Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra continue their traversal of Mahler’s symphonies with the enigmatic seventh in the 2012-2013 BNY Mellon Grand Classics season.
Even though I should savor this monumental cycle, I can’t help but think ahead to how it will end. The “end” isn’t as cut and dried as one might think, as there has been a century-long debate about whether Mahler’s output ends with the Ninth Symphony, with its gloriously serene final movement, or the tense Tenth Symphony, which Mahler did not live to complete. While the ninth gently lulls you into a deep sleep lasting forever, the eyes are yanked open in the tenth symphony to find oneself not yet in heaven, but in purgatory. Mahler created a powerful statement with his ninth symphony, yet recants and composes the antithesis in his tenth.
The opening adagio of the tenth is scarred by burning tritones. They dominate the musical landscape like black mountain ranges, with craggy peaks that pierce the clouds and heaven itself. Mahler wrote the work at a difficult time in his life, having discovered his wife was having an affair. Mahler’s anguish isn’t just present in the music itself, but literally scrawled into the musical score.
Though the ninth symphony may be the perfect ending to Mahler’s body of works and gives us the neat and tidy ending full of understanding and tranquil acceptance, we have the inconvenient tenth symphony to deal with, and there is a host of issues that complicate the matter. Mahler was only able to orchestrate the first movement before he died, but wrote out the entire work in short score (just four staves instead of the dozen to two dozen or more staves a full orchestral score would have).
Many conductors have used academic reasons to skip Mahler’s tenth symphony. Many famous conductors and champions of Mahler refused to perform the work at all because it was a fragment, saying we don’t how the work would ultimately have turned out. Perhaps that’s valid. Think, for instance, about the tempestuous first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—there’s little hint of the glorious C-major transformation that brings the work to a majestic and triumphant close. Others perform the largely-completed first movement, but skip the rest, because even though it was orchestrated how musicologists imagine Mahler would have scored it, it’s still not Mahler. Other conductors though have recorded the entire work as completed by others.
However, I believe many conductors pretend the work doesn’t exist not because of academic issues but because of superstition and the work’s gut-wrenching content. Even the master of logic Arnold Schoenberg bought into this, writing of Mahler:
“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 which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
The tenth symphony shouldn’t exist at all, and it fits the “curse of the ninth” mythology perfectly that Mahler died while writing the tenth. Ever since Beethoven’s majestic Symphony No. 9 “Ode to Joy,” composers oddly enough kept writing nine symphonies then dying. After writing nine symphonies by just age 31, Franz Schubert dropped dead. Despite being devoutly religious and even dedicating his ninth symphony to God, Anton Bruckner died before he could pen a glorious final movement. Dvorak, as if he could have topped the “New World” symphony, didn’t get a chance to even try. Brahms, terrified by Beethoven for most of his life, got nowhere near nine symphonies at a mere four, impressive as they are. Mahler it could be said actually nearly broke the curse. Many consider his song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde to be the ninth symphony, the ninth symphony a glorious tenth and glimpse of peace. However, Mahler had definitely overstepped his bounds with the pessimistic tenth symphony and was struck down for it. While the ninth peers into the light at the end of the tunnel, the tenth is a strained journey through the dark tunnel (the third movement is even called Purgatorio).
Few conductors though have put aside academic excuses and admitted that they shun the work because of its content—with one notable exception. Leonard Bernstein, the legendary champion of Mahler, felt that the composer had gone off the deep end in the tenth, and that he wouldn’t have been able to finish the work if he had lived. Bernstein also said that Mahler had “said it all” anyway in the ninth.
So, we return to Honeck. It is well-known that Honeck is devoutly spiritual and his Ninth will be sublime. Finishing his Mahler cycle on a transcendent note would be perfect. Or, will Honeck bravely choose to test himself and suffer through the pain of the tenth? The symphony eventually leads to a brief but shimmering conclusion, yet the journey is an arduous one. Mahler finds peace in both works, but shows us in the tenth that attaining peace can be an extraordinary challenge.