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Conductor Thomas Dausgaard on Mahler’s Symphony No. 10

Gustav MahlerImagine Mahler, in his composing hut in the Austrian countryside of Toblach, holding in his hand an unopened letter from Walter Gropius to Alma, Mahler’s wife, who is away at a spa in Tobelbad. Mahler has begun work on his Tenth Symphony and knows something is wrong—should he open the letter?

Although he didn’t live to complete and perform his Tenth Symphony, Mahler did finish it in that he wrote the entire outline of the whole work: three movements are almost fully orchestrated, others in short score, while some passages are left with only the melody. But the overall arch—the complex narrative, the contrasting emotions, and the way it unfolds—is entirely Mahler’s. Without the use of voices, only naked words by Mahler are left in the margins of his sketches and drafts, hinting at his state of mind, the emotional subtext and symbolism, making this symphony his most self-dramatizing work.

The symphony begins with an enigmatic and slow melody, quietly played by the violas, like a prophecy spoken to us in an archaic language. The relevance of this passage only becomes apparent when we perform the whole Tenth Symphony: in the Finale, it suddenly returns, played affirmatively by the horns, and thus a huge arc is created under which the symphony unfolds.

We are in the world of Mahler where musical references and symbolism play a role—so what can this passage possibly symbolize? Is it a premonition of death, an echo of Richard Strauss’s Sancho Panza [from his tone poem Don Quixote] or of the sad shepherd tune, played by the English horn, in [Act III of] Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde? Or is it the letter burning in Mahler’s hand, yet unopened?

The viola melody is soon interrupted by glowing, chorale-like music, with passionate wide leaps in the violin melody against a slow-moving background. With this leaping-melody painting, a kind of musical “X” (or “cross”), Mahler gives us another symbol: is he expressing the torment of crucifixion, that his love for Alma is crucified and doomed?

Left behind as another unanswered question, the passage is cut off by a more fleeting kind of music— dance-like in its accompaniment, capricious, seductive, and even dangerously grotesque in its sudden expressions. Could we be in the world of Alma, or rather how Mahler saw Alma at this time?

The first movement oscillates between these three worlds in a collage-type fashion but towards the end, the winds, strings, and harp gather forces: a loud chorale subsides to a single quiet note after which the orchestra breaks into a “scream”—a scream of paralysis, ultimate shock, or perhaps psychosis. This is the famous nine-note chord, also to return with even greater vehemence in the Finale. Is this primeval scream the result of Mahler’s session that summer with Freud (who diagnosed him with Madonna complex and compulsive neurosis) or is it him opening the letter to Alma, reading its few words signed by her lover Walter Gropius: “Come, flee with me”? What follows is a kind of fragmented hallucination, exhaustedly trying to come to peace, or perhaps even rather longing for the ultimate peace: death.

Alma MahlerIn spite of the calm ending of the first movement, the inner conflict remains unresolved—how is this expressed in the following movement? Mahler writes a wildly irregular scherzo where rhythms and metres are restlessly changing. It is a brilliantly original—and disturbing—portrayal of emotional chaos. The unpredictability of this dance is Mahler at his most radical: just as you think you can begin dancing along, you miss a beat or two, as the music has already changed direction. Sometimes, it’s delirious in its fanatic self-propelling wild joy, sometimes choleric in its aggression, or even schizophrenic in the ways these expressions are contrasted and interwoven with folk-music-like banal melodies. We are thrown around in a world of incessantly changing, confused moods—what should he do about the letter from Gropius?

Exhausted from this, music from Mahler’s youth surfaces: the third movement has a striking resemblance to his early song “Das irdische Leben” (The Earthly Life) about the starving child, finally dying because its mother doesn’t hear its screams—perhaps this is the now-grown-up Mahler in a loveless world? In calling this movement “Purgatorio”, and filling it with written comments in the margins, he is stepping up the self-dramatization: “Annunciation of death”, “Have mercy”, “O God, O God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, “Thy will be done” — a mixture of Jesus’s words on the cross according to St. Matthew. Hints of Wagner’s operas Parsifal and Die Walküre fill this tiny movement with disproportionate depth, this actually being the shortest movement in any of his symphonies. Why was Mahler’s word “inferno” crossed out by another hand on the first page of his sketch, and who cut out a part of that page? Could it have consisted of lines from Mahler’s poet-friend Siegfried Lipiner’s work called Il purgatorio, poems circling around shame and love for Hell?

Time for a dance: “The Devil dances with me”, as Mahler wrote at the top of the fourth movement, and at the bottom, “Crazyness, touch me, Destruction! Deny me, so that I forget that I exist! So that I cease to exist, so that I...” This movement is a waltz, raging between the demonic and the delicate, ambivalent between its violence and triviality. It finally opens up into a macabre ending where the music disintegrates: “Only you know what this means. Oh, oh, oh! Live well, my lyre!”, as Mahler writes in the margin.

The dying waltz connects to the finale through the ultimate musical symbol of death—a stroke on a large but muffled drum. Its eleven beats and the surrounding funereal music might also imply that this is the eleventh hour...or does part of the music already come from a world beyond ours?

Piercing through this darkness, the finale introduces the most painful yet heavenly long-spun melody on the flute. The melody evaporates into a mixture of quotes from the earlier movements, building up tension into a wilder and longer climax than in the first movement: a scream that, like a frenzied flashback, reminds us that we are under this huge symphonic arc. The scream becomes a catalyst for re-experiencing the viola melody from the beginning, now heard at full volume; over an ambiguously quiet trumpet, the horns present it as a kind of gateway to transformation. Does it perhaps signify Gropius’s letter being read—or rather screamed—aloud? Or does it imply a change from a subconscious state to a conscious one? Is it only now that things can be seen clearly?

The music that follows seems suddenly to have a radiance and glow, as if entering transcendence. In several instances, sustained notes are held for so long that the pulse can feel suspended into moments of timelessness. But it is not until the flute melody from the early part of the finale surges into a passionate climax, one of the great moments of symphonic music, that Mahler pens the words, “To live for you! To die for you!” And at the final huge sigh, he writes the pet name for Alma, “Almschi”. Is she forgiven? Does Mahler think their love can return? Has his consultation with Freud (or the two psychotic scream-moments) enabled him to be at peace with the world, ready or even longing for death? Having read his letter, Mahler took Gropius to Alma at the spa in Tobelbad, and asked her to decide between them. She went for Mahler, who died within a year. In the most beautiful, other-worldly, and open-ended way does this perhaps most personal of all of Mahler’s works drift away into silence.

Thomas Dausgaard conducts the TSO in Mahler Symphony No. 10 on April 6 & 7, 2017.

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