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Gustav Mahler, Adagio from Symphony No. 10

This essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2023–24 subscription concert "The Miraculous Mandarin."

In the decade following Gustav Mahler's death in 1911, many considered the hushed, ethereal beauty that closes his Ninth Symphony to be the composer's farewell to the world. Aspiring to "embrace everything" in his symphonies, Mahler had spent three decades penning riveting poetic journeys from heaven to hell and back that mirrored his own turbulent voyage through life. And in the Ninth, infused with many elements of that personal history — from the pastoral folk dances he loved as a child to his all-consuming anxiety following the diagnosis of his fatal heart disease in 1907 — Mahler appeared to confess to each listener: Here are the experiences I've lived, the joys and sorrows, the love and loss I've carried with me for 50 years. When called upon, I am prepared to go gently into that good night. 

But despite having come to terms with his mortality, Mahler's life carried on. In the summer of 1910 — a year after completing the Ninth — in between having finished his first grueling season as music director of the New York Philharmonic and preparing to conduct the September premiere of his Eighth Symphony, he was back in Europe for a few months. Relieved of the superstitious fear that he would die before completing his Ninth Symphony, Mahler traveled in June to his summer home at Toblach in the Austrian countryside, ready to begin constructing the universe of his next symphony. 

But by late July, fate brought a new crisis to his front door. 

Mahler learned that his wife of eight years, Alma, was having an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius. The composer had received a piece of mail addressed to Herr Direktor Mahler — inside was a statement of love from Gropius to Alma, imploring her to leave her husband and start life anew with him. Overcome with grief, Mahler demanded his wife decide between the two men. Alma confirmed she would stay married to Mahler (though in secret, she continued her affair with Gropius). 

Despite the paralyzing shock Alma's infidelity had on Mahler, the writing had been on the wall for some time. The Mahlers' marriage wasn't a fulfilling one for Alma. She had been forced to set aside her own work as a composer and was constantly sidelined by her husband's taxing schedule. The couple was still grieving the 1907 death of their youngest daughter, Maria Anna, and the move to New York only exacerbated Alma's feelings of grief and isolation. 

Caught in a tailspin of guilt, Mahler genuinely acknowledged his wife's sufferings for the first time. Through streams of tears, he resolved to rededicate himself to their marriage and penned love poems to Alma throughout the summer — one of which foretold the mission of his new symphony: 

Let me condense the tremors of my yearning 
The eternity of bliss divine in your embrace 
Into one great song. 

Mahler kept his promise. Despite the summer's emotional storms, he left Toblach in September with his Tenth Symphony fully sketched — a manuscript he never touched again before his death the following May. Rumors regarding the condition of his final symphonic score began to swirl immediately after his death. Some friends claimed Mahler had requested the manuscript be burned, while others assumed any existing drafts were likely the delirious scribblings of a tortured soul. 


After keeping the Tenth’s manuscript under lock and key for 13 years, Alma decided in 1924 to release it into the world through two actions. First, she authorized a Viennese publisher to release a facsimile edition of Mahler’s manuscript. And second, she requested that her son-in-law, the composer Ernst Krenek, complete the work ahead of a performance in Vienna later that year. 

The facsimile pages of Mahler's manuscript confirmed that he had indeed laid the foundation for the Tenth, a five-movement work similar in form to his Fifth and Seventh symphonies. He had even completed the full orchestral score of the vast opening Adagio. But the newly published score also showed the world the emotional crisis Mahler endured as he worked on the symphony. Throughout, he had etched phrases that spoke to the searing pain and suffering he experienced in his final summer, including: 

O Lord, why hast thou forsaken me? ... 
Madness, take hold of me, the accursed one ... 
To live for you! To die for you! Almschi! 

In many ways, Krenek was an ideal choice to complete the Tenth's score. Aside from being married to Mahler's oldest daughter, Krenek had expressed a desire "to become the successor of Mahler in the field of the symphony." His first three symphonies, composed in 1921 and 1922, were steeped in the musical and psychological languages of Mahler's work. 

But when called upon to complete the final symphony of a composer he revered, Krenek ultimately declined. He deemed only the opening Adagio and the central movement, titled Purgatorio, ready for performance, as both movements would require only light edits and a bit of fleshing out of the orchestration using passages Mahler had already completed as an example. Realizing the sketches for the two scherzos and finale would involve, in Krenek's words, "guesswork pure and simple ... paraphrasing upon the ideas of a departed master." 

Incomplete movements aside, the opening Adagio offers a roadmap for the new avenues Mahler was forging in his symphony. As the sentimental style of late Romanticism bled into the steely sounds of 20th-century modernism, Mahler looked to follow that drumbeat of change. The Tenth anticipates the complex rhythms and annihilation of tonality a new generation of composers would begin to employ as they navigated tectonic cultural shifts throughout the 1910s and '20s. 

Returning to the shadowy world with which he ended the Ninth Symphony — that liminal space between life and death — Mahler frames his Adagio around three alternating ideas: a searching, other-worldly melody whispered by unaccompanied violas; a song of radiant intensity dominated by the burnished tones of violins and horns; and a sly, sardonic dance tune that scurries about the orchestra as woodwinds cast spells with fluttered tongues and trembling trills. 

After Mahler has captured our attention with the nostalgic sweep and sway of this familiarly romantic material, he plunges us into uncharted territory. A terrifying maelstrom erupts from the full orchestra: broken chords swirl about in the strings and harp as winds and brass intone a mournful chorale. The dance tune tries to re-emerge, only to be cast aside by grisly shrieks from the violins and trumpet and a layering of ear-shattering dissonances — the nine-tone wall of sound often referred to as the symphony's "chord of catastrophe."

Having come so close to the existential abyss, the music quickly takes a step back and attempts to regain its original strength. The violin's opening melody returns in fragmented form, but the warmth and vitality heard at the beginning of the movement have been replaced by a sense of wary, breathless relief. As the gentle, major-key chord that closes the movement evaporates in the ether, Mahler shows us that life must go on. Crisis has been averted — for now. 

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