Adagio from Symphony No. 10 1910 | 30 mins
Gustav Mahler, in 1910, was a man in torment, for he believed himself on the point of losing his intensely beloved, much younger, beguilingly beautiful wife. Through the score of the Tenth, left unfinished when he died, Mahler scribbled verbal exclamations that reflect this crisis. He begins the first movement with the violas alone, probing, wandering, slowing almost to a halt, finally and unexpectedly opening the gates. This is a melody of wide range and great intensity, enriched by exchanges by the violas and horn, becoming a duet with the second violins, returning eventually to the opening music. A dramatic dislocation, with sustained brass chords and sweeping broken-chord figurations in strings and harp, brings about a crisis, the trumpet screaming a long high note, the orchestra seeking to suffocate it in a terrifying series of massively dense and dissonant chords. Fragments and reminiscences, finally an immensely spacious, gloriously scored cadence, bring the music to a close.
Symphony No. 1 1888/1906 | 53 mins
Once, contemplating the failures of sympathy and understanding with which his First Symphony met at most of its early performances, Mahler lamented that while Beethoven had been able to start as a sort of modified Haydn and Mozart, and Wagner as Weber and Meyerbeer, he had the misfortune to be Gustav Mahler from the outset. He composed this symphony in high hopes of being understood. No other piece of Mahler’s has so complicated a history and about no other did he change his mind so often and over so long a period.
Mahler writes “Like the sound of nature” on the first page. Fragments detach themselves from the mist, become graspable, coalesce. Among these fragments are a pair of notes descending by a fourth, distant fanfares, a little cry of oboes, the famous “cuckoo” call, a gentle horn melody. Gradually we hear music from the second of Mahler’s Wayfarer Songs. After a tremendous climax, the music goes wild. The scherzo is the symphony’s briefest and simplest movement. Its opening idea comes from a fragment for piano duet Mahler wrote years earlier, and later there are allusions to the song “Hans und Grethe,” The funeral music that follows is presented in slightly perverted form (you might recognize “Frère Jacques,” but in a lugubrious minor key)—we hear parodic, vulgar music with its lachrymose oboes and trumpets; the boom-chick of bass drum with cymbal attached; hiccupping violins; the appearance in the middle of all this of part of the last Wayfarer song. Mahler likened the opening of the finale to a bolt of lightning that rips from a black cloud. To close he goes back to the symphony’s opening music and gathers strength for an assault of heroic proportions, in which the French horns, now on their feet, are instructed to drown out the rest of the orchestra, “even the trumpets.”
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.