Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mahler 10

Gustav Mahler died on this date 100 years ago. At that moment one of the greatest musical voices was stilled at the all too young age of 50. Racked with disease (which simple antibiotics could have cured, but alas had not been discovered as of yet) saddened with grief over a daughter who had recently died and the revelation of his unfaithful wife Alma and her affairs, many who saw him thought he looked 25 years older.

Mahler spent much of his last 3 years in New York at both the Metropolitan Opera, overseeing some widely acclaimed productions and then at the New York Philharmonic where some say his influence reigns today. Sadly, since this was before recording an orchestra became practical, we have no record of a Mahler led performance. We are poorer for that.

Despite his busy opera and concert schedule, Mahler found time to compose in the summer when he returned to Vienna and his summer cottage in the mountains. There he set to paper, in these last days, 3 masterpieces, the 9th Symphony, "Das Lied von der Erde" and the mysterious, controversial and often misunderstood unfinished Symphony # 10.

If the 9th and "Das Lied" are stories unto their own, the 10th is worthy of a novel.

Mahler worked feverishly on the 10th during the summer of 1910 in Austria. He had completed the 9th and Das Lied but had yet to have them performed. Dear Gustav thought he had cheated the curse of the ninth (a superstition that all great composers will die after completing their 9th symphony, as did Beethoven) by interjecting "Das Lied" in between the 8th and 9th, making the unnumbered "Das Lied" a de facto 9th. Thus a grand 10th was planned and soon was making great progress before he left Austria in September to fulfill his obligations in New York. Becoming progressively sicker, he returned to Europe in April and died in Vienna in May. The 10th, partially done but awaiting the summer Mahler never saw, lay incomplete.

If his wife Alma and friend Bruno Walter had their way, we would have heard none of the work at all. The opening Adagio was complete and fully orchestrated and scored. The other 4 movements were in various stages of completion, but the music, the notes as it were, were all there. What was missing was orchestration, dynamics, phrasing and the inevitable revisions. Because of that only the Adagio was ever published but rarely played. Alma forbid any completions.. Walter wanted it all destroyed. I have never forgiven him for that.

Since there is much material to work on, several completions have been made of this remarkable work. Clinton Carpenter completed a version as early as 1949 but only published a final version in 1966, Hans Wollschl├Ąger worked on a version in the 50's but gave up. English musicologist Joe Wheeler did several versions in the 50's and 60's as well. Another English musicologist Deryck Cooke published his version in 1964 after rousing much interest in the work in a pioneering radio broadcast in 1960. Cooke's version was the first to be performed in 1964 in London with the LSO under the direction of Berthold Goldschmidt, who, truth be known, contributed more than he has been credited. These historic performances, plus Cooke's 1960 illustrated lecture can be heard in a Testament release. Since then others have made their own versions, and all have their supporters, but that of Cooke (and subsequent revisions) has become the standard.

My tired eyes and hands can not permit me to go on all much longer, so I will spare you a note by note description of this fabulous work, it is one that has to be heard. Any completion of an unfinished work is an amalgam of compromise and educated guess work, and the Mahler 10th is no exception. But since the adagio was complete and so much of the music is there, what we have is a flawed, certainly not as Mahler intended, symphony that is so powerful it is hardly describable in words. Mahler was moving into a new sound world with the 10th (the 9th too for that matter); gone were the Wunderhorn Songs, the cowbells and folk instruments, replaced by lean, spare textures, darker sounds and the beginnings of dissonant expressionism. Mahler's anguish fills every page. The last movement begins with a muffled funeral drum (controversy rages to this day as to the number of beats, volume and texture of that drum), ends with a scream of pain and release to an angelic close. In between is one of the most achingly beautiful melodies ever written.

Something in this piece speaks to me like nothing else. I first heard it in the 70's on a Decatur Public Library LP of the first commercial recording by Ormandy/Philadelphia. Since then I have amassed every recording ever made, either LP, CD or download (we don't always talk about those). If you want a list of the recordings, go to the Wikipedia article on Mahler 10 there is a fine list there, compiled by yours truly. I never tire listening to it and it is playing now (Sanderling Berlin SO, one of my favorites) as I write.

Soon I will finish this little essay, grab a glass of wine and listen again to this creation. I will raise a toast to Gustav, immerse my being in the sound, occasionally close my eyes, and, as one would do upon seeing the ruins of antiquity, imagine what Mahler would have done if he had not passed to the great beyond 100 years ago today.

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