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?)

4 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement I

    1. Well, remember, he knew he was dying when he wrote this and the 9th. He’d worked through most of the anger in the 9 and the 10 is more a melancholy resignation.

  1. Liked the piece, but liked your thematic descriptions better. “Merry-Go-Round of Doom” and “Orchestral Sad Song” sum it up nicely.

    By the way, I bought Cleveland Orchestra tickets for Mahler 3 on October 2. Taking my 12 year-old daughter who may love me or hate me by the time it’s over. Stay tuned.

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