Gustav Mahler died on May 18th, 1911, leaving behind a wife, a daughter, and 3 unfinished masterpieces : « Das Lied von der Erde », the « Symphony N.9 » and the draft of «Symphony N. 10».
The reason I mentioned those 3 pieces as « unfinished », even if the first two are widely performed and accepted as « finished », is because it is well know that Mahler only considered a work as « finished » after he could conduct it, hear it, and make hundreds of changes, improvements, both in orchestration and in the musical texture –or sometimes structure.
Mahler wanted the manuscript of the 10th symphony to be destroyed after his death. Alma didn’t do it. There is already a question here : why Mahler didn’t destroy it himself ?
It was probably too hard for him to destroy a piece where, he knew, he had already put so much fantastic material, it would have been like killing a child –he lost his daughter « Putzi » 4 years before. And, to hand that responsibility to Alma would mean that he was perfectly aware Alma wouldn’t do it.
So, why to present today a reconstruction, if that was against Mahler’s wish ? Simply because there has been a first reconstruction, authorised by Alma, and I consider that this work by Derrick Cooke, although extremely well done, is showing us an incomplete face of this symphony, making it even more « unfinished ». What is more unfinished that an incomplete reconstruction ?
Why do I say that this reconstruction is incomplete ? Because Cooke, who worked under Alma’s supervision, didn’t dare –or didn’t know how to write the missing material, and lacked ambition in the way he orchestrated it.
We should never forget that Arnold Schoenberg, whose musical langage both influenced Mahler in his last symphony, and was himself inspired by Mahler, refused to try the reconstruction, although he was probably the most competent to do so…
The signature of Mahler’s music is a constant tension and richness in the texture. In particular, Mahler used all the time a melody together with one or more « side melodies ». I like to compare this with the principal dancer of a ballet surrounded by many little « ballerini » who dance together and make the choreography rich and dense. And many of those little dancers are missing in Mahler’s manuscript –excepted for the Adagio, where by the way I added a couple of « little dancers » where the score was showing void spaces and the feeling of « something is missing » was particularly strong.
So, how and why do decide to add musical material in a particular place ?
Reconstructing an unfinished musical score is not much different from restoring a painting that has been partially destroyed –and very few people question painting restauration. We saw in the past specialists of Da Vinci rebuilding an entire « fresco » in an Italian church, and the result was stunning. In both cases, Mahler and Da Vinci, what was left was enough to help the work of reconstruction : about one fifth of both masterpieces were intact –in the Symphony, the first mouvement, Adagio, with its orchestration.
I based my work of restoration on three elements :
1. My good knowledge of all Mahler's compositions that I conducted many times, for the style, the orchestration and the polyphonic technics Mahler was using.
2. Since Mahler was re-inventing himself with each new piece, to use symphony N.9 and « Lied von der Erde » as compass seemed a reasonable choice.
3. For the orchestration dimension and settings I followed of course the first mouvement, « Adagio », that Mahler completed –even if we know this orchestration has many voids and unfinished places.
A couple of dangers were to avoid : in the orchestration, the 3 other attempts to complete this symphony (Barshai, Carpenter, Mazzetti) have failed by adding too much percussion, making it sound sometimes like Gershwin or Shostakovich in the best case. They were either too heavy, or too light, when Mahler was a master at balancing the various groups of the orchestra.
An other danger was too fill the « missing dancers » by using elements from previous symphonies. Or forgetting that Mahler never repeated an element –he even wrote comments about this. Excepted for the first part of Symphony N6 that has a real « da capo », Mahler always reinvents an element when when he repeats it. So, in the 3rd mouvement of this reconstruction, Mahler just wrote « Da Capo » in the re-exposition of the main theme. But it is obvious that he wrote this with the idea to complete it with variations when he would have time to orchestrate.
This is where we cannot go further : when Mahler switched from the piano draft to the full orchestra, he created often a new work. For instance, a quick look at the piano sketch of the Adagio, and the orchestrated version, shows a complete different turn in the music after a few bars. So, here, I have decided of course to stay by the orchestra manuscript, and just fill the holes and orchestrate in a style that is as close as possible to symphony N.9.
For those reasons, the symphony N. 10 will remain for ever « unfinished ». The restoration can be as perfect as it could, we will never know what Mahler would have changed from his piano sketch –and this will always create in those who know Mahler very well a feeling of strangeness. My goal is to reduce this feeling that « something is not Mahler here » to the minimum.
But this is in a way the beauty and poetry of this piece, like Offenbach’s « Tales of Hoffmann », that Mahler premiered in Vienna by the way. This opera has been orchestrated by a friend of Offenbach, the recitatives have been completely composed by this friend after Offenbach’s death, many arias have been imported from other operas, and entire numbers are from other composers (like the majestic « ensemble » at the end of Juliet’s act, composed by the General Director of Monte-Carlo Opera, Mr Ginsburg ! )
But it is, for the magic of Offenbach’s genius, his most popular work –and on of the blockbusters of every opera house in the world.
Our lives are never complete, they stop when our business is still unfinished and ancient traditions say this is the reason why ghosts come to visit us. So, let Mahler visit us tonight and let us hear what he has to whisper to us…