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Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.10 (Part 1)

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, of which Mahler himself only got to finish the long opening Adagio and the short “Purgatorio” played as its central movement, has been ‘finished’ by several scholars after Alma Mahler released the extant material in facsimile form and then eventually gave her consent for a performance. (Although all who have worked on it would eschew the word “finished” or “completed” in favor of the more correct and modest: turned into a ‘performing’ version)

Most notable among them is Deryck Cooke’s version—by far the most performed and recorded, although that might begin to change. From the sketches and the basic layout Cooke has made a performing version which exists in three revisions. Other scholars and musicians who had a go at it were Clinton Carpenter (the first one to do so), twice Remo Mazzetti (apparently with help from Leonard Slatkin the first time around), Joe Wheeler (with additions by conductor Robert Olson), Rudolf Barshai, and most recently the conductor-composer team Samale-Mazzucca with their ‘Ricostruzione’. (Recordings exist of each version.) Colin and David Matthews assisted Cooke in his last revision and finished it, when Cooke died in 1976. Even then conductors tend to add, bend, subtract according to their own ideas, which is only natural given the tenuous nature of the material they deal with. Thus there is scarcely a recording out there that exactly resembles another, even as far as the notes or the instrumentation are concerned.

When Alma Mahler heard the result in 1964 (performed by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who also made the first recording of it), she was moved to tears. “I had no idea how much of Mahler was in it” she was supposed to have said after what was technically the third performance. Even so, critics still don’t agree on whether any of the results are truly satisfying. There is no doubt that Mahler, known to tinker around with his symphonies until well after they got their premiere performances or were published, had much, much work left on his Tenth. Orchestration, general layout, and even the movement order or inclusion or exclusion of them are all in question and not made easier by his despaired scribbles in the margins that suggest a melancholic passion of Nietzschean pathos. Yet, despite many open questions, the symphony appears finished in principle (it is extremely symmetric, for one—with two slow, twenty-plus minute long outer movements, two inner, ten to twelve-minute long Scherzos, all joined by the central, tiny “Purgatorio” intermezzo) and sounds more than reasonably Mahlerian.

Early work on the Adagio and the Purgatorio was done by Ernst Křenek (Mahler’s son-in-law). Alban Berg, Franz Schalk (of Bruckner-meddling infamy) and Alexander (von) Zemlinsky all may have had their fingers in it at one point or another. Especially when the Adagio and the Purgatorio were played together, the impression it made must not have been a very good or convincing one—and perhaps as a result some of the most notable Mahler conductors of that time—Kubelik, Bernstein, Walter, Klemperer, Barbirolli—never went on to bother with the performing version, even when it became available. The rise of the Third Reich—performances of Mahler were outlawed wherever Nazism reigned—certainly did not help aspirations to go any further with the material, either. By the time a ‘completion’ was deemed intriguing or even desirable, Alma Mahler and the American Mahler scholar Jack Diether ‘shopped the work around’ with some of the most notable composers of the time. None accepted. The one composer who I most wish to have tackled it, Arnold Schoenberg, did not dare, either. Shostakovich, too, denied—and I fear that a DSCH version might have sounded rather awkward precisely because of the (albeit ‘industrial’) proximity of Shostkovich’s own symphonic sound to Mahler’s. Shostakovich might have seen it similarly: He responded to the inquiry by Diether: “In spite of my love for this composer, I cannot take upon myself this huge task. This calls for deep penetration into the spiritual world of the composer, as well as his creative and individual style. For me, this would be impossible.”

The Tenth is much less speculation than, say, Elgar’s Third Symphony, but with all due respect to Elgar seems a more formidable task, anyway. I, for one, didn’t quite grasp the appeal of the complete work before slowly beginning to appreciate it more and more. Whether the completion is successful or not is a judgment up to each listener—and fortunately there are enough different versions out there to try many times to see if one fits. The completions very generally differ in how much they either tried to finish the symphony or decided to leave it as bare as possible just to have a performable version. Cooke (in versions I and II), though claiming strict unintrusiveness, ‘composes’ the most into it, Wheeler leaves it the most rudimentary, in a Mahlerian language that resembles Das Lied more so than symphonies Five and Six (as do Cooke’s and Mazzetti’s). Barshai’s reconstruction (though not his instrumentation) is a compromise between the two urges and—as far as I am concerned—works best. If his is closer to any particular style of Mahler’s symphonies, it is that of the Ninth which, according to Mazzetti, Barshai would have in common with the Clinton Carpenter version (recorded by Andrew Litton).

The Adagio had been performed as a stand-alone movement and it is an impressive lone pillar—nearly thirty minutes long—that indicates, but not quite reveals, Mahler’s musical testament. The harmony is more daring, still, than in the Ninth—and Mahler tugs and pulls (I feel: desperately) on the harmonies that he knew and had already expanded. And despite audible cues to previous Mahler works (notably Das Lied von der Erde in the fourth movement), a new Mahler arises with that Adagio of the Tenth (assuming the finale of the Ninth can be seen as an apt closure of all his previous work). This ‘fare-thee-well’ is not necessarily melancholic, much less nostalgic, but rather resigned. The variation movement of Beethoven’s op.111 has such a fare-thee-well theme, too—and was considered, by Adorno (speaking to us through Thomas Mann’s Wendell Kretzschmar) to have been “the end of the piano sonata as such”. (Adorno, as it were, was outspoken in his opposition to creating a performing version of the Tenth, asking that that which does not exist in the symphony be imagined. Of course that assumes access to the facsimile and very advanced skills in reading the score; perhaps a tad too elitist an opinion by any standard other than Adorno’s.)

As with all the works that stretch chromaticism to its limits, starting with Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde and culminating with Schoenberg’s transitional works (Gurrelieder-Part III, Kammersinfonie), Mahler is a composer in need of a long breath. Especially so in the finale of the Ninth and the whole Tenth. In order to hear the musical reasoning and the harmonic connections, one needs to keep all its sounds ‘in the air’ until a note comes by which allows for the preceding material to be put in place. I suspect it is not coincidentally like the German language in which a sentence (often of obnoxious length) makes no sense until the concluding verb gives everything its meaning. Like a puzzle in which one cannot yet fix any pieces because consequent pieces might demand a different alignment.[1]

Because language determines our way of thinking to a large degree, I wonder if I should be surprised how well and enthusiastically and informed English speaking audiences and performers take to Mahler. Unlike Bruckner—strangely less well understood there—Mahler does not put full stops after any of his musical sentences. His movements—and more so in these late works, from Das Lied onward—consist only of allusions followed by ellipses and separated by a slew of commas. Seemingly extraneous material is inserted in porous parentheses. The Tenth Symphony is one of the more obvious examples of that art. If the increase in the completed versions’ popularity over the last twenty years is anything to go by, the ‘complete’ Tenth will become part of the standard Mahler canon before long.

Continued here: Gustav Mahler – Symphony No.10 (Part 2)

Overview of the whole Mahler Survey on ionarts at this link.

The font used in the title is "Auriol Roman"

[1] Schopenhauer had the this to say about long German sentences:

"The German weaves his sentences together into one sentence which he twists and crosses, and crosses and twists again; because he wants to say six things all at once, expressed in a high-flown, bombastic language in order to communicate the simplest thought. The long German sentence is involved and full of parentheses like so many boxes one enclosed within another, all padded out like stuffed geese, overburdening the reader’s memory, weakening his understanding and hindering his judgment. . . . This kind of sentence furnishes the reader with mere half-phrases which he is then called upon to collect carefully and store up in his memory as though they were the pieces of a torn letter which the reader has to put together to make sense. . . . The writer breaks up his principal sentence into little pieces, for the sole purpose of pushing into the gaps thus made two or three other thoughts by way of parenthesis, thereby unnecessarily and wantonly confusing the reader." Mark Twain has much to say about it, too – in his typical humor – in his essay “The Awful German Language” and his speech, “The Horrors of the German Language”.

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