skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Symphony No. 10

About the Work

Gustav Mahler
Quick Look Composer: Gustav Mahler
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Susanna Mälkki, conductor / Garrick Ohlsson, piano, plays Beethoven Nov. 18 - 20, 2010
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In the spring of 1910, after completing a strenuous tour as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Mahler returned to Europe and his summer retreat near the village of Toblach in the Austrian Dolomites, south of Innsbruck. He had just put the final touches on the Ninth Symphony, and was well advanced on preparations for the Munich premiere in September of his gigantic Eighth Symphony. Mahler was also dying. His serious heart condition had been diagnosed three years earlier, a blow that came at the same time as he suffered the death of his beloved older daughter, Maria, and submitted his resignation as director of the Vienna Opera.

Despite his physician's orders to conserve his strength, Mahler maintained a full schedule of professional conducting and composing activities. With determination, he was able to continue, but his constant travel, the emotional intensity with which he lived his life, and the lingering melancholy over the loss of their daughter affected his young wife, Alma. (That summer, Mahler observed his 50th birthday. Alma was thirty.) In May she went for a rest-cure to a sanatorium at Tobelbad. There she met an architect four years her junior, Walter Gropius, who declared his love for her and asked her to leave her husband for him. Alma fled from the spa, though she was flattered by her new suitor's attentions. Gropius persisted, writing letters (one of which was addressed, "mistakenly," according to its author, to "Herr Director Mahler"), and even following her to Toblach. Mahler found Gropius lurking about, dragged him into the house, and demanded that Alma choose between them. Alma could not leave her husband, but the scene brought to the surface some of the frustrations of her life with Mahler, most painfully the loss of her identity to the demands of his career. He had, for example, forbidden her to continue composing, a talent she had demonstrated convincingly before their marriage. Many needs, some intimate, some social, she left unspoken, realizing how much Mahler depended upon her for emotional support. In her memoirs, she wrote, "I knew that my marriage was no marriage and that my own life was utterly unfulfilled. I concealed all this from him, and although he knew it as well as I did, we played out the comedy to the end." Mahler was swept with guilt. In August he went to Leiden, Holland, to receive the counsel of Sigmund Freud, whom he had persistently declined to meet on earlier occasions, and a great admiration sprang up between these two explorers of the soul. When Mahler returned home, he took out some of Alma's songs and played through them, with tears in his eyes. Alma, incidentally, married Walter Gropius in 1915, after Mahler's death, but left him within two years.

Mahler continued work on the Tenth Symphony throughout the summer of 1910. In September he was in Munich for the Eighth Symphony's premiere; six weeks later he began the New York Philharmonic's winter season, and conducted nearly fifty programs during the next three months before collapsing completely after the concert of February 21, 1911. Too weak to feed himself or to hold a book (single pages were torn out for him to read), he consulted doctors in New York who diagnosed a streptococcus infection and advised bacteriological treatment in Paris. (Penicillin, which would have saved his life, was not discovered until 1928.) He was taken to France, but did not improve, and asked that his final days be passed in Vienna, "where the sun shines and the grapes grow," he once told his protégé Bruno Walter. On May 11, 1911, six days after arriving in the imperial city, he died.

Before his death, Mahler entrusted the materials for the Tenth Symphony to the care and discretion of Alma. It was long assumed, even by those closest to the composer, that the then-unseen manuscript consisted only of unperformable fragments, and that Mahler's last musical thoughts were contained in the Ninth Symphony. In 1924 Alma dispelled this notion when she asked the young composer Ernst Krenek, then married to Anna, the second Mahler daughter, to prepare for performance the two of the Symphony's movements that Mahler had virtually completed before his death – the opening Adagio and the epigrammatic Purgatorio. These were heard in Vienna on November 14, 1924 at a concert conducted by Franz Schalk, who was Mahler's assistant at the Opera, and later its director. That edition was published, but little further work could be done on the score because of Hitler's ban on music by non–Aryan composers for the decade after 1935. For the centennial of Mahler's birth, in 1960, the British musicologist Deryck Cooke undertook a thorough study of the manuscript, which had been published in an exemplary facsimile in 1924 by the firm of Paul Zsolnay, Vienna. In addition to the two virtually complete movements published earlier, he discovered that the entire work had been sketched; that Mahler had completed in that difficult summer of 1910 the thread of musical continuity from beginning to end, though much of the orchestration and harmonic and contrapuntal background was lacking. Through one of the 20th-century's most determined (and valuable) feats of musicianship and scholarly insight, Cooke was able to prepare a "performing version" of the entire five-movement Tenth Symphony, which has largely been accepted into the canon of Mahler's works.

Whether the Tenth Symphony is performed complete, or only its opening Adagio movement is given, it is necessary to consider the work against the background of Mahler's total concept. When Alma wrote in the preface to the 1924 facsimile edition, without having heard a note of the piece played by an orchestra, that "the intrinsic feeling of the Tenth Symphony is the certainty of death, the suffering of death and the scorn of death," she indicated that Mahler was continuing with this music the resigned mood of farewell that characterized his magnificent Ninth Symphony. However, now that the entire progression of the Tenth Symphony is known, a considerably different interpretation of Mahler's musical thought in the months before his death has emerged, as Michael Kennedy noted in his study of the composer: "It is wrong to regard Mahler as having died in a mood of valediction, defeated or resigned to the inevitable... Number 10 is a symphony that transcends thoughts of death and ends with a gloriously affirmative and positive assertion of man's spiritual victory. It [also] establishes beyond doubt that Mahler was entering a new phase, in some ways simpler than the complex Ninth Symphony, yet even more prophetic of the collapse of tonality and, paradoxically, even more insistent upon the Classical-Romantic procedures which had always nourished him." The Adagio can no longer be regarded as an isolated torso, but must be seen as the opening paragraph of a symphonic argument in which Mahler posited, as he did in almost all of his earlier works, his belief in man's unquenchable spirit.