Great movie soundtracks – Death in Venice

Mahler’s emotional Adagietto adds poignancy to Dirk Bogarde’s performance as a man seeking purity and beauty in Death in Venice.

Death in Venice1There have been a few moments in cinema history when a piece of music is integrated so perfectly into a film that the images and the music become inextricably linked in the memory. As a result, the music becomes much more popular through its association with the movie than in its original context. Think of Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto in Brief Encounter or, perhaps less sublimely, Mickey Mouse’s battle with the broomsticks accompanied by Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice in Fantasia. Likewise, the enduring popularity of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony No.5 certainly owes much to its use in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice.

The Symphony No.5 emerged during a period of personal change for Mahler. He had been enjoying great success as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic but was forced to resign in 1901 after falling seriously ill. Towards the end of the year his fortunes changed again when he met Alma Schindler, an intelligent and artistic young woman whom he married in 1902. 

Perhaps it was this unexpected brush with mortality, juxtaposed with the discovery of true love, that gave such poignancy to Mahler’s Adagietto. Searching for a piece of music that would echo similar events on screen,Visconti not only used Mahler’s music, but also took the liberty of turning Death in Venice‘s main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, from being a writer to a composer.

Death in Venice was hailed by some as a masterpiece and by others as too funereal and overblown. Without a doubt, Dirk Bogarde gives one of his finest screen performances ever as Aschenbach. Having travelled to Venice for inspiration, unaware that the city is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, Aschenbach becomes obsessed with an adolescent Polish boy Tadzio, who seems to embody all the beauty and purity he has been seeking in his life and art. The threat of cholera and Aschenbach’s terminal illness represent the degradation that compromises all artists’ efforts to achieve and sustain perfection.

Visconti skilfully employs Mahler’s Adagietto to bookend the film. It sets the melancholic mood as Aschenbach’s ship steams into Venice at the start of the film, and returns at the climax as the composer, with hair dyed and face rouged to make himself appear younger, watches Tadzio on the beach. As the Adagietto surges, Aschenbach’s heart fails him and his hair dye and make-up, mixed with the rain, run down his face.

Despite its varied reception, Death in Venice, through its use of Mahler’s poignant melody, has given cinema one of its finest moments and placed a symphonic masterpiece firmly in the hearts of music lovers worldwide.


For further exploration

41GFV0SCR9L._SS500_Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Death in Venice is the very definition of sumptuous: the costumes and sets, the special geography of Venice, and the breathtaking cinematography combine to form a heady experience. At the centre is Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde in a meticulous performance), a controlled intellectual who unexpectedly finds himself obsessed by the vision of a 14-year-old boy while on a convalescent vacation in 1911. Even if it tends to hit the nail on the head a little too forcefully, and even if Visconti can test one’s patience with lingering looks at crowds at the beach and hotel dining rooms, Death in Venice creates a lushness rare in movies. Buy Death in Venice at

First published in © Classic FM Magazine. Reproduced by kind permission of the editor.


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