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About this Piece

Composed: 1910

Length: 80 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), 4 oboes (4th = English horn), 4 clarinets (4th = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (3rd and 4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 2 timpanists, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, military drum, side drum, tam-tam, triangle, twigs, xylophone), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 25, 1973, Zubin Mehta conducting

Gustav Mahler was obsessive and neurotic about many things. He worried about the significance of numbers, he worried about what he ate, he worried about exercise, and all of these worries arose from his obsession with mortality. He also worried about his younger wife, a talented, beautiful woman whom he loved deeply.

He had escaped one of his greatest fears, that he, Mahler, would not live past his Ninth Symphony - Beethoven had died after his Ninth, after all - by not numbering the work that should have carried that title. Instead, Mahler called what ought to have been his Ninth Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), thus cheating death, or so he thought. But the work he ended up dubbing his Ninth Symphony (even though it was really his Tenth) was still Mahler's last completed Symphony, in spite of his ruse. When he died, the Tenth, the work we hear at these concerts, was unfinished, a noble torso only partly clothed.

In 1910, other fears were becoming realities for Mahler. His wife Alma had had an affair with the architect Walter Gropius, who, in a hall-of-fame Freudian slip, mistakenly sent a love letter intended for her to "Herr Direktor Mahler." The letter, in which Gropius begged Alma to leave her husband, precipitated a marital crisis, and the composer went off to Leiden to see Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, "The necessity for the visit arose, for him, from his wife's resentment of the withdrawal of his libido from her. In highly interesting expeditions through his life history, we discovered his personal conditions for love, especially his Holy Mary complex (mother fixation). I had plenty of opportunity to admire the capability for psychological understanding of this man of genius."

The visit to Freud was one way of working through the crisis; the other was the Tenth Symphony. Mahler covered the pages of its manuscript with tortured outcries - "Madness, seize me, the accursed! Negate me, so I forget that I exist, that I may cease to be!", or "To live for you! To die for you!", and the dedication of the love song at the heart of the symphony's finale to his wife, using an affectionate form of her name, "Almschi!" Despite their marital problems, Alma stayed with Mahler during his final illness, accompanying him from New York to Paris to Vienna, where he died of a blood infection on May 18, 1911.

Alma Mahler kept the sketches for the Tenth Symphony for 13 years, during which rumors circulated that it was the haphazard work of a temporarily deranged madman, a genius suffering from a psychological collapse brought on by his personal crisis. In 1924, at the urging of Mahler's biographer Richard Specht, Alma asked her son-in-law, the composer Ernst Krenek, to complete the symphony. She also took the brave step of publishing a facsimile of the sketches, pained inscriptions and all. What emerged was not indecipherable musical lunacy, but rather an entirely lucid score of a five-movement work, with the opening Adagio completely orchestrated and scoring of the third movement, titled "Purgatorio," also well underway. The remaining portions of the symphony were in what musicologist Deryck Cooke (who created the present performing version of the entire symphony in 1964) described as "various states of completion." Krenek's version of the Adagio and Purgatorio, which incorporated suggestions and retouchings from composers Alban Berg and Alexander Zemlinsky (another man who suffered emotionally because of his unrequited love for Alma) and the conductor Franz Schalk, was premiered by Schalk and the Vienna Philharmonic in 1924. This version was superseded by Cooke's, which was premiered by the London Symphony conducted by Berthold Goldschmidt on August 13, 1964. Cooke revised his version twice, in 1972 and 1976.

The opening Adagio, over its 20-minute-plus span, traverses emotional ground familiar to admirers of other Mahler works, especially the final song of Das Lied von der Erde and the Adagio finale of the Ninth Symphony. The movement begins andante (a notch faster than adagio), with a hushed harmonic exploration by the violas. Soon, the adagio proper arrives, with a "warm" (Mahler's designation) melody introduced by the violins. Mahler works through these two contrasting groups of material over the course of the movement, building to a grand climax, with the full orchestra sounding like a spectacular pipe organ. This climax collapses into a lacerating, dissonant orchestral shriek, a musical expression of its creator's anguish and pain. The movement ends with an extended orchestral passage, inward, mysterious, and questing, showing Mahler's imaginative use of the orchestra at its finest.

The second movement, the first of the symphony's two scherzos, exists primarily as a sketch, although Mahler had started to put it into full score. The pointed, sardonic music of the scherzo - dominated by winds and brass - alternates with more relaxed, graceful Ländler passages introduced by the strings. (The Ländler is a type of Austrian folk dance with 18th-century origins used by Mahler in several of his symphonies.)

The importance of the brief third movement in the structure of the symphony bears no relationship to its length. "Because it is a very short movement," Goldschmidt explained at the 1964 premiere of Cooke's version, "it has not been recognized for what it is: namely, the theme for the last two movements, their main material." The music is pastoral in tone, with an accompanimental figure generating tension that breaks through the otherwise placid surface only momentarily. Mahler called the movement "Purgatorio" not in reference to Dante, but, according to David Matthews, a composer who collaborated with Cooke on his version of the symphony, after a poem by the composer's friend Siegfried Lipiner.

The demonic second scherzo is a sort of distorted waltz - this is where Mahler's inscription "The Devil dances it with me! Madness, seize me, the accursed! Negate me, so I forget that I exist, that I may cease to be!" appears. The movement ends with a famous gesture, a muffled drum stroke. Mahler wrote above it: "You alone know what it means," a message meant for Alma, who explained in her memoir of the composer that he had been particularly moved at the sight and sound of a fireman's funeral procession witnessed from the window of his apartment at the Savoy Hotel in New York, putting the procession into the transition between the fourth and fifth movements of the present symphony. A long, serene melody, introduced by the flute and then taken up by the strings, rises from the desolation of the somber pageant. The drum strokes return, this time introducing a concentrated allegro that builds to a return of the lacerating dissonance from the first movement. Only out of the wreckage of this total collapse does Mahler achieve a sort of calm. The flute theme returns under the inscription "To live for you! To die for you!" and unfolds into a tranquil rhapsody, still tinged with sorrow, deeply personal music from a composer who lived his artistic credo to the fullest in everything he wrote: "The symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything."

- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.