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About this Piece

Composed: 1910
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 25, 1973, Zubin Mehta conducting

Mahler was obsessive and neurotic about many things. He worried about the significance of numbers, he worried about what he ate, he worried about exercise, and all of these worries were tied into his obsession with his own mortality. He also worried about his younger wife, a talented, beautiful woman whom the composer loved deeply, with the same sort of obsession that marked other facets of his life.

He had escaped one of his greatest fears, that he would not live past his Ninth Symphony, by not numbering his Ninth Symphony.

The Ninth held a fatal significance for Mahler, who believed that Beethoven had set a limit by dying after his Ninth Symphony. Mahler called what should have been his Ninth Symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), thus cheating death, or so he thought. But the Ninth (even though it was really his Tenth) would be Mahler’s last completed Symphony, in spite of his ruse. When he died, the Tenth, whose Adagio we hear at these concerts, was unfinished, a noble torso only partly clothed.

In 1910, other fears were coming true for Mahler. His wife Alma had had an affair with the architect Walter Gropius, who mistakenly sent a letter intended for Alma to “Herr Direktor Mahler.” The letter, in which Gropius begged Alma to leave her husband, precipitated a marital crisis, and the composer went off to Leiden to see Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, “The necessity for the visit arose, for him, from his wife’s resentment of the withdrawal of his libido from her. In highly interesting expeditions through his life history, we discovered his personal conditions for love, especially his Holy Mary complex (mother fixation). I had plenty of opportunity to admire the capability for psychological understanding of this man of genius.”

The visit to Freud was one way of working through the crisis; the other was the Tenth Symphony. Mahler covered the pages of its manuscript with tortured outcries – “Madness, seize me, the accursed! Negate me, so I forget that I exist, that I may cease to be!”, or “To live for you! To die for you!”, and even the dedication of the love song at the heart of the Symphony’s finale to his wife, using an affectionate form of her name, “Almschi!” Alma stayed with Mahler during his final illness, accompanying him from New York to Paris to Vienna, where he died of a blood infection on May 18, 1911.

Alma Mahler kept the sketches for the Tenth Symphony for 13 years, during which rumors circulated that it was the haphazard work of a temporarily deranged madman, a genius suffering under a psychological collapse brought on by his personal crisis. In 1924, at the urging of Mahler’s biographer Richard Specht, Alma asked her son-in-law, the composer Ernst Krenek, to complete the Symphony. She also took the brave step of publishing a facsimile of the sketches, pained inscriptions and all. What emerged was not indecipherable musical lunacy, but rather an entirely lucid score of a five-movement work, with the opening Adagio completely orchestrated and scoring on the third movement, entitled “Purgatorio,” also well underway. The remaining portions of the Symphony were in what musicologist Deryck Cooke, who offered a performing version of the entire Symphony in 1964, described as “various states of completion.” Krenek’s version of the Adagio and Purgatorio, which incorporated suggestions and retouchings from composers Alban Berg and Alexander Zemlinsky (another man who suffered emotionally because of his unrequited love for Alma) and the conductor Franz Schalk, was premiered by Schalk and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1924. This version was superseded by Cooke’s and by the scholarly version of the Adagio published in the critical Mahler edition in 1964, the version used for the present performances.

The Adagio, over its 20-minute-plus span, traverses emotional ground familiar to admirers of other Mahler works, especially the final song of Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio finale of the Ninth Symphony. The movement begins andante (a notch faster than adagio), with a hushed harmonic exploration by the violas. Soon, the adagio proper arrives, with a “warm” (Mahler’s designation) melody introduced by the violins. Mahler works through these two contrasting groups of material over the course of the movement, building to a grand climax, with the full orchestra sounding like a spectacular pipe organ. This climax collapses into a lacerating, dissonant orchestral shriek, a musical expression of its creator’s anguish and pain. The movement ends with a sprawling orchestral passage, showing Mahler’s imaginative use of the orchestra at its finest. This, his last “completed” music for orchestra, both bids farewell to the Romanticism of the 19th century and, with its dissonance and harmonic questing, foreshadows the music to come. In 1910, when Mahler was working on his Tenth Symphony, the world was two years from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and three from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the alpha and omega of the 20th-century musical revolution.

– John Mangum is Director of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.