Expert’s Perspective- Mahler 10, a crisis

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

Peter Davison continues his invaluable contributions to the Mahler discussions here with his thoughts on Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony. On Saturday, June 5th, the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda will perform Deryck Cooke’s  performing version of the work in the final concert of Mahler in Manchester

Escaping Klingsor’s Magic Garden; a painful awakening

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony teeters on the brink of irredeemable despair. It almost touches on madness, as the stabilising force of tonality is drastically undermined by using all the notes of the chromatic scale. This is music on the edge. It is generally understood that the work was written in the wake of the crisis in Mahler’s marriage, after discovering his wife’s affair with the radical young architect, Walter Gropius. The moving inscriptions Mahler added to the score express his profound anxiety that he might lose Alma, but also the hurt he must have felt at her betrayal. If you read David Matthews’ excellent article about the Tenth Symphony in the Oxford Mahler Companion, you will be left in little doubt that the work is concerned with the loss of love and the wounds of betrayal. Matthews identifies two quotations from Wagner to make his case.

The symphony repeats a pattern found in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony where the opening movement presents an overview of the work’s whole emotional journey, while the middle movements suggest a more specific perspective. The two strands connect in the work’s finale, where a love-song emerges out of the gloom of deep alienation. But I want to explore in more detail the first movement, the Adagio of the work; some of the most intense, and remarkably dramatic music which Mahler ever wrote. (Yet how many times, have you read in this blog that movement x or symphony y is the best of Mahler. He is an impossible composer, because everything he wrote was so strikingly original and executed with such extraordinary sureness of purpose that we find ourselves running out of superlatives and meaningful comparisons.)

The first movement of the Tenth is a slow movement which opens with a long solo viola line; a sinuous chromatic melody that is a recitative of profoundly melancholic introspection. It goes without saying that this recurring melodic shape provides the seed for much of the melodic material and harmonic colour that follows. But where does this idea of a long viola melody come from? The example which leaps to mind is found in Richard Strauss’ tone-poem Don Quixote, where a solo viola plays the part of Sancho Panza, Quixote’s trusty companion. The viola is naturally an instrument of subservience, as it traditionally does not receive much prominence as a voice in its own right. It produces a melancholic tone colour, ideal for Strauss’ to suggest the hint of exasperation and affection that the companion has for the deluded knight. It has been suggested that Strauss projected himself into the character of Panza and that this music is a self-portrait, which might indicate that Panza is the voice of common sense, a down-to -earth character, contrasting with the flights of fancy which characterise Quixote. This is music that marks the end of Romanticism, when the excesses and fantasies of that cultural movement were being exposed as charming or even dangerous delusions.

If you listen to the introduction of the Strauss you will hear passages of meandering chromaticism in the violas which portray Quixote losing touch with reality as his head is filled with daft notions. These meanderings anticipate the music associated with Sancho Panza. We can’t be sure that Mahler meant this allusion deliberately, but if we assume that he did mean it, what might he be saying? There is a very obvious answer, because Mahler is in this movement exploring the pain of waking up from infatuation. He is struggling discover what is real about what he feels. He thought he had found love with Alma. He had idealised her, projected feelings upon her, imagined her to be the goddess-like woman. But, by an act of faithlessness, she had shattered his hopes and dreams. This fall from grace in Mahler’s eyes had awoken him not just to her flaws as a human being, but the flaws of perception in himself. He had been dazzled by her beauty and by his desires to the point that he had lost touch with reality.

So Mahler’s emotional world has been turned upside down, and he has found himself waking painfully from delusion, as if he were Don Quixote. Quixote is the ageing Knight who tilts at windmills, who is courts a damsel who is in truth a mere farm-hand. He is naïve, a fantasist, a hero of the absurd whose irrational idealism and chivalrous heroism protect him from reality. Panza is by comparison the voice of reality – sceptical, questioning, warning of danger, going along with things rather reluctantly. So in these opening passages of the Tenth, could we be hearing an inner voice that is trying to articulate a sense of reality it can trust? The song-like orchestral tutti that cuts off this recitative has an imploring quality moulded by grief. It silences the introverted, reflective voice. It is as if Mahler is debating with himself – do I take the path of introspection and examine my inner reality or do I continue to extrovert my longing and seek love which risks bitter disappointment?

You might be a bit sceptical about this interpretation, but there is further evidence that Mahler is exploring the pain of waking from delusion. The faster material of the movement has a devilish dance-like quality, and when listening to it recently I found the main motive and its harmony sounded very familiar. I realised that there was a reference to the opening scene of Act II of Parsifal, which is set in Klingsor’s magic garden. It might be worth reprising a bit of the Parsifal story here to make the point. Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera; an exploration of the conflict between sexual love and spirituality. The Knights of the Holy Grail are in trouble because their leader, Amfortas, has been seduced by the harlot Kundry. As a consequence he suffers a wound that will not heal and the all-male bastion of the Knights is left in terminal decline. The Knights seem to suffer a general weakness of the flesh which prevents them dealing with Kundry and they are thus unable to restore the Order to good health. Kundry is directed by the evil magician, Klingsor, who has won dominion over his own sexuality by castrating himself. He lives in a magic castle with a garden of sensual delights; a web which lures the Knights to their fate so that Kundry can take advantage of them.  Only the innocent youth, Parsifal can save the Order by defeating Klingsor and resisting Kundry’s seductive powers.

But what has this do with Mahler? Mahler clearly identified himself in some respects with Amfortas, the wounded King who seeks redemption. Alma is identified with Kundry, the fallen woman – a seductress who has bamboozled Mahler with her beauty and youthful vitality. Sexual desire is portrayed in Parsifal as a weakness, driven by illusion and the false promises of sensual intoxication. Human sexuality thus appears as a dance of death led by cold-hearted Mother Nature who through the sex-drive causes reproduction, but cares nothing for the emotional consequences. Mahler experienced the failure of his marriage as a confrontation with the blind will of nature, but also as a moral failure on his part. The debacle of Alma’s affair was a failure of his perceptiveness and judgement as much as it was a betrayal by one he loved.

In the dance-like episodes of the first movement, Mahler suggests that he is surrounded by sensual delights which torment him, because he knows they are false, but part of him cannot resist them, like Amfortas, even though he knows it is leading him towards destruction. He loved and desired Alma, despite everything, and this made him vulnerable and helpless. This is why the music of the movement is so tormented and has such a diabolical air.

The lovelessness of Mother Nature is the very much the subject of the central scherzo of the symphony, the Purgatorio, which is secretly based on a poem by Mahler’s old friend Siegfried Lipiner about betrayal in love. The accompanying figurations of the music reminds us of the Wunderhorn song, Das irdische Leben, The Earthly Life – which depicts a child starving to death, because its mother does not feed it. There is also a quotation about the mortality of man from Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler seems to be saying lovelessness is the natural state of things because, with true Schopenhauerian pessimism, he believes that nature expresses itself blindly and deceives us by the beauty of its outward appearance. Mahler admits defeat. He is Don Quixote or the Knight of the Holy Grail who has succumbed to illusion, and his wound cannot heal until he learns penetrate the world of deceptive appearances.

The crunching dissonant climaxes which dominate the first and last movements of the symphony are the outcome of this struggle between two incompatible perspectives. Matthews suggests that the pulverising chord is based on Amfortas’ cry for redemption. But at these moments of crisis, there is also catharsis. Reality comes crashing in – as if Mahler has read Gropius’ letter to his wife or else he confronts her and she admits everything. He is cut to the quick; all illusions are shattered, all hope is proven false. But reality is also healing, because it exposes what was never true, what has been deception.  However, the symphony does not end in total pessimism, but achieves a moving serenity, even if its longing is never quite fulfilled. Mahler finds compassion and forgiveness, perhaps because through the course of the music, he gradually realises that Alma is only a mirror of his own inner woundedness, something innate to the human condition. By finding that universal truth in his personal situation, Mahler discovers a deeper truth which goes beyond his damaged ego and he finds the capacity to forgive. Thus compassion wins out over jealousy, and reality triumphs over illusion. Mahler was able to leave the prison of Klingsor’s magic garden.

Peter Davison

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Expert’s Perspective- Mahler 10, a crisis”

  1. Alpha

    First of all, let me say that I have enjoyed the surveys of Mahler’s symphonies on your website. They have delighted and fascinated me to no end, and it’s always nice to discover a person who can explain Mahler’s symphonies in simple plain language.

    I love all Mahler’s symphonies, but so far, the tenth symphony has eluded me. This new writing has motivated me to listen to it again, but I’m just wondering if you can shed some lights on the state of how complete (or unfinished) this symphony is when Mahler died. Also, did Peter Davison’s perspective on Mahler 10 entirely based on Deryck Cooke’s completion?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Alpha

    Thank you for the message- I’m hoping to write something later this week addressing the question of how complete the work was. In short, he did complete and fully orchestrate the first movement, although he would almost certainly have added and changed details later. The other movements are all complete in short score- there are some indications of orchestration, but not many. In places the texture is extremely thin, requiring Cooke or the other editors to fill in with harmonies or countermelodies. However- there is a line from beginning to end that is all Mahler and much of it is quite complete. The differences between the completions is not so much that you can’t recognize them all as being made from the same material.

    I can’t speak for Peter, but one legacy of Cooke is that he carefully transcribed the manuscript of Mahler’s sketch, and most other completions have used this transcription as a starting point. Barshai’s version is considered by many to be an important recent contribution because he has clarified and corrected some mis-readings.

  3. Alpha

    I have Rattle’s BPO recording of Cooke’s completion on EMI, and has yet to warm to it. I also have Barshai’s recording of his own completion of Mahler 10 with Junge Deutsche Philharmonie which I haven’t listened to yet. I hope that’s the version that you were referring to in your reply above, and I’ll look forward to give it a spin.

    Thanks again, Kenneth.

  4. Peter

    Dear Alpha,

    Yes, I am referring to the Cooke version, although I don’t think there is any reason to believe that other versions differ geatly, except in matters of detail. There are debates to be had about orchestration and the odd note, but not about form or thematic content.

    It is rewarding to know that people have found the blog series clear and helpful. Ken deserves a lot of congratulations for taking this project on and allowing others to contribute. We have rather stuck our necks out at times, which will not have gone down so well in some academic circles, but the wider public are usually more open-minded.

    What I have discovered listening to these works one after another is how they are so intimately connected with events in Mahler’s life without ever being directly an account of them. Also, how each work is such a leap of development from what precedes it, yet obviously grows out of it too.

    By the last works, written only 20 or so years after the early ones, the tone of voice and language have changed beyond all recognition, yet this is still discernibly the same voice but which has now grown wise with experience.

    Finally, I would say that I am more convinced than ever that Mahler was not a transitional figure towards Schoenberg and the serialists. Mahler’s solution to the crisis of late-Romanticism was unique and personal and did not require the breaking down of tonality. Quite the opposite, he affirmed tonality as the true basis of European music.

    For Mahler, resolving the tensions of his music into harmony is a symbolic journey mapping the resolution of his own psychological dissonances. In fact, Mahler’s spiritual resolution is more akin to Wagner and Schopenhauer in its embracing of eastern mysticism. He did not, as Schoenberg did, follow the path into intellectual rigour and organisation. Mahler offers a way past orthodox modernism – both in his language and aesthetics, and he connects more strongly with Shostakovitch, Britten and Berg, than the post-war modernists.

    I don’t think that makes him a conservative. His aesthetics were revolutionary, just as the questions he attempts to answer remain universal. The musical history books may need rewriting one day.


  5. Bertram Christmas

    One must hear Kurt Sanderling’s late 1970’s recording of Cooke. He used the revised Cooke score as his basis, and added his own unique touches here and there to the orchestration. These re-touchings are nothing drastic, but they all indeed benefit to the works overall emotionality and structure. It is indeed quite an extrordinary performance that has never quite received the full acclaim it deserves, due to its lack of worldwide availability. For a long long time the recording could only be obtained in East Germany on LP and Japan on CD. It is currently available on the Berlin Classics available and can be found on amazon.

  6. Steven Gendel

    Nice work, Ken – thank you! We’re getting the M10 Adagio and the Bernstein ‘Kaddish’ here next week, with our “new”, tallented Music Director, José Luis Gomez, for the Bernstein Centenary.

    I do love the ‘Adagio’ such as it is (Cooke III), and I like hearing your investigation and postulations of the underpinnings of the composer’s work. The allusions, in particular, and echoes from Strauss and Wagner are appreciated illumination. Musically, technically, it strikes me as a slow movement version of M9 – 1, in its multi-linear method for creating both the harmonic landscape and the musical drama. Thanks, again.

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