Mahler's Unfinished Symphony

Now that several versions of Mahler's Tenth have been recorded, listeners have a variety of ways to appreciate its greatness

SOON after Gustav Mahler died, on May 18, 1911, at the age of fifty, it became known that he had been working on a new symphony at the time of his death. It was clear that he had been unable to complete the work, but there were conflicting reports as to the state in which he had left it, and therefore as to whether it might someday be performed.

In a 1912 lecture Arnold Schoenberg, who was inclined toward numerology, alluded to the fact that neither Beethoven nor Bruckner had been able to get beyond a ninth symphony: "It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth, for which we are not ready." Less mystically but just as pessimistically, Richard Specht, in his 1913 critical biography of Mahler, wrote, "It may be regarded as completely impossible that out of his mute symbols someone else -- no matter how intimately acquainted with Mahler's spirit and essence -- should fashion the full score." Yet where Schoenberg had spoken merely of "sketches," Specht referred to "an eleventh symphonic creation [he counted Das Lied von der Erde in with Mahler's nine numbered symphonies] drafted and completely written down in the short score" -- that is, on several staves, with suggestions for orchestration.
In the years following the First World War, Mahler's reputation steadily rose, especially among younger composers like Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. In 1920, to celebrate what would have been Mahler's sixtieth birthday, Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which Mahler had conducted on occasion, staged a Mahler festival in Amsterdam. A few years later Mahler's widow, Alma, decided that the world was ready to learn at least a little about her husband's last symphony.

Mahler had all but completed the scoring of the first movement, and so in 1924 Alma asked her son-in-law, the young composer Ernst Krenek, to touch up the first movement and to score the very brief third movement, which Mahler had titled "Purgatorio." These two movements were performed that October in Vienna under the direction of Franz Schalk, who may also have had a hand in the scoring. That same year Alma published a facsimile edition of Mahler's sketches for the Tenth Symphony. In her preface she wrote, "If at first I held it as my cherished right to preserve the treasure of the Tenth Symphony in secret, so I now know it to be my duty to disclose to the world the last thoughts of the Master."

The performances of the two nonconsecutive movements naturally gave little idea of what the symphony as a whole might be like. Moreover, the facsimile, although beautifully produced, was woefully incomplete, and most people who examined it thought it confirmed Specht's view that the work was unreconstructible.

Specht himself, however, in the 1925 edition of his biography, recanted that view. Moreover, he castigated what he termed the puritanism and false piety of those who said that performing the Tenth would dishonor Mahler's memory. Now that he had thoroughly analyzed the sketches, Specht wrote, he had concluded that although the three movements not performed by Schalk "obviously require filling out, in the counter-themes and inner voices, by a musician of high standing devoted to Mahler and intimate with his style," such a man "would surely find the right path to the goal." Specht suggested Schoenberg.

During the 1940s Alma Mahler and Jack Diether, of the New York Mahler Society, did appeal to Schoenberg, and also to Shostakovich. Both men, occupied with their own creative work, declined to take on the task.

IT was at about this time, in the mid-1940s, when I was in high school, that I became interested in Mahler. He was then still something of a cult taste in this country, and only a few of his major works had been recorded. One of the few friends who shared my love for his music was an older fellow named Clinton Carpenter, who worked at the Chicago music store where I bought my scores. In time Carpenter, a dedicated amateur, revealed to me that he was going to complete and orchestrate Mahler's Tenth Symphony. I had little idea what this might involve, but I still recall the neat timetable, taped to the glass door of his bookcase, that indicated exactly how long he planned to work on each movement.

I thought no more about the Tenth until around 1970, when someone gave me a copy of Pierre Boulez's superb recording of the first movement. A few years after that, driving home one night from dinner at a friend's house, I heard on my car radio what was obviously a Mahler symphony -- and a very fine one -- but not one of the canonical nine. It turned out to be the first recording of the entire Tenth Symphony, by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, from an early draft of the "performing version" prepared by the English musicologist Deryck Cooke.

Clint Carpenter, I soon learned, had not been the only one interested in completing the Tenth. He had begun work in 1946, and was followed a few years later by an English composer named Joe Wheeler and a German, Hans Wollschläger. Cooke did not start work until 1959, but his first draft was almost finished a year later. That year, in a BBC broadcast in honor of Mahler's centenary, Berthold Goldschmidt, a composer and conductor who had been helping Cooke, led the Philharmonia Orchestra in sections of Cooke's score; Cooke gave a brief talk on the work. Soon afterward Alma Mahler, who had earlier approved Cooke's efforts, decided that she did not want the Tenth Symphony completed and performed after all. She issued a ban on all future performances. It seemed that Cooke's work, along with that of Carpenter and the others, had been in vain.

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