So we turn now to the very last symphony that Mahler ever wrote and one that he never finished, the Symphony No 10. Because it is an unfinished symphony, there is a little bit of debate about, first of all, if the Symphony No 10 should be performed and then, assuming it can be performed, which version of it do you perform.
Those who are uninterested in all such nerdery can simply skip down to the section “What Does It Sound Like?”, but for the rest of you, there are some interesting insights here into composer’s last wishes (and whether you pay attention to them) and the kind of decisions that conductors and orchestras have to make when dealing with works that were never fully completed by their composer.
What Does “Unfinished” mean?
First off, though, we need to start with: exactly what do we mean when we say that the 10th Symphony was “unfinished”? Throughout the history of music, there are several famous composers who died mid-way through completing a composition. For instance, Mozart never finished his famous Requiem, but instead only completed certain movements of the Latin text. Therefore, if you ever sit through a complete performance of the Mozart Requiem, you’ll find that the extra movements that were necessary to completely set the Catholic Requiem Mass to music were added in by a guy called Franx Xaver Süssmayr. So any orchestra and choir that wants to perform the Requiem has to make a choice – do you just play the movements that Mozart wrote, so it’s a pure Mozart performance? Or do you add in the Süssmayr movements as well?
Other composers who left unfinished symphonies are Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner. Schubert’s famous “Unfinished” Symphony No 8 only has an opening movement and a slow movement and that’s it. Bruckner’s unfinished 9th has an opening movement, a scherzo and a long slow movement. However, conductors, orchestras and audiences have discovered that the movements that do exist for these symphonies are so beautiful and stand so well on their own, that they almost feel as if they don’t need any other movements to finish them off. (I don’t know many people who would listen to the two movements of the Schubert 8 and think, “Hmm, yeah, it’s missing something.”)
A Problem of Orchestration
By contrast, the Mahler 10 is a slightly different problem and it’s to do with how Mahler composed his music. Many of his symphonies were written over the summer holidays when he was taking a break from his job as an opera conductor in Vienna. As a result, they would often take him two years to write.
His method of composition was a two-pass process. In the first go through, he would compose a piano version of the work, where he was able to work out the melodies and the flow of the piece. Then, on the second pass through, he would start to work out the scoring or the orchestration (essentially, which instruments would be playing which particular part).
And even when he’d got all that worked out, Mahler would still keep tweaking the orchestrations once he started to hear what the symphony sounded like in rehearsals and performances.
So the problem this causes with the Mahler 10 is that Mahler died having completed the first pass through, but not the second. So we know melodically what he wanted it to sound like, but the only movement that he was able to orchestrate was the first movement. The following four movements (there are five), were never fully orchestrated. So this means that any approach to performing it has to work out some way of arranging those movements for orchestra.
Finally, to cap everything off, Mahler told his wife, Alma, before he died that he wanted her to destroy the symphony. This she did not do, which is how we still have it today.
So all of that leaves you with a few options as to how to approach the work.
Option 1: Don’t perform it. Many conductors who have recorded complete sets of the Mahler symphonies have simply left this work out of their box set. That way, they don’t have to worry about versions and the thought of Mahler’s ghost haunting them about why they performed the symphony he asked to be destroyed.
Option 2: Just the first movement. A few more conductors (Leonard Bernstein is a famous example) simply decided just to perform the first movement, because it was completely scored by Mahler, and thus could claim to be authentic all the way through.
Option 3: The Deryck Cooke “performing version”. The first version of the Mahler 10 that was ever finished for orchestras was one arranged in the 60s by a famous musicologist named Deryck Cooke. Deryck very carefully called his arrangement a “performing version” by which he was making the point (very humbly) that all he was doing was getting this piece up to a point at which it could be performed. But he was in no way claiming to have “finished” this unfinished symphony. Still, it provides a completely playable version and if you were to listen to it, you certainly wouldn’t feel as if he cut corners in any way. (Though it’s a bit unadventurous sometimes in terms of the instrument combinations.)
Option 4: One of the various “completions”. And then there are various versions that exist of the Mahler 10 where the arranger has just decided to go for it and create a full-blown version of the 10, sometimes even with extra bits and pieces in there that are their own. The most famously criticised of this one is the Clinton Carpenter completion, where he added in so much extra orchestration, that – while it sounds very beautiful in many places – that distinct Mahler clarity of line (i.e. the ability to pick out all the different voices) disappeared and the sound became more soupy.
But one particularly completion that has held up very well is one by the famous Russian conductor, Rudolf Barshai. It’s been consistently well-reviewed and continues to be performed around the world. And there is a recording available of him conducting it, so that’s the one we’ll use for the blog.
And, obviously, if you particularly like the piece, you will find that there are plenty of other recordings and versions out there for you to try.
But what does it sound like?
So, now that we’ve got the dreaded issue of versions out of the way, what does it actually sound like? The 10th Symphony fits in very well with Das Lied von der Erde and Symphony No 9 – it’s a mostly quiet meditation on the idea of departure and dying, of grappling with the harshness of life, but with the hope of something beautiful on the other side.
It’s in five movements, which form a sort of arc, because the 1st and 5th are similar, the 2nd and 4th are similar and the 3rd is the fulcrum in the middle.
Movement 1 – Long, slow movement, climaxes in a crisis, and then resolves gently.
Movement 2 – Like a scherzo; a lot of dance themes and craziness.
Movement 3 – A quirky, strange movement called the Purgatorio. Doesn’t even last for four minutes.
Movement 4 – Another dark scherzo-like movement, even more chaotic than the second movement.
Movement 5 – Another long, slow movement. You guessed it, it climaxes with a crisis and then finds peace as it resolves gently on the other side and fades out.
See you soon for Movement 1!