Unfinished/Unheard- The ideas and themes behind the programming of MF XXX

Unfinished/Unheard

— By Kenneth Wooods

In the 100+ years since his death, Mahler’s 10th Symphony has become possibly the most famous, perhaps even infamous, unfinished work of art in Western civilisation. For over 50 years, it was a work shrouded in rumor and myth, as famous for Mahler’s various written outbursts in the manuscript as for its musical message. Music lovers everywhere owe a great debt of gratitude to Deryck Cooke, who was the first to make it possible for music lovers to hear Mahler’s final musical thoughts. His efforts opened the door to performances of completions and performing versions by Remo Mazzetti, Clinton Carpenter, Rudolf Barshai, Yoel Gamzou and Joe Wheeler, whose realisation of the Tenth was given its world premiere here at Colorado MahlerFest in 1997 under the baton of Robert Olson.

Mahler was always a composer of contradictions and extremes, and the Tenth, perhaps more than any of his other works, encourages us to contemplate the most pressing questions of life and death, of love and betrayal, and even to think about the question of what makes a work of art. When does an idea for a symphony become a symphony? This week we also contemplate what it means when music goes unheard by composer or audiences. Most of us think of sound as the essence of music, and yet this week we perform several works that existed only silently, on paper, for decades. We contemplate why some works of art are left unfinished, and whether an unfinished work should remain unheard, and, of course, whether a finished work need stay forever in a single, fixed form.

Mahler never had the satisfaction of hearing any part of the Tenth, or for that matter his Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde. When Mahler ended his last summer holiday in 1910, he made sure that the Tenth was complete in one very important respect- it existed as an unbroken musical structure from beginning to end. This marks a fundamental difference from other unfinished works such as the Mozart Requiem, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Bach’s Art of Fugue, each of which was left structurally incomplete at the time of each composer’s death. Much work remained to be done on the Tenth when Mahler died—most of the piece still needed to be orchestrated, and in places the continuity of the work is maintained only by the most tenuous of threads, but Mahler went back to New York in the Autumn of 1910 with Tenth Symphony very much a complete and coherent musical and philosophical statement.

Mahler had suffered his famous “three blows of fate” in the summer of 1907—the death of his daughter Maria, the loss of his position as director of the Vienna State Opera and the diagnosis of a serious heart condition. In the months following his diagnosis Mahler was deeply concerned about his new physical frailty. Over the course of the next few years, however, he had largely moved on to a new life, making a huge success in New York with the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera and his compositional powers had continued to grow. Just as he had recovered from the near-fatal haemorrhage that had preceded the composition of his Fifth Symphony, it looked like Mahler had once again overcome a devastating turn of events and moved forward with renewed strength and conviction, and ever-greater artistic confidence, into a new chapter of life. Of his final three works, the Tenth is actually in many ways the least valedictory- Mahler in this work is no longer contemplating the terrifying prospect of his own death so much as he is the terrifying prospect of a life without Alma.

Many now believe that Schubert learned he was dying of syphilis around the time he wrote the torso of his own Unfinished Symphony in 1882-3. Like Mahler, in the last years of his life, Schubert’s creative powers continued to grow at an astounding pace after being confronted with his own imminent mortality. Benjamin Britten once said that “It is arguable that the richest and most productive 18 months in music history was the time when Beethoven had just died, when the 19th century giants Wagner, Verdi and Brahms had not yet begun; I mean the period in which Schubert wrote Die Winterreise, the great C Major symphony, his last three piano sonatas, the C Major String Quintet, as well as at least a dozen other glorious pieces. The very creation of these works in that space of time hardly seems credible, but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanation.” The Quintet in C major was one of his last works (it was his final chamber work) and for me, as for many other musicians, it is the Everest of chamber music, a work of unmatched beauty, spirituality and profundity. Just as Mahler never heard his last three works, Schubert never heard the Quintet, nor most of his other late works. The Quintet was finally performed in 1850 and published in 1853. Between Schubert’s death and its revival, it was nothing more than dots on the page- silent, unheard, unknown.

More often than not, a composer’s final musical thoughts were part of a work he or she was composing at the time of their death- hence the unfinished nature of not only Mahler’s Tenth, but Bruckner’s Ninth, the Mozart Requiem and the Bartók Viola Concerto. Other composers chose silence long before their death- so it was with both Sibelius and Elgar. Elgar found the disintegration of the world he grew up in during World War I deeply troubling, and the musical revolutions of Schönberg, Stravinsky and the new avant garde left him feeling irrelevant. During the War, he retreated to a cottage at Brinkwells in Sussex, where he completed his last four major works—the autumnal Cello Concerto and his only three mature chamber works: the Piano Quintet, the Violin Sonata and the String Quartet. These four works were his farewell to composition though he lived, in good health, another fifteen years. We’re very excited to present the US Premiere of the new string orchestra version of Elgar’s String Quartet by our Visiting Composer, David Matthews, who also played such an important role in the orchestration and refinement of the Cooke Performing Version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

Matthews became involved in the revisions of the Tenth when he and his brother reached out to Deryck Cooke as, in his words, “teenage Mahler fanatics.” David Matthews would go on to become one of the leading British composers of his own generation and a formidable symphonist in his own right. He has just completed his own Ninth Symphony, which my colleagues in the English Symphony Orchestra and I will premiere in 2018. Just as Mahler couldn’t resist the opportunity to put his mark as an orchestrator on Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor (“Serioso”) or Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, Matthews’ work on the Elgar reminds us that a work need not be unfinished to invite further creative engagement from a composer. His Romanza for Violin and Piano, given its US Premiere on the 17th of May, is one of his works in which Mahler’s influence is most apparent, particularly in the delirium of the Viennese Waltz which forms the climax of this powerfully expressive work.

Mahler’s influence has also continued to be felt among composers across Europe and Russia. György Kurtág, now 91 years old and still going strong, has been writing his series Signs, Games and Messages, for decades now. It is both his musical diary and his magnum opus, and it is a work that will forever be, by definition, unfinished. Where Mahler was a composer who always seemed to need to work in enormous forms, Kurtág is the greatest of miniaturists- everything in his music is distilled down to miraculously potent essentials. However, like Mahler, Kurtág is fascinated by contradictions in both life and music, and so in the selection of movements we present this week we have music that is highly structured alongside vernacular music, and music that ranges from quirky humor to deep despair, from violent fortissimos to music that hovers on the very knife-edge of silence.

Alfred Schnittke was another composer for whom Mahler’s influence was incredibly important. His adaptation of the fragment of the second movement of Mahler’s uncompleted youthful Piano Quartet is just the most obvious example of Schnittke’s reverence for Mahler. Where Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers went to great lengths to make their Performing Version of the Tenth is true to Mahler’s soundworld as they could, Schnittke’s approach to the Quartet fragment is unashamedly interventionist. He plays with the youthful Mahler’s musical ideas as a cat plays with a caught mouse. It is also fascinating also to hear the more-or-less complete first movement of the Quartet, the earliest music of Mahler’s generally performed today, alongside his final work. It is not hard to see why Mahler never finished this piece- it shows he was still very much learning the art of composition- and yet his personality is very much there. The intensity, the honesty, the passion and the confessional nature of the music in the Quartet is not far at all from that in the Tenth, and yet Mahler grew, changed and reinvented his language throughout his career. It is fascinating to see the astounding growth in technique and confidence between the Piano Quartet and the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler’s first mature song cycle, which we showcase in this year’s conducting masterclass. And in a year in which we contemplate so many late and final works of great artists at the ends of their lives and careers, it is wonderful to see the future of our art-form in the hands of artists like our three gifted Mahler Conducting Fellows. Creating opportunities for deserving emerging artists will be an ever-greater part of the mission of MalherFest in years to come.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Spread the word. Share this post!

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.