Friday, September 19, 2008

Mahler 10th Still Not Completed

Sun-Times music critic Andrew Patner brings us the bad news that health problems have forced conductor Riccardo Chailly to cancel his October appearances with the Chicago Symphony, with a major casualty being the highly-anticipated performances of Gustav Mahler's 10th Symphony, which has been dropped from the program. Although Mahler didn't live long enough to finish the symphony - it was only decades later that Deryck Cooke created a performing version of the entire work - I've come to find the 10th the most moving of all of Mahler's symphonies, even over the overwhelming 9th.

In his Norton Lectures, Leonard Bernstein described the movements of the 9th symphony as a series of farewells, the last a farewell to life, itself. To me, the greatness of the 10th comes from Mahler being in an even darker place. His eldest daughter had died, aged four, in 1907. He knew his beloved wife Alma was unfaithful, having an affair with Walter Gropius. He would soon die, and those he loved would love others.

The despair one hears in the 10th is among of the deepest you can encounter in art. It includes a brutal, dissonant tutti chord like a tsunami of chaos, and a screaming, high-pitched trumpet that evokes the ear-piercing sound of an air raid signal, a prophecy in music of the cascade of terror that the atrocities of the 20th century would soon bring.

There's no more bleaker moment in all of music than the huge dull, widely spaced whacks on a muffled drum that lead into the Tenth Symphony's last moment. Yet, ultimately, even amidst more moments of horror, Mahler brings the last music he would write to an extraordinary place of grace.

While I come away from a performance of the 9th with a sense not only of rage, but self-pity, what I hear in the Tenth is something very different: a man who finds himself at his own end, and sees beyond it. The things of life, and the people he holds most dear, to the point of defining his being, will endure and flourish, even as he, himself, is totally annihilated. What I hear in this last artistic testament, in the tender outbursts of passion, and the way his melodic elements fold gently back into themselves like whispered asides, is Mahler, with heart-rending emotion, reconciling his deepest longings with a loving farewell - fare you well - to everything he cherished most, the things that were life, itself, that he must now let go as they slip irretrievably away.

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