Music as Inspiration: The Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony #5 - Michigan Opera Theatre

Music as Inspiration: The Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony #5

By Jon Teeuwissen, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Advisor for Dance

Choreographers often commission composers to create scores for new ballet or dance workBecause the music is specifically created to realize the choreographer’s vision, the result can be extraordinary. The creation comes from a much more organic process, as the music and the dance are so intertwined from conception. A perfect example of this is Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring, set to Aaron Copland’s commissioned score. Another example is The Four Temperaments, a ballet made by New York City Ballet co-founder and ballet master George Balanchine to music he commissioned from Paul Hindemith. 

But more often than not, choreographers fall in love with an existing piece of music and are inspired to create. There is a risk in choosing an existing piece of music that is well known. For compositions that are revered and considered exceptional, there is always the possibility that the choreography will not measure up to the music. However, there are many examples of the choreography matching the genius of existing musicBalanchine’s Serenade, created to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings is considered a masterwork.   

Mahler’s Adagietto, the fourth movement of his Fifth Symphony, is a gorgeous, lush, zealously romantic piece of music. Some of Mahler’s markings on his score convey his intent: “soulful” and “with the most heartfelt sentiment.” It aches to be choreographed, and many have answered the call. Musically speaking, Adagietto (literal translation: little Adagio) is generally shorter and usually not quite as slow as Adagio; literally “at ease,” where dancers perform slow movements. Evidently, Mahler composed his Adagietto as a love song to his wife, Alma. According to one of her letters, she stated that the composer left a small poem which translates as follows: 

In which way I love you, my sunbeam, 

I cannot tell you with words. 

Only my longing, my love and my bliss 

can I with anguish declare. 

Program notes describe Mahler’s Adagietto as beginning very quietly, soon becoming full of longing, with its graceful melodies unfolding with a bittersweet intensity, rising gradually to a soaring climax and finally falling back to a peaceful close. The piece is approximately 10minutes long. 

The music hit mainstream pop culture in 197as a backdrop for Luchino Visconti’s award-winning film Death in VeniceThe film is a haunting adaption of Thomas Mann’s classic about a composer, “paralyzed by ennui and repressed emotionwho discovers a last vestige of beauty and emotion during a trip to Venice at the turn of the century.  

My first exposure to Mahler’s Adagietto was when I worked at Dance Theatre of Harlem. In their active repertoire was a pas de trois, or ballet for three, called Adagietto #5. Choreographed by Royston Muldoom, his ballet is a love triangle in which one woman is torn between her two male lovers. 

Years later when I presented the Ballet Nacional de Caracas (Venezuela) in New Orleans, their artistic director, Vicente Nebradabrought the ballet he had created to the same score. Gemini, a pas de deux danced by two men, was not homoerotic, but rather, was about twin brothers. 

One of my favorite living choreographers, Angelin Preljocaj, created a male/female pas de deux to Mahler’s AdagiettoWe hope to bring his company, Ballet Preljocaj to the Detroit Opera House in the future. Following is a link to this exquisite piece of contemporary balletthe pas de deux from Blanche Neige (Snow White), danced by Nagisa Sirai and Sergio Diaz. 

The great modern choreographer Maurice Béjart created a male solo to the same piece of music. The link below will take you to a performance danced by Jorge Donn in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Additionally, ice dancer Ekaterina Gordeeverperformed solo to this Mahler music, as a part of aCelebration of Life tribute for her late husband Sergei GrinkovAs a young couple from Russia, they werefour-time world champions and two-time Olympic gold medalists for pairs skating.  While rehearsing for the Stars on Ice tour, her husband, 28, collapsed on the ice and died of a massive heart attack, laterattributed to an undetected genetic risk factor. She was 24, their daughter only 3.  

Just before performing this first skate without her husband, the choreographer told her “Imagine that you are skating with Sergei for the last time. Now you’ve lost him. Get on your knees and ask God why it happened. Finally, you must thank God for giving you Sergei for half of your life – the most beautiful time of your life. This is about how all people can get up from their knees in adversity.” 

A powerful performance, this is an emotional expression of gracegrief and gratitude. During her bows she acknowledges her mother, his mother and their young daughter. Very moving indeed.