cologne in 1904, the symphony was a complete failure with an audience unprepared for its stupendous power and dizzying dramatic scope. Yet a century later, the Fifth has become one of Mahler's most popular symphonies, and one critic has gone so far as to call it "one of the seven wonders of the symphonic world." Part of the problem for early audiences lay in the sheer extremes of this music: the Symphony is long, it is scored for a gigantic orchestra, and its music-drama is full of sonic and psychic violence.

But not all of this Symphony earned the audience's scorn. The fourth movement, an Adagietto ("little Adagio") scored only for strings and harp, is an island of calm in the seething tumult of the Fifth Symphony. Its gentle sound and restrained atmosphere made this movement instantly attractive to audiences, and it was often performed by itself during the decades before Mahler's music became popular (and before we frown at that practice, we should remember that one of the conductors who led the Adagietto as a separate work was Mahler himself). The music comes to life almost outside time and motion, emerging from the silence on soft, sustained string notes and bits of harp sound. Mahler's markings make clear exactly what he wanted from a performance: espressivo, seelenvoll ("soulful"), and mit innigster Empfindung ("with the most heartfelt sentiment"). Beginning very quietly, this music is soon full of longing: its arcing, graceful melodies unfold with a bittersweet intensity, rise gradually to a soaring climax, and finally fall back to the peaceful close.

- Eric Bromberger annotates programs for many organizations, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Society, and San Diego's Mainly Mozart Festival.