Future Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 10, am I late yet?

Mahler in Manchester

Many, many years ago, as a young teenager, I became completely obsessed with Mahler’s music. Back then, living in the Midwest, there was far less material on Mahler about- I ended up scouring libraries and compulsively hunting through record stores, trying bit by bit to track down recordings of all his works. In the age of LPs, Mahler’s music was far rarer, often painfully expensive and sometimes hard to find. I kept checking out Karajan’s Mahler 6 from the local public library for over two years until I could finally get a copy in at the local record store to buy.

I remember that process like being sucked into a long novel that you feel compelled to finish as fast as possible. It wasn’t long from when I first started actively learning about his music that I discovered the 10th Symphony. I managed to track down Rattle’s then brand- new LP of it with Bournemouth, which had the wonderful bonus of tremendously interesting program notes by a man named Michael Steinberg. Michael would later become a dear friend and wise mentor- life is funny that way.

I became fascinated with Mahler’s progression as a composer, and particularly with where he was at the end of his journey. I suppose that is just typical teenage attraction to the vaguely morbid and melancholy. I was so taken by Mahler’s evolution from the completion of the 7th, which seems in retrospect the end of the main part of his creative life, through the 8th, Das Lied von der Erde, the 9th and finally the 10th. Mahler was not an old man, and these are not morbid nor fatalistic works, yet to me, they still seem to be part of a final voyage. I never could imagine a next after them. Perhaps that is simply a response to my superficial knowledge that they were his last pieces. If someone had told me that the 5th or the 6th were his last pieces before I knew better, what might I have thought they told me about Mahler and about music and creativity?

Still, this mystery of where, if anywhere, a composer could have gone given another year or even another week has always fascinated me. The interest in this music for me has never been about whether a given tune was intended for horn or clarinet, or if a countermelody might be added. From Mahler 10, I quickly took on the larger question and for a school project put together a huge presentation on the idea of “late style” in music.  Of course, there are the obvious parallels in other un-finished works like Bruckner 9 and the Mozart Requiem, but it’s not just a question of how those works might be different from the torsos we are so familiar with, or of what else those composers might have gone on to write that fascinated me then, and that, all these decades later, still fascinates me.

Not all composers have a true “late” style- Bruckner, Mahler, Schubert, Shostakovich and Beethoven all do, but not all of them were old when they entered that period of their creative lives. I think. Schubert’s is the most striking, and he was so young. Is it appropriate to call the music of a man in his early 30’s a “late” style of composition? In Schubert’s case, my strong conviction is yes. Unfashionably intuitive as such a statement is, I can’t help but feel convinced that works like the Cello Quintet, G Major String Quartet, Die Wintereise and the last Piano Sonatas are very much the works of a man who knew he had entered a final chapter in his life. In so many moments in late Schubert, I can’t escape the feeling that his music is taking me as close to an idea of what the next stage of existence might be as can possibly be communicated between two people who are still in this world. Likewise in late Beethoven or late Mahler- one is not only astounded at the musical quality of the works, but also at the profound understanding ephemeral nature of life that comes through in the music.

And yet, of course, had a shot of penicillin been available, Mahler might have gotten up from his death bed, completed the 10th and gone on to write for many more decades. He and Strauss could have kept their rivalry going into the 1940’s, and the 10th might have simply been seen as a document of the end of Mahler’s first marriage.

I must accept that such a thing could have been possible. Sometimes, we find new information that changes our understanding of a final work. For years, we believed that the Adagio of Bruckner’s last symphony was the last thing he wrote- his final, profound thoughts. We now know that he had almost completed the Finale. Had it not been for the greed of souvenir hunters who ransacked his house in the hours after his death, we would now have a Finale of Bruckner 9 that is essentially complete. Where Mahler had completed his 10th in short score, Bruckner had finished the orchestration of  most of the surviving fragments of his 9th. This means Bruckner had probably finished the creative work on the symphony and was well into the final details of orchestration and revision when he died. The Adagio was not his farewell. I couldn’t imagine what Bruckner could have done after the Adagio, but he could.

So, Mahler might well have lived to put the 10th in a different light entirely, but  my heart tells me that the last three works by Mahler were, like the last string quartets of Beethoven and the late works of Schubert steps nearing the end of a great creative life. Any of them could have been the end, and he made sure that they were each worthy of being the end.  As the great comedian once said- live each day as if it were your last, and one day, you will be right.  Each is its own work- the nature worship and evocation of a distant Oriental dreamscape is unique to Das Lied. The 9th seems wound up with the loss of his daughter and the loss of culture- in the Rondo-Burleske it is easy to sense Mahler feeling that his city, Vienna, had turned on him. And, yes, the 10th certainly brings to a head the long musical relationship to Alma the muse and tormentor, who has been the primary recurring character since the 5th Symphony.

But, in each of these works, Mahler’s autobiography seems ever less relevant, however poignant the story is- his message is ever more universal. I continue to sense in all three pieces that he is deeply aware that he is nearing the end of his journey, but rather than leaving us to wallow in his grief, these pieces are profoundly, profoundly hopeful, cathartic and transformative. In the last pages of the 10th Symphony, Mahler seems to have left suffering and fear far behind- he no longer turns to the naïve hope of a blissful afterlife so wonderfully evoked in the 4th, but instead creates bliss and transcendence through art itself.


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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.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

5 comments on “Future Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 10, am I late yet?”

  1. Chuck

    Hi Ken,

    I enjoyed reading your blog. It’s so difficult to enter into the creative artist’s mind to know what are late works that the composer viewed as a last testament of sorts vs just the last works that are left to us which we, by necessity, view as “late.”. How did these geniuses view their life spans? I’m a healthy 55 and hope to get to a healthy 85. Maybe I’ll write a book or two after I’m done with the medical profession–a second career. Would that type of projection be a reasonable expectation in the pre-antibiotic, pre-public health era? I doubt it. One had better start acting like a full-fledged adult by about age 20 and hope to get about 20 more years of productivity.

    If Mendelssohn had lived as long as Wagner, would he have had a similar impact? He doesn’t seem to have a “late” period. Would Mahler have been a Sibelius or–a Strauss–or a Monteverdi or Verdi if he had their longevity? It is almost embarrassing to have Bernstein opine that Mahler couldn’t have possibly written more than the M9 since (paraphrasing) “he had said all he had to say,” when he was well into completing another symphony. I like the Cooke grouping of the first three symphonies then a break for the 4th, then the next three then a break with the 8th and then DLvdE, 9 and 10. The middle work of these trios is always the most extreme and the next one is a consolidation before Mahler moved on to newer things–after a clean break for something completely different.

  2. Peter

    Dear Ken,

    You give a moving account of the work and your relationship with it. It is amazing music that transports us out of the ordinariness of our everyday lives and challenges us to live with the intensity as if every day was our last. Late-style for me means where the composer has such mastery over his musical language, there is no technical obstacle to saying what he wants to say. The musical form is based upon deep truth rather than learned convention.

    The relationship between Mahler’s personal life and the music is always hard to grasp. His critics accuse him of blatent narcissism, wallowing in sentimental emotions, exhibitionism and hysterical exaggeration. But the idea that Mahler has a row with his wife and then self-pityly writes it down in music is naive and ridiculous. Mahler absorbs his experience at a very deel level and then seeks the universal truth that helps him make sense of it. If you like, the torment of being in love with Alma is for him emblematic of the wider problem that faces all mankind – how to find what lies behind emotional attachment – which is often a mix of childish needs, deep desires and a grown-up empathy for the other. That is something universal, and Mahler creates music out of the tension between the personal and universal. The aim of the symphonic project for Mahler is exactly to get past narcissistic delusions, and that is why we find it so meaningful.

    What might Mahler have done if he had lived? It is a hypothesis that stretches imagination. Mahler would have probably emigrated to America. He might have fallen silent like Sibelius. I doubt he would have followed Schoenberg’s example musically. But the hypothesis is awkward, because Mahler’s death placed Schoenberg centre-stage among the radicals and arguably pushed him further down the path to serialism. Here’s a wild thought. If Mahler had lived, perhaps serialism would never have happened, because Mahler would have persuaded Schonberg it was not a solution to the musical and emotional problems that faced him.

    We cannot underestimate how the death of Mahler changed the landscape. Death in Venice was written by Thomas Mann for instance. Alma married Gropius, and it was the death of their daughter Manon which inspired Berg’s violin concerto. Imagine also the emotional impact of hearing the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde knowing Mahler was dead. It must have added to the apocalyptic fin de siecle despair of the next generation.

    We probably always underestimate the ramifications of changing history, because Mahler went on changing lives and the culture even when he was dead. His absence was felt acutely and interpreted as a victory for the conservatives. In fact, can’t we say that he Mahler’s influence continues beyond the grave, because every person touched by this music is never the same, and the story of his life and death are, like some modern biblical text, imprinted deeply on us. Ken got it right when he says this music is transformative. It aims to change the listener, and for those with open ears and hearts, it has that power.


  3. Kenneth Woods

    As always, Peter has some wise thoughts here- readers, take note!

    On the question of what makes a late style, I would add one more facet to what Peter explicitly says (in fact, he basically implies this in the rest of what he writes). For me, late style comes of both an all-encompassing mastery of one’s art and of a real breadth of life experience, including all manner of personal loves and losses, tragedies, set backs, illnesses and the difficulty of facing one’s own mortality. We certainly see this in Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich and Mahler- that the late style emerges at a transitional point in life where the artist has had to face some deep fears about death and deal with some very difficult changes in their life or their health.

  4. Peter

    Thanks Ken.

    Mahler’s late-style emerges even in his earlier works. In fact movements like “O Mensch Gib Acht” from the Third or the Adagio of the Fourth often come close to the late style. The Ruckert songs and Kindertotenlieder too already seem to inhabit the world of Das Lied von der Erde.

    Perhaps a true late-style is defined by the economy and sureness of expression, by what has been stripped away – rather than what has been added by experience. Spareness is a recurrent charcteristic of all the music mentioned above as well as symphonies 9 and 10.

    Closeness to death perhaps sharpens the spiritual antennae and dissolves ego. That’s why I doubt Mahler would have followed Schonberg, because all that theorising and polemic has nothing to do with the essential qualities of being and a lot to do with forging an historical reputation.


  5. Kevin Scott

    What if Mahler lived to complete the Tenth and encountered life afterwards may be one of the biggest “what if…?” in music history. My thoughts may be a bit cracked, but…here goes.

    Within the last couple of years I discovered that a ninth performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth appeared, one by the Portuguese composer-clarinetist-conductor Luis Carvalho. Unlike the more familiar editions that employ a large orchestra, Carvalho scored his version for an ensemble of twenty-one players, an ensemble that could be described as anti-Mahler when one reviews the scoring employed, which includes an alto flute, saxophones, accordion and a percussion section that would not be out of place either in a late 20th-century/early 21st century film score or even one of Edgard Varese’s compositions from the 1920s.

    And this leads to my point – what if Mahler had lived long enough not only to encounter the madness of World War I and its aftermath that would lead to the political and military forces that would usher in a second grand war, but encounter not just the dodecaphonic scores of his friend Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern, but also the music of Bartok, Hindemith, Varese, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin, as well as the jazz bands of “Duke” Ellington and Paul Whiteman in addition to the music of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Nielsen? Would Mahler embrace this music as a conductor, as well as a composer? This is a tough call, especially as Mahler was already challenging his own conducting technique by composing the second movement of the Tenth which, on the surface, is on a par with the challenges Stravinsky was already creating with The Rite of Spring. Yet would he have accepted most, if not all, of the innovations of these composers?

    In reviewing Carvalho’s orchestration, his modernist concept is both proto and anti-Mahler, as if to say Mahler might have incorporated some orchestral ideas of the “new kids on the block”, yet managing to continue his own compositional vision, and in proving his point he “re-invents” (his term) the draft of Mahler’s last written symphonic statement as one that seeks further ground, not only on a melodic and harmonic level, but primarily orchestral. For example, where Cooke subtly employs the xylophone in the last two movements of the Tenth (which Simon Rattle omitted in his recording, citing that the instrument makes the symphony sound “strangely like Hindemith”), Carvalho makes liberal use of the instrument throughout the work’s course. Perhaps Carvalho took Rattle’s statement to heart and decided to make use of this instrument not only the way Mahler did in the scherzo of the sixth symphony, but also how Berg, Korngold, Hindemith and other post-World War I composers did in their compositions?

    All of this, of course, is my interpretation of what Carvalho is seeking in Mahler, as we also have to realize that had Mahler not suffered from bacterial endocarditis he might have composed a different tenth symphony, which is also unlikely given the historical ramifications that caused him to re-create his own work from an initial two-movement short symphony into a five-movement epic canvas.

    Of the two chamber-orchestra performing editions available (the other one by Michelle Castelletti that calls for a small ensemble not dissimilar to the one that one hears in the Schoenberg-Riehm orchestration of Das Lied or Klaus Simon’s editions of the other symphonies), Carvalho’s is inventively radical, but also respects what Mahler did leave us. Here is the link to his version:

    Kevin Scott

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