The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement III

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Mahler’s handwriting on the score of the third movement of the Mahler 10. You can he has written Erbarmen!! (“Mercy!!”) at the top and a bit lower, O Gott! O Gott! Warum hast du mich verlassen? (“O God! O God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – a slow, melancholy journey. Movement II – a dance with crazy rhythms.

And now we arrive at the rather strange little movement (less than 5 minutes!) sitting in the middle of the symphony. It will form the peak of the arc shape of the five moments and then the following two movements mirror the first two – so the fourth movement is a sort of scherzo and the fifth movement is another slow movement.

This movement was given the name “Purgatorio” by Mahler, so presumably it’s some sort of riff on the idea of Catholic purgatory, but exactly what that might be is difficult to tell. It features two main ideas, one is an endless sort of movement sound (I’ve called it a perpetual motion idea) and the other is a bit more chaotic.

The perpetual movement idea might be based on a song Mahler composed a lot earlier called “The Earthly Life” (this video is of pretty bad quality, but it has subtitles), which was a sort of companion to “The Heavenly Life” song that finished off the Mahler 4. It is a rather dark song that features a child perpetually asking his mother for food. The mother keeps telling him to wait till later. Finally, at the end of the song, the kid is dead. (Yeah, I know. All those times you’ve said to your kids, “You won’t starve …”)

There is a bit of similarity between the accompaniment of that song and the woodwind idea that opens this movement, so it’s possible.

But let’s have a listen:

(0:00) The movement begins with a constant perpetual motion idea going in the woodwinds with the strings providing the melody on top.

(0:36) Then a switch and the woodwinds are on top with a gentler tune.

(1:30) Starts to get a little bit darker here and more chaotic. In the score (see the picture above), Mahler wrote all sorts of things in the score like “Death!” and “Mercy! O God! O God! Why hast thou forsaken me?” We’re not entirely sure what this was about, but this was happening around the time he found out his wife, Alma, was keen on Walter Gropius, the architect. His health was in decline. So there are all manner of reasons why he may not have been in a great headspace …

(1:56) Melancholy, sighing pause, with interruptions from the perpetual motion woodwinds.

(2:21) There’s this interesting thing that happens where the perpetual motion turns into a three-note idea. A kind of nasty “ha-HA-ha”. This idea is only hinted at but I point it out because it features heavily in the fifth movement.

(2:56) Back to the beginning.

(4:01) Dies down with a final nasty smack from the low instruments.

And there you have it, in all its weirdness. It’s difficult to say whether it’s likeable or not, and it’s so short you never really feel it has a chance to make it’s presence felt, unlike some of his other movements. I’m still not sure whether I like it or not, myself. What did you think?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement II

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Mahler’s original draft of the second movement of the Mahler 10.

Where We Have Been: Movement I – a long slow movement, taking us from despair, into a crisis and then to calm acceptance at the end.

This next movement is a scherzo, which means that it has two contrasting ideas: the “scherzo” section and the “trio” section. What’s most noticeable about the scherzo section (particularly if you are a musician having to play the thing) is the constant shifting of the beat. In most music, you have a regular beat that is used as an underlying “count”. It might be a “ONE-two-three” beat or a “ONE-two-THREE-four” or something along those line. And in a composition, a composer may suddenly change from counting in fours to counting in threes.

But in the scherzo section of this movement, it happens constantly. You might not notice it straight away from listening to it, but if you were to try counting along with it, you’ll notice it.

By contrast, the trio section has a regular “one-two-three” beat. So it’s almost as if Mahler is using the beat of the two sections as a contrast between chaos and order (which is often an underlying theme in many of his movements).

(0:00) The crazy dance begins on the French horns in the Barshai version and then passes over to the strings. Even if you can’t hear the shifting beat, you should still be able to feel the chaos and its shifting moods. Barshai does a great job with his mixture of instruments as well, which also adds  a level of variety (he knows Mahler well enough to mix up the full orchestra sound with smaller ensemble / chamber music sounds.) By about the (2:00) mark, it’s almost getting quite jolly. It climaxes with some great clacking sounds and other cool percussion (3:11).

(3:22) By contrast, the trio is quite nostalgic and old school (and has a more regular beat, which helps). Barshai throws in some interesting instruments like a guitar which you don’t hear in other versions of this symphony. It reminds me a lot of Mahler’s classic Disney on Ice music, such as we heard back in the 4th Symphony.

(5:16) Back again for another spin, the scherzo comes in, more boisterous than ever.

(6:13) I love the big see-saw effect on the brass here as the trio comes back in, now even more schmaltzy than last time – lots of solo violin. (I should perhaps stop calling this schmaltzy. I think what Mahler is actually trying to do is include some nostalgia in his music. And in many ways, this is much more gentle than some other symphonies where he takes folksy type of music and makes it sound nasty.)

(7:51) A more laid back version of the scherzo this time, with a nice slowed-down moment at the (8:57) mark. But it soon goes back to the more twitchy version that we’re used to. There’s an interesting moment at (10:08) where it drops back to just a few instruments with a bit of percussion in the background – another Barshai insertion that is only on this recording. Then off to the big climax at (10:47).

So we’ve gone from a long, quiet struggle, now to some chaos, and then when we return next time, we’ll go to a very strange type of Purgatory …

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement I

The Merry-Go-Round of Doom? (Photo by Darren Wilkinson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The opening of Symphony No 10 is a very long slow movement (26 minutes on the Barshai recording). But despite that, it’s not actually all that complex in terms of its structure. It is in sonata form (check back here if you need a quick reminder about that), but the essential heart of the piece is three musical ideas. They’re quite distinctive and easy to tell apart, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble following along.

The overall arc of this movement is an increasing sense of sadness, a terrible climax (in the emotional sense of the word – musically, it’s awesome) and then we find some peace at the end. The main problem with this movement is that it’s very similar to what Mahler had already attempted in the Mahler 9 and he probably did it better in that one. But if you’re coming to these symphonies new via my blog, you might not have heard the 9 yet anyway, and I’m trying to keep these two separate a little bit in the order I work through them. So as long as you don’t listen to it too closely after Symphony No 9, it shouldn’t sound too much like re-hashed ideas.

So here we go:

(0:00) Unison Violas – The first motif we encounter is the most haunting sound in Mahler’s universe, a long mournful melody on the violas. (Remember, a motif is a basic musical idea and they make up the the musical building blocks that the composer works with). It’s difficult to pinpoint why, but it’s instantly lonely and desolate. We then move to the next motif:

(1:17) Orchestral Sad Song – a moving farewell with unusual dissonant (i.e. unresolved and sometimes clashing) harmonies. Despite the slow nature of the theme, it  never quite brings peace.

(2:52) The Merry-Go-Round of Doom – a strange, angular little tune that has a strange climbing sound, some pizzicato (plucked notes) and some strange little trills (two notes repeated over and over at a very fast speed).

Everything from here on is just those three ideas, getting longer, more complex and more intense. You might have noticed that the ideas overlap as well. The Merry-Go-Round is really just a form of the Orchestral Sad Song and the Unison Violas begin with the Merry-Go-Round theme

Exposition Repeat (Long Version)
(3:51) Unison Violas.

(4:35) Orchestral Sad Song – takes longer to build, but it has a magnificent intensity when it peaks. (This bit especially will remind Mahlerites of the Finale from the Mahler 9.) The orchestra is almost whistling like a kettle by the time we get to (7:38), then it dies away to nothing.

(8:16) A very gentle lead-in to the Merry-Go-Round of Doom, which has even more weird surprises this time.

Development – Chamber Music Style

We’re now in the development section. The main feature of this section is that a lot of the music gets reduced to chamber music versions (i.e. just a few instruments). If you’ve been following along so far, you’ll instantly recognise this as a standard Mahler trick.
(10:12) Unison Violas
(10:48) Merry-Go-Round of Doom – “chamber music” version
(11:36) Orchestral Sad Song – again, in chamber music style.
(11:46) Combo of OSS and MGRoD. Becomes a bit chaotic by (12:27) with a mini-climax.


You’ll notice that Mahler skips the Unison Violas here and jumps straight in to the Sad Song.
(13:10) Orchestral Sad Song – first by the horns, then the low strings, then keeps building from there.
(14:08) Almost dies away to the Unison Violas but manages to keep struggling along.
(14:23) A very gentle version of Merry-Go-Round on the strings. (It’s the absence of the mocking woodwinds that makes it sound gentler.) It builds up as well, which sounds like it’s going to lead back to the Sad Song …
(15:11) … but instead goes back to Merry-Go-Round.
(15:46) A bit of the Sad Song thrown in, but with the Merry-Go-Round trills added, till it dies down in a chamber music manner.
(16:37) The Sad Song by itself, in one of its most magnificent incarnations yet.
(17:20) Unison Violas theme back again, but this time with a halo of high strings floating above it. It’s a strange moment this, because it sounds like the music is waiting for something, almost like static electricity in the air. And it is … Suddenly, without warning …

(18:13) … the brass deliver a stunningly loud chorale (i.e. a section of music that sounds like a four-part choir; imagine it being sung by hundreds of voices, and you’ll see what I mean), the most majestic moment in the whole symphony.
(18:39) Followed by a full orchestral version of the Merry-Go-Round, sounding a little bit like a 1960s spy film which leads to …
(19:00) The Nine-Tone Chord (i.e. nine notes all being played at the same time) – one of the most hideous sounds Mahler ever created. A vast horrendous clash of sound which gradually dies out.
(19:50) But this scream has let the tension out. The Orchestral Sad Song begins again on the strings, transformed into something exhausted but hopeful.
(20:16) Even the Merry-Go-Round doesn’t sound so bad.
(21:28) Gentle version of Sad Song begins on the cellos, finally with all the stressful harmonies taken out of it. It’s passed around to the various instrumental groups.
(23:00) The most beautiful part of the whole movement, a high strings version of the Sad Song.
(23:25) The Unison sound back for a moment.
(24:06) A beautiful solo on oboe. Essentially, from here to the end, the music consists of hints and motifs from the rest of the movement, but all transformed into a dream-like shimmer of sound.

It’s been a long path to peace, but worth it in the end. (I hope. Are you still awake?)

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 10

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!