Screenshot 2015-10-16 at 7.53.20 AM
“To live for you! To die for you!” and “Almschi!” – scribbled notes by Mahler on the final page of his Symphony No 10.

Apologies: Sorry for the gap between movements. I was on holidays. But here we go with the finale of the Symphony 10 …

Where We’ve Been: The 10th symphony is a symmetrical arc structure, so Movement I was a long slow movement, Movement II was a chaotic dance, Movement III was the quirky Purgatorio in the middle, Movement IV mirrored Movement II and so was also a chaotic Scherzo-type movement.

And, finally, Movement V mirrors Movement I. It’s another long, slow (but certainly not boring) movement. Again, it features an epic struggle, with calm resolution at the end, but this time with a much greater air of finality.

With regard to its structure, the easiest way to understand this one is to see it as a rather violent clash between two themes. After a rather extraordinary introduction, Theme I enters, which is absolutely beautiful, but it soon gets ruined by the dreaded “ha-HA-ha” motif (or musical idea) which has cropped up a few times in earlier movements. The “ha-HA-ha” motif takes over and becomes its own theme, which I’ve called Theme II. This then leads, via a few twists and turns, to another repeat of the horrific 9-tone-chord which we heard about in Movement I. But once the music gets through the crisis, finally we get peace.

(0:00) The sharp drumbeat that we heard at the end of Movement IV opens the fifth movement. (Some people believe that perhaps Mahler’s intention was just to have one drumbeat and that the fifth movement would then follow on seamlessly from the fourth, but most recordings – which split the movements into two tracks, of course – have two separate drumbeats.)  This is immediately followed by a string of low notes on the tuba rising darkly upwards.

(0:26) Within seconds, the “ha-HA-ha” motif has appeared, sounding ominous. It grows in strength and flocks in clusters, kind of like the creepy gathering of crows and seagulls from Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Theme 1
(1:59) So it’s quite a relief when Theme 1 arrives with a gorgeous flute solo, with some nice harp moments underneath.
(3:12) All this is made even more beautiful with the arrival of the violins. This moment is so peaceful that it almost feels like this could be the finale. But Mahler is not going to let us enjoy peace that easily … It carries on building until it reaches a great climax at around (5:16). But at (5:25), shockingly, the drumbeat and the “ha-HA-ha” invade and the climax is ruined.

Theme II
(6:28) Now, a quicker second theme begins, slightly light and fluffy (which is surprising, considering that it’s build around the “ha-HA-ha”). If you have sharp ears, you might hear some bits that sound like the Purgatorio third movement and the big slow-down at the end is actually similar to the fourth movement. (Don’t worry if you don’t hear all these similarities. It took me quite a few listens to hear them all, and a lot of it is dependent on how easily you can remember themes and sounds from earlier movements. It’s enough to know that a) Mahler is tying everything together in this last movement and also that b) the more you listen to his symphonies, the more details you will hear.)

Theme I
(8:37) A blah version of the slow first theme, sounding really exhausted and tired on the brass, with the “ha-HA-has” flitting around like a swarm of mosquitoes.
(9:38) A slight moment of peace, and a beautiful trumpet solo.

The Crisis
(10:15) Theme II comes back again but soon collapses into the dreaded 9-tone-chord from the first movement, a truly diabolical sound, especially, with the “ha-HA-has”.

(11:30) A repeat of the unison viola theme from Movement I, this time on the French horns. Truly bleak part of the symphony. But the worst is over and the trial is behind us.

A Long Coda
(12:27) Theme I comes back, even more beautiful than ever. The rest of the movement is essentially one glorious coda, becoming more and more transcendent and strong. (18:22) In the Barshai version, the music returns one final time to the chamber music sound of just a few instruments, which is a really nice touch. (You don’t hear that in every version.)

In the sheet music that we have, near the end of the movement, we can see that Mahler scribbled “To Live For You! To Die For You!” (see picture above) and a little bit below that …

(20:o8) … at this moment, where the music does a solitary flare-up out of the quietness, he wrote his wife Alma’s nickname, “Almschi!” We know that their marriage was in serious trouble this by stage, and Alma was in love with Walter Gropius, the famous architect. So knowing this when you hear the music makes things even more poignant as the curtain closes on this, Mahler’s final symphony.

I find it a very simple yet moving ending, and I always come away feeling like I’ve had a cathartic moment at the end of the symphony. So I hope you enjoyed it as well. I think the biggest difficulty that the Symphony No 10 is up against (apart from all the issues to do with whether you should perform it and which version to use) is simply that Mahler’s 9th Symphony is also a symphony that begins and ends with two long slow movements and is also about turmoil, farewells and peaceful acceptance. And, if I had to pick, the No 9 does it better.

But, when you get a chance to hear it in isolation from the 9 (and not straight after – thus the reason I’ve been tackling this Guided Tour out of numerical order), it still has a lot to say. I am very glad that Alma decided not to destroy it.

2 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 10: Movement V

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