We are accustomed to hearing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony played as an elegy, appropriate for state funerals and the like. But Wilhelm Mengelberg, once Mahler’s assistant, claimed that the movement was composed as a love letter to Alma, and his performance offers an almost-too-explicit scenario of love making. In this article, I will return to Mengelberg’s argument for this interpretation, then examine the ways his performance decisions produce simulations of erotic interactions. But his reading raises questions concerning historical performance practices: how prevalent were Mengelberg’s tempo fluctuations and portamenti in the early twentieth century? To what extent should these practices inform our readings of other repertories of the time? And why might later conductors have chosen the elegaic mode, despite the fact that they thereby obscure what might be an important trace of Mahler’s erotic sensibilities?

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