Mahler was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and conductor, and was best known during his own lifetime as one of the leading orchestral and operatic conductors of the day. He has since come to be acknowledged as among the most important post-romantic composers.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was written in 1901 and 1902, mostly during the summer months at his cottage at Maiernigg, Austria. Among its most distinctive landmarks are the funereal trumpet solo that opens the work and the frequently performed F major Adagietto.
The Adagietto was written for harp and the strings of an orchestra. It is arguably Mahler’s most famous single piece of music, and is the most frequently performed extract from Mahler’s works. It is best known for its use in the 1971 Luchino Visconti film Death in Venice. However it was frequently performed on its own before then, chiefly because, in the early 20th century, music programmers did not believe whole Mahler symphonies would be acceptable to audiences.
The Adagietto was also performed at the mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York on 8 June 1968, the day of the burial of Robert Kennedy. After the symphony’s premiere, Mahler is reported to have said, “Nobody understood it. I wish I could conduct the first performance fifty years after my death.”