Mahler's 9 Note Chord That Cracks Tonality Apart

Mahler’s manuscript from this score draft of the beginning of his 10th symphony

Mahler’s manuscript from this score draft of the beginning of his 10th symphony

Most discussion about Mahler’s 10th symphony revolves around the good and the bad of attempts to complete it. Mahler himself asked Alma to burn it after he died. The problem here is what Mahler left was simply not incomplete enough! The first two movements were drafted in full score and Mahler left extensive sketches and passages in short score for the other three movements. Alma did not burn any of these, but instead consulted other composers for advice. Since then, performances have included the first movement, the first and second movements, and many reconstructions of the entire symphony by other composers. The problem with this, of course, is that Mahler’s orchestration and revisions were intrinsic part to his creative process. Another composer orchestrating from Mahler’s sketches will invariably add his or her own personality, but more the point, will not be able to add the master brushstrokes that Mahler would have devised to fully articulate his musical ideas.

Bruno Walter wrote to Alma, discouraged that she had given permission for performances:
“No composer was more resentful than Mahler about allowing an incomplete work to become known—you know this as well as I. I much regret that you disregarded this aversion, deeply rooted in his character and work, and expose to the public a torso that lacks the corrections and finishing touches that only the composer could have provided…”

The 10th was written at the time Mahler became aware that Alma was in a passionate love affair with the architect Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus school. Mahler’s emotional pain is self-evident in music of the 10thsymphony. In his manuscript, he wrote in the last movement “To live for you! To die for you! Almschi!” Alma in her memoirs wrote about her husband’s turmoil: “That is when he wrote all those exclamations and words addressed to me into the sketch of the Tenth Symphony. He recognized that he had led the life of a psychopath and suddenly decided to see Sigmund Freud…”

You can see why people get obsessed talking about all of these circumstances instead of the music itself! I would like to ignore the controversy of completing the symphony and focus just on the first movement. Mahler clearly would have added and made revisions, but what put down is by itself complete, astonishing, and utterly original. It is a work that coherently and beautifully follows ideas in his 9th symphony, but then takes them much further, anticipating future directions of music, even shaking apart the very foundations of tonality.

Beginning a Symphony with an Adagio

The 10thsymphony begins with the adagio movement. Not only is this a unique symphonic choice, but it shows Mahler’s intention to create a pairing with his 9thsymphony which famously ends with an adagio movement.

The Viola Tune

Just as astonishing, this adagio begins with an extended solo for the violas (actually marked a little faster—andante—in the score). Remember that the violas ended the 9th symphony, slowing playing a turn figure. The tune beginning the 10th symphony seems to emerge from that turn. It begins in B minor, but as it develops, the tonality becomes increasingly uncertain and murky. Mahler is opening the door to 20th century modernism, a pathway already blazed ahead years earlier by Arnold Schoenberg. The violas seem to get lost, leading a distant tritone away from B minor to F major. Then when the entire string section begins the main theme, the chorale lifts up a half step to F sharp major. The 9th symphony was all about descent and disintegration. This 10th symphony seems to be about ascent and excruciating increasing tension.

A Symphony in F# Major?

Just Mahler’s choice to write his 10th symphony in F sharp major, is bizarre. With 6 sharps, F sharp major is the most distant key from C major. Mahler seems determined to explore the very fringes of the tonal system. F sharp major is also problematic for the string instruments—their open strings are not part of the key so they don’t provide resonance and warmth as they do in most other music. This gives the strings a strained intensity that seems to be precisely what Mahler was after. Imagine tightening a violin string to the breaking point. That is a central idea in this movement.

The Main Chorale Theme

After the violas in the 10th seem to lose their way, we get a chorale tune in the strings, just as we had in the 9th symphony. This chorale is also in a 4/4 meter, rich in contrapuntal harmonies. But where the chorale in the 9th symphony kept slipping downwards, this chorale also keeps slipping, but seems to slip upwards, gaining in intensity with each deceptive cadence.

The Dance Theme

The third element in this adagio, after the viola solo and the chorale theme, is a contrasting pizzicato-accompanied dance theme. This dance tune itself varies the melody of both those earlier elements. It’s far more regular both in rhythm and harmony—almost square compared to the other two ideas. It is also reminiscent of Mahler’s todentanzen (death dances) from other symphonies (like the 4th and the 7th).

Variation Structure of the Movement
Like the 9th symphony adagio, the 10th symphony adagio is essentially a set of variations that roughly follows sonata form. There are 3 big parts—an exposition with two variations of each theme, a development, and a recapitulation/coda. The “action” all happens in the coda.

The 9 Note Shriek of Pain That Cracks Tonality

The climax of this movement is an unforgettable shrieking chord that both recalls the famous schreckliche chord from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and looks forward to the unlocked dissonance that would follow just a few years later with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The chord itself is an altered dominant of F sharp major. But it piles nine notes of layered thirds so dissonant from the dominant, that they remove any possible sense of resolution. Given the background we know about Mahler at the time he wrote this chord, it’s not difficult to imagine this as the visceral scream of pain from betrayal. The chord literally rips us out of the piece. Twice. And we’re not done. The first violins, that have been reaching for the heights throughout this movement, vault to the top of this chord with a D that actually sounds like a human scream. No doubt about it. But this is scream is more than the composer’s anguish. It is a scream of prophecy. This chord sees into the future of 20th century music and the destruction of tonality.

The Ending with a V13 chord (Rising 3rds)

After the screaming chord of dissonance, the Chorale theme returns, trying to reassure us that the world can be put back together, albeit in F sharp major. The movement ends with the dominant chord we’ve been trying to reach. This one two is a succession of piled thirds (seven, this time) and they build very close to the harmonic series, like the glowing chords Mahler built in Das Lied von der Erde. This chord is a miraculous “repair” from the preceding abyss, and for a brief moment, we are indeed assured of the return of tonality with the F sharp major cadence that follows and concludes the movement.

Again, the Universe In One Movement

As Mahler did in Der Abschied, he again manages to compress an entire experiential universe of the human condition in a single movement. Of course, we know that this first movement of the 10th was to be part of a much larger opus pursuing a final salvation. But in the context of Mahler’s late music —Das Lied von der Erde and his ninth symphony—this single movement makes a stunning end to a trilogy all on its own. The door that Mahler opens in this 10th symphony into atonality gets flung wide open almost directly. Just two years after this piece, Schoenberg composed his groundbreaking song cycle Pierrot Lunaire. And just a year after that, Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring. Both works pronounced the end of late Romanticism, indeed the ending of the tradition of tonal harmony that first coalesced in 1600, and the beginning of a new frontier in musical language. The harmonic language composers had spoken since the time of Vivaldi and Bach is finally broken. And Gustav Mahler, who so thoroughly absorbed and loved its tradition, brought it to the precipice.