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Symphony No. 10 (1910, unfinished)

  • 1. Adagio

Mahler spent his 50th birthday, on 7 July 1910, alone. He had arrived a few days earlier at his summer composing haunt in Alt Schluderbach in the Tyrol, having first visited his wife Alma who had been staying at a sanatorium near Graz since 1 June, in her own words 'to cure her ailing nerves'. Unbeknown to Mahler, within days of her arrival there she had met the young architect Walter Gropius, then aged 27 (she was 30), and began an affair. As Mahler occupied himself with answering a flood of birthday good wishes and began work on a new symphony, he encouraged his wife not to join him until she felt quite well (though he did complain that she never answered his letters). She eventually joined him on 16 July but carried on a secret correspondence with Gropius, often with the assistance of her mother. On 29 July, an intimate letter from Gropius to Alma was sent (by mistake, he claimed) directly to Mahler. A few days later, Gropius arrived unannounced, intending to explain himself. Mahler asked Alma to choose between them. But while ostensibly remaining with her husband, Alma continued her relationship with Gropius, making it clear in her letters that she saw him as her future. Mahler, meanwhile, persuaded by Alma that her betrayal was caused by years of neglect on his part, travelled all the way to Leiden on the Dutch coast for a single meeting with Sigmund Freud.

Against such a background, the Tenth Symphony was somehow sketched. Only years later did it emerge that Mahler had, in a few weeks that troubled summer, produced a rough draft of an entire work in five movements. In the 1920s, Alma initiated various attempts to have parts of it completed and performed, though it was not until 1964, in the 'performing version' prepared by Deryck Cook, that the entirety of what Mahler had completed was presented to the public. It was always understood that, had Mahler lived to complete the symphony, it would have been significantly different in a manifold of details. But it is also broadly agreed that the Adagio first movement had, by the time of Mahler's death, been brought very close to its final stage. Mahler was an obsessive reviser, often making changes to the orchestration of his works after conducting them. The Adagio of the Tenth Symphony might well have been subject to such final changes, but by the same token so might the Ninth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde, neither of which was performed during Mahler's lifetime.

There is a certain kinship between the Adagio that ends the Ninth and that which begins the Tenth. Both open with an exposed single line for strings, outside the main tempo of the movement, but compared to the gesture of almost desperate intensity with which the Ninth begins, the Tenth presents a hesitant statement for the violas, at a quiet dynamic and with only a faint sense of pulse. This vagrant, chromatic line makes for an extraordinary beginning to a symphony; alone and utterly exposed, it traces out a fragile ascent before collapsing back to silence. It is followed by the theme of the Adagio proper, given by closely-scored strings and built from symmetrically ascending and descending phrases. The movement progresses as a kind of double variations, generating its drama out of the constant changes of tone and character in their successive transformations. The first theme appears in an increasingly mocking version, its restless quality edged by harsh wind trills, while the second seems to become more inward and heartfelt. Late Mahler has a particular tone that arises when instruments, straining at the limit of their upper registers, are left exposed, without any of the usual support in the middle of the orchestral texture. The resulting quality of emptiness, of parts having been left out, has the effect of making audible the absence of the composer. Rarely has death been written in to music so literally.

The climax of the Adagio was a later addition by Mahler and its terrifying force has something to do with its sense of intrusive violence. Out of nowhere, a vast musical abyss breaks open (in music's darkest key of A flat minor). A single pitch (an 'A', of course) is held for what seems like an eternity, becoming the centre of the most dissonant chord that Mahler ever conceived (it contains nine out of the 12 possible pitch classes). The attempt of the expressive line to make progress, to work towards some kind of resolution, is blocked by this vertical dissonance, a musical brick-wall, more like a scream than anything else. The same gesture would be revisited in the Finale as the central problem of the entire symphony. For now, the unprecedented violence of this moment is followed by broken fragments of the earlier melodic lines, like fragile limbs reaching out in the dark for some kind of reassurance. This is music of disarming gentleness and vulnerability. Thin, palely luminous, it returns repeatedly to the same place, waiting patiently for some quiet resolution.

© Julian Johnson