We Are Going Adagio

I was driving my four-year-old daughter Mia Sarah a few days ago. We hit traffic, and Mia Sarah said “We are adagio.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “We are going adagio, we are going slow.” I was shocked – my four-year-old is struggling with her Russian but now she speaks Italian? Then I remembered that she had watched the kids’ show Little Einsteins that had an episode explaining musical tempo.

This little exchange in the car with Mia Sarah turned into teachable moment as we started to listen to different adagios.

 We started “light” with “Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Adagio means “play slowly,” while adagietto means “play slowly and lightheartedly.” I look at Mahler’s adagietto as a gateway drug to Mahler. It is the piece that got me interested and then hooked on Mahler, who is an incredibly difficult and complex composer for the listening public to understand (“listening public” in this case being me). At first, Mahler’s music made little sense to me; it often felt like a random collection of sounds. When I visualize Tchaikovsky’s music, I see large, long strokes of paint (huge melodies), where Mahler’s music feels more nuanced (a lot more little fragments), as though it had been painted with a small brush; but you hear these nuances not on the first or third but on the tenth or fifteenth listen. As my father liked to say, “To fall in love with Mahler’s music, the listener has to work.” “Adagietto,” however, requires no work from the listener at all.

Then there is probably the most famous adagio, “, Adagio for Strings,” composed by American Samuel Barber in 1936 (it’s the second movement of String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11). It premiered in 1938 at Rockefeller Center and was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

And finally there is Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Albinoni, an 18th century Italian composer. However, the provenance of this music is very controversial. It is believed that it was actually composed by Albinobi’s biographer, Remo Giazotto, who claimed he found fragments of the adagio in a library in Dresden after World War II. Giazotto constructed the fragments into a full single movement and copyrighted it; however, he never produces the original Albinoni fragments. Was Giazotto trying to capitalize on Albinoni’s fame? If he did, it’s a forgivable offense – Albinoni was long gone, and he probably would have loved to have composed this music. And, if it had been titled “Adagio by Remo Giazotto,” it would have been another obscure piece of music that we never heard.


So thanks to my little wonderful Mia Sarah we had a chance to adagio.

Great Conductors

On Saturday I was browsing TED talks and stumbled on this incredible talk by Itay Talgam, “Lead like the great conductors.” Even if you’re not a big fan of classical music, watch it to learn a lot about different management styles (I watched it five times!).

I am a civilian when it comes to classical music – I don’t play an instrument, I don’t read music; I am just an amateur who loves to listen to and learn about great music. Like most civilians, I have always been somewhat mystified by the role the conductor plays in the orchestra. Was a performance good or bad because of the orchestra, or because of the conductor? Hard to tell – maybe the conductor is really on stage just to entertain the public? I feel like there is a secret handshake among musicians – they know the truth, but they won’t share it with civilians.

Of course there is the story of how Leonard Bernstein became an overnight sensation. On November 14, 1943, Bruno Walter, who was the guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, got sick. Twenty-five-year-old Leonard Bernstein was asked to step in the last minute, but he didn’t have a chance to rehearse with the orchestra. The performance happened to be broadcast nationwide on the radio. Everyone was amazed at Bernstein’s performance, and he became an overnight sensation, and the career of one of America’s true musical treasures was launched. Talk about luck! This is a great story, and maybe it is even true. Or maybe Bruno Walter did a terrific job prepping the orchestra, or the orchestra was just very, very good.

Watching Mr. Talgam’s talk sent me on a whirlwind of YouTube viewing. I spent almost the whole weekend watching everything I could I find about conducting, great conductors, and especially Leonard Bernstein. (Watch the last two minutes of Mr. Talgam’s talk and you’ll see why I was so motivated.)

The kids and I watched an incredible movie, The Making of West Side Story. In 1984, a few decades after West Side Story came out, Bernstein – who had composed the music for West Side Story – wanted to make a recording on which the arias would be sung not by singing dancers (musical singers) but by traditional opera singers. He recruited Spanish tenor Jose Carreras to sing Tony and New Zealand’s Kiri Te Kanawa to sing Maria. I enjoyed watching this hour and a half movie as much (or maybe more) than watching the musical.

Here is a short video of Leonard Bernstein discussing role of the conductor,

and here is a much longer biographical video about Bernstein.

I’d like to leave you with Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Adagietto and this thought from Milan Kundera:

If the apple had fallen on Isaac Newton’s head, it might have killed him and he wouldn’t have come up with the Universal Law of Gravitation. Some other scientist, maybe hundreds of years later, would have formulated the laws of gravitation. But if there had been no Rachmaninoff, Mozart, or Mahler, nobody else would have written their wonderful music.

Mahler – Symphony No. 5

In the past I shared with you my conflicted thoughts on anti-Semitic German composer Richard Wagner. To balance things out, today I want to point you to a piece by the Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, whose music I learned to love only recently. I had tried to listen to him in the past and quite simply did not get his music until I heard “Adagietto” from his Symphony Number 5 – conducted by Valery Gergiev.

During his lifetime Mahler was known more for his conducting than his music. At the age of 37 he was offered the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera – a very prestigious position (Austrians took their opera seriously then) and an “Imperial” post. At the time, Viena was one the largest cities in Europe and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mahler’s appointment was met by public outrage, because until that time that post had never been occupied by a Jew. Anti-Semitism was a big part of European culture – the Austrian public was saying that “a Jew cannot understand Austrian music” and “he will Jewsify our Austrian music.”

Mahler ended up being an extremely successful conductor and music director and held that the Viena Court Opera position for ten years. For appearances he had to convert to Roman Catholicism, which was really not a big deal for him as he was not religious one way or another. Here is another wrinkle to Mahler’s story: – one of his biggest admirers as a conductor and interpreter of Wagner’s music was Adolph Hitler.

Mahler’s music often has very depressing tones and for good reason: – eight of Mahler’s fourteen siblings died in childhood. One of the first pieces of music he composed was a funeral march. His Symphony Number 5, which I’d like to share with you today, sounds in many places like a funeral march. Click here to listen to Symphony No. 5, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.


Go to Top

Appreciate classical music like never before

Get unique musical insights in your inbox every Thursday


Feel free to join our mailing list and get disount, news and updates.

Appreciate classical music like never before. Get unique musical insights in your inbox every Thursday