Listening Guide – Movement 1: Adagio


In its grand design, thematic content and conceptual framework, the first movement of the 10th is a worthy successor to the finale of the ninth. As in the closing Adagio movement of the Ninth Symphony, the 10th opening movement presents two contrasting themes, both in slow tempos and with common elements. The atmosphere is generally dark, brooding, and in moments of crisis filled with dreadful prophetic vision of annihilation. In climactic passages of awesome power, Mahler releases the terrible pain of heartbreak he suffered at the loss of his wife’s love, in wrenching dissonant chords that shock us to the depth of our being. There can be little doubt that death hovers over every bar, whether expressed in music of foreboding stillness, devilish mockery, or explosive Cataclysm, a Bruchnerian glass looms over the melodic writing and contrast with moments that could well be described as expressionistic in which piercing dissonances germinate pervasive underlying tension and rhythmic motion, and sustained diminished chords create an eerie atmosphere, Mahler carries over from the ninth long meandering unharmonized melodic lines, such as appears in the Andante subject played by violas alone at the beginning of the movement.

The most obvious predecessor of this opening theme is the extensive passages for unaccompanied cellos marked clogging or sadly, in the second movement of the Fifth Symphony. However, here, a soft timpani roll accompanies the cellos throughout, and sustained tones and violas are added toward the middle of the passage. This monophonic strangely be numbed Andante theme opens the 10th contrast with a polyphonic, intensely impassioned Adagio theme that is fully harmonized and interwoven with contrapuntal overlay. These two themes have common musical elements, particularly apparent in their use of dactylic rhythms, whether Mahler would have ultimately thickened the texture of relatively lean thematic passages is anyone’s guess.

The ninth contains music are both extraordinarily complex polyphony, and extremely simple and lightly scored homophony, a trade that became increasingly noticeable in Mahler’s last works. The movement’s formal design has generated disagreement, Richard Speck sees it as a free rondo based upon two principal subjects, Theo Roland parses the movement into A, B, and C sections that follow each other in an asymmetrical sequential alternation. In his extensive analysis of this movement, Eberhard Clemen suggests that the alternating sequence of the two main themes presented in numerous variations is the essence of the movement structure. He considers the Adagio theme, but a variation of the Andante theme as Constantine Floros points out, these variations only change the outward appearance of the themes, while the meaning of the character, the content of them remain the same.

As in the Ninth Symphony, thematic variations frequently contain expanded intervals, and chorale-like chords provide harmonic background. The similarity of the Adagio theme to both of the principal themes in the finale of the ninth links the two movements in more than mood character and orchestral color. Foros likens the Andante theme to the doleful shepherd’s boy’s tune played on the English horn at the beginning of Act Three of Tristan. The subsidiary scherzando-like subject frequently spiced with references to the motive of the devil’s dance, to which the Andante theme clearly relates, serves as an intermediary between the hushed, disquieting Melancholy of the Andante theme and the stronger angst-ridden emotions of the Adagio theme. The movement proceeds in alternating sequences of the Andante and Adagio subjects, occasionally combining them during the development, as in the corresponding movement of the ninth, a cataclysmic eruption at the climax of the of development section occurs but here, it is an episode devoid of reference to the principal subjects, and in the unrelated key of an A-flat minor. Its only connection with the rest of the movement is to introduce the scherzando theme consisting of a sequential series of overlapping sustained triads that combined to produce one of the most excruciatingly painful dissonant chords ever written.

This cataclysmic event is undoubtedly both a cry of immense pain and a musical representation of abysmal chaos, in its shock value, the definite noise produced by these piled up dissonant chords dwarfs both the climactic outburst of motive X in the ninth symphonies first movement, and the terrifying vision of the graveyard scene in the corresponding movement of Das Lied Von der Erda. All three passages convey with unmitigated power, the horrific presentment of impending catastrophe.

Another connection between the first movements of the ninth and 10th is that both end in quiet repose on isolated thematic fragments and sustained harmonies that conclude with a soft pizzicato note. At the conclusion of the tense first movement, the pizzicato node cuts off a sustained chord rather than punctuating its entrance as in the corresponding movement of the ninth. In contrast, the pizzicato stroke that ends the first movement of Das Lied follows a brief moment of silence, played with great force, and without a sustained tone that extends the sound. It comes after a powerful reprise of the Trinklied opening section, thus putting a defiant exclamation point on the movement’s forceful statement of demonic nihilism. But the first movements of both the ninth and 10th symphonies do not conclude so assertively, the 10th opening movement ends by retreating into silence, unable to come to a conclusion that would resolve the fears engendered by the traumatic experience of the piled-up dissonant chords that preceded the reprise of the Adagio theme before the final coda as with most of Mahler’s first movements, the 10th simply sets up the conflict that is the focal point of the symphonies dramatic narrative.

The symphonic drama must be played out on a worldly playing before a resolution is possible. Without introduction, unaccompanied violas very softly begin the first movement with its first theme marked Andante. It is a long line, contemplative melody and F sharp major that wanders aimlessly as if in a trance, combining wide leaps on dissonant intervals with modal stepwise motion, it sets the mood for the entire movement, casting and hypnotic spell that seems to be a natural outgrowth of the closing measures of the ninth, while played softly and without expression, this Andante theme generates a sense of foreboding that portends an imminent outburst of emotion, certain motivic figures predominate, a combination of trochaic and dactylic rhythms, the latter prefiguring the later appearance of the devil’s dance motive, a hint of the motive der Tag ist schön from the fourth song of Kindertotenlieder, that played an important role in the finale of the ninth, a falling modal phrase, and an anapestic figure that recalls the passage in the X movement of Das Lied Von der Erda where the music suddenly bursts out with fervor and emotion, as if yearning for relief from loneliness. Here’s the entire Andante theme.

The Andante theme telescopes directly into the second subject set in an Adagio tempo and still in the tonic key, softly the violins play the Adagio theme, over shifting choral harmonies and motivic figures from the first theme, combined with dactylic rhythms, and the Der Tag phrase, both played by the violas, more expressive and impassioned than the Andante theme, the Adagio theme begins with a four-note phrase on wide intervallic leaps, and plunges reminiscent of the second theme of the sixth symphonies finale, itself, a distorted version of the arching motive of redemption, as the Adagio theme develops motivic elements from the Andante theme, particularly it’s trochaic and dactylic figures and falling modal phrases, appear with greater frequency. The relationship between the two main themes is so striking that Clemen thought the second merely a variation of the first, but Mahler treats them as distinct themes throughout the movement. A horn enters with a motto-like descending phrase that relates to the labor volt motive of the Knights Adagio movement. A hint of the scherzando subsidiary theme appears in the violas just before they repeat the opening measure of the Adagio theme, which develops in a series of crescendos that ultimately failed to reach a climax. Each time the Adagio theme reaches the crest of a crescendo, it suddenly quiets down, a procedure also used in the ninth symphonies finale. With each build up, the theme becomes more intense and impassioned, the last time it builds, it abruptly gives way to a goblinesque scherzando subject contoured in arching phrases of rising and falling waves of 16th, the latter actually a diminutive version of the falling phrase from the first theme, skeleton like pizzicato’s that accompany the subject, give it a grotesque character.
Introduced briefly the scherzando soon gives way to the return of the undaunted theme, now in the tonic minor. Here’s the first appearance of the Adagio theme and the scherzando subsidiary subject, as well as the beginning of the Andante themes return at the end.

Strings continue their skeletonesque rhythmic accompaniment as the Andante theme quietly enters in first violins, creating a strong contrast between theme and accompaniment. Infusion of the motive of the devil’s dance, changes the character of the Andante theme. The motives dactylic rhythm with a long note trill, makes the Andante theme sound more demonic.

In just three measures, the scherzando subject has driven away the Andante theme. Now the scherzando’s arching phrases are stretched, thus sounding more grotesque for being forced to take a long plunge, rather than descending on a 16th note run as earlier. After only six measures, the scherzando music suddenly disappears and the violas are left alone to restate the Andante theme in an abbreviated and slightly varied version.

As before, the Adagio theme in the tonic key immediately succeeds the Andante themes abbreviated return. Once again, the falling phrase of the Andante theme appears in the cellos as a counterweight to the rising figure that begins the second measure of the Adagio theme in violins. After the first two bars of the Adagio theme, viola’s play its first bar phrase against his third bar first violin’s. Variants of the Der Tag motive are included in the Adagio theme. A turn figure so important in the finale of the ninth is added by violins to this theme as it expands. Let’s listen to the reprise of the Adagio theme, after the abbreviated return of the Andante theme ends.

At this point, and for the first time in the movement, the entire orchestra enters fortissimo on the Adagio theme, flutes and second violins provide a harmonic overlay on the arching motive of redemption. As the theme begins a few bars later, both the devil’s dance motive and the Der Tag motives are added, while a horn brings back the countervailing subject that was heard during the first statement of the Adagio, now in an expanded version beginning with the label motive, first haired in its initial appearance, strange harmonic coloration creates a premonition of doom.
An inverted version of the Adagio theme appears in clarinets and inner strings, with flutes and first violins providing a counter theme in their high registers that infuses the music with burning passion. As first violins soar upward, the Adagio theme seems to struggle to ascend on its dactylic figure, but held to a screeching super octave high D natural, it is prevented from reaching its goal by some strange unearthly force. Even the addition of a rhythmic variant of Der Tag is of no help, chordal thrusts stab at the music in mid-measure, as if trying to pry it loose from its confines. But all to no avail, and the violins descend from the heights while violas keep repeating the dactylic devils dance rhythm, in falling sequences, until the motive of Whoa, the following minor second, is heard.

Out of the gloom engendered by this doom-laden motive of Whoa. The Andante theme returns once again in F sharp minor and in a more fleeting temple, now it combines with the scared sound on music, while woodwinds add the label of all motive, a stalking rhythm in the base, flutter tongue flutes, or trill variant of the devil’s dance motive, and rumbling baseline figures combined to create a spooky atmosphere that would not be out of place in Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, violas, and then woodwinds expand upon the scherzando subject in B flat minor, its arching figure being sourced in the first measure of the Adagio theme.

Soon second violins hint at the return of the Andante theme, while flutes embellished with flitting grace notes, double the violin stocking pizzicato’s violins continue with the scherzando the music, combining a grace noted version of the Der Tag motive with the devil’s dance motive. At the close of the section, the music falls into the bass, a solo cello plays the scherzando arching figure against the violins offbeat, pizzicato’s horns crescendo to a stopped B flat minor chord, followed by a piercing German sixth chord in clarinets, recalling a similar chord that opened the finale of the Sixth Symphony, and appeared again in the third movement of the ninth. Only the violas falling fourths over rumblings and cellos can be heard, anticipating the return of the Andante theme.

When the Andante theme does return, viola’s add elements from the scherzando music woodwinds and Opera strings enter to begin the development of the scherzando though, an indication of its increasing importance during the progress of the movement.
As earlier, the trilled devils dance, off bead pizzicato’s and stopped horn chords, embellish the scherzando’s demonic character. Soon the Andante theme enters on a solo violin with fragments of the scherzando subject in other woodwinds, again, the Andante theme serves a double function as principal subject and transitional material. For in just two measures, the Andante theme breaks off, leaving hints of it in an oboe and trumpet, combined with scherzando two elements in flute, clarinet and viola. The solo violin re enters to expand upon the scared sandals subject as a lead in to the reprise of the Adagio theme. Then played softly by violins and flute for the next excerpt, we’ll skip over the return of the Andante theme and go to the scherzando subjects reprise with elements of the Andante theme interrelated within it.

Before the theme can continue the solo violin reclaims center stage and continues to expand upon the scherzando music, flutes and oboe tried to bring back the Adagio theme surreptitiously by playing its inversion, but the scherzando will not be driven away by such subtle means. Once again, it prevails as the Adagio theme falls off after only two measures, violins continued to develop the scherzando’s upward arching phrase against fragments of the rest of the theme, continued by flute and oboe against the trill devils dance, which fall sequentially in the violas as the tonality shifts to B minor. The skeleton-like stalking rhythm, played by second violins in octave pizzicato’s, and flutes with grace noted eighths returns here and his contrast with offbeat eighths and flighty 32nd note triplets in the oboe. On a piercing upbeat of Lebe Wohl! echoed by a muted trumpet and accompanied by the falling sixteenths of the scherzando arching phrase, the first violin suddenly restates the inverted version of the Adagio theme, with stretched intervals. Second violins add the Andante theme two bars later, surrounded with scherzando material. On a strong F major chord, the flutes and violins forcefully assert the motive of redemption, as lower strings continue with the scherzando’s subject in two part CounterPoint. soaring to the heights, flutes and violins expand upon redemption, as hovering low brass chords build, as if approaching a climax and second violins continue to develop the scherzando music but no climax occurs, instead, an expanded and syncopated variant of the following phrase from redemption combines with the essence of the scherzando figuration telescoping into the reprise of the Adagio theme, will begin the next excerpt from the return of the undaunted theme in violins early in the development section.

Now the original Adagio theme is played together with his inverted version in antiphonal violins wide intervallic leaps further distort the thematic line violins pierce through a powerful orchestral tutti, as they soar upward on the label figure. First and second violins briefly engage in a dialogue on various elements from both principal themes, ending with an orchestral outburst of the beginning of the Adagio theme in octaves that incorporates the falling Lebe wohl! figure, and is played in strett with its inversion in woodwinds and violas. This sudden orchestral eruption abruptly ends in just two measures, and the Andante theme returns quietly in first violins, accompanied by scherzando elements in the remaining strings. Once again, the violence sore heavenward, as if pleading for relief from suffering. A crescendo builds intensely on repetitions of the scherzando falling 16th note figure, but again, the dramatic build up fails to reach its goal, leading instead to a simple cadence that brings a new variation of the Andante theme played softly and incorporating the arching phrase of the scherzando, Mahler works that phrase into the Andante theme as a figurative embellishment.

Throughout the movement, the scherzando intrudes into or intertwines with both principal themes, coiling about them like a snake preparing to strike. Quickly another crescendo ushers in a new variation of the Andante theme which is emphatically asserted by first violins. The theme intervals are again sorely stretched. A variant of the scherzando’s arching phrase continues to intrude with ever-increasing frequency. The trill devils dance and offbeat pizzicato accompany further distortions of the Andante theme. A sudden thrust upward in thematic line is quickly squelched as the scherzando takes over in a chamber ensemble of woodwinds and violins. Woodwinds in stretto offer yet another variant of the Adagio themes opening bar in the course of this brief reworking of scherzando material, changing that theme nearly beyond recognition. The next excerpt begins with a strong orchestral passage that concludes the Adagio theme, and leads to the soft gentle reprise of the Andante theme.

Now, violins takeover to further develop the Adagio theme, with trombones and tubas providing restrained harmonic support. Yet again, violins ascend as the music builds with greater urgency, over second violins inverted variant of the Adagio theme, first violins soar to a high A flat, that anticipates the key of the overpowering episode soon to come. They fall from this great height on the descending 16th note figure of the scherzando subject, as second violins ascend to the stratosphere. Suddenly the music softens, and the violins are left alone. First violins continue hesitantly with the Andante theme, supported by high sustained tones, and the second violins that are been an elongated version of the Andante theme, a sense of foreboding chills the atmosphere as the first violins descend on the first theme, this transitional passage appears to gradually move toward closure, but at the brink of what is expected to be a somber cadence, the entire orchestra explodes with a terrifying blast of A flat minor and overpowering brass chorale emerges from this gigantic chord, giving every impression that the Day of Judgment is at hand, cascading harp glissandos and rapid string figuration descending in one key and ascending in another world around brass chords. One might consider this shocking orchestral explosion as the converse of the burst of E major in another Adagio movement in the Fourth Symphony, when a flood of sunlight illuminates the music, after this torrential outburst subsides, woodwinds enter forcefully with the arching scherzando figure to the accompaniment of the clinking skeletal pizzicato’s on harp and inner strings. After the two bars clarinets and violas add an inverted variant for the Adagio themes, opening measures, but before the theme can proceed further into lingers on a sustained tone a high a natural in first violins. Out of this soft but foreboding monotone, diverse orchestral groups enter in a staggered sequence of powerful triadic chords that pile upon one another, until the aggregation produces an ear-splitting dissonance so excruciating that it is virtually unbearable.

Never before or since has, such a stupendous chordal dissonance had such an impact after the chordal pile up reaches its full proportions, it is cut off momentarily, leaving only that high a natural sounded by a single trumpet, replicating the tone held by the violins that led into this episode. Rather than clearing the air, this trumpet tone is shattered by the full force of the chordal compilation that proceeded, crashing down upon it like an atomic explosion. It is a vision of doom, akin to the one invoked during the graveyard scene in the trinket movement of Das Lied, and to the sudden blast of the life-negating fate motive that begins the recapitulation of the ninth symphonies first movement, threatening utter annihilation.
Once again, the terrible chord is cut off by an A natural on the trumpet but this time the second violins jab to the heart on a thrusting super octave high D natural, which drops by an octave, and then falls by a major second, hinting at a fragment of the Adagio theme. That sounds a note of despair. cellos echo this falling phrase, which then continues to descend chromatically as a lead-in to the return of the Adagio theme. The theme begins here with the same falling frames. We’ll listen now to the entire episode, beginning with the violins quietly playing the Andante theme.

The apocalyptic vision just witnessed is musically unrelated to anything that preceded it, but it will reappear in the finale. Having endured this horror, the Adagio theme now sounds surprisingly common, as it returns after the music calms down and sinks into the depths. It’s briefly appearance functions as a prelude to the reprise of the Andante theme, first violins softly play it in dialogue with violas and then second violins, accompanied by cellos on the clinking pizzicato’s from the scherzando subject during the extension of the undaunted theme, one is reminded of an earlier transition passage, in which a falling syncopated version of the motive of redemption accompanied by scherzando material led into the Adagio themes reprise here however, it is the Andante theme that is infused with scherzando elements that accompany the violins descending line. The combination of Andante theme and scherzando material continues to develop until a sudden welling up the lid measure brings back with a jolt, the falling after a phrase that ended the apocalyptic episode of piled on dissonant chords. Good now ushers in a variation of the Adagio theme that begins with the same falling octave. All tension and anguish of the Adagio theme seem to vanish. Instead of feeling of repose and calm acceptance envelops the atmosphere, eliminating all anxiety and dread, as at the close of the Ninth Symphony is first movement, we feel that we have witnessed a terrible premonition of death without uttering an outcry of despair. Having endured the tortures of death-riddled anxiety, we are strengthened by the experience and saved from the potentially deleterious effect of its destructive power. As at the end of the Ninth Symphony, the orchestra is reduced to a string ensemble, as the movement approaches the coda on the falling octave of the Adagio theme, stretched in the cellos to a minor ninth.

Completely pacified, the music seems to glow with a soft halo-like sheen as the coda begins an inverted version of the falling octave that begins the Adagio theme, is played gently in the violas upper register. violins play isolated tones that are actually fragments of the Adagio theme. Second violins enter again on the falling octave phrase, and then continue with a bit more of the Adagio theme, while muted first violins and then an oboe tenderly in tone the motive of redemption. First violins reappear with the Andante theme played softly but expressively like a fervent prayer, the falling octave phrase now rises with renewed hope.

As twice before the orchestral sound is broken off by an A natural this time played very, very softly by violins alone, four lines above the staff, a hint that the tonality may shift into the minor, instead, second violins and violas forcefully state the falling octave phrase, urging the first violins to move their sustained a natural a half a step higher, thereby reestablishing the tonic. This shift from minor to major is a hint of redemption, of transfiguration that can bring relief from the terrible vision of death experienced earlier, as in both Das Lied and the ninth, that redeeming event will occur when the human spirit unconditionally accepts life with all of its hards and suffering, as well as its beauty and joy. The falling octave phrase is set in a brief dialogue with a rising three-note phrase from the Adagio theme that leads into a long sustained chord, which quietly hangs suspended, while bass strings and harp slowly ascend on diatonic tones in the key of the dominant. It is as if the music are gradually floating away toward a distant plane, where one might find peace and blast, a remedy for the shock of the episode. Higher and higher the music climb until flutes sound a broadened version of the falling octave phrase against its inversion in second violins, followed again by the falling phrase, this time played twice as slowly in clarinet and violas. At last, the tonic key is reached on a sustained chord in the highest regions of flutes and strings. It is cut off by a soft pizzicato note, putting a final period to this extraordinary movement.

In this opening movement, as in so many others, Mahler presents a dramatic conflict that provides the subject of the entire Symphony. Its resolution must be delayed until the finale in order to explore in the middle movements, other aspects of the human dilemma to which the conflict relates. In this respect, the Dramatic Structure of the 10th is quintessentially Mahlerian. It adds another dimension to the subject matter of both Das Lied Von der Erda and the Ninth Symphony, as it comes to terms with human mortality.

By Lew Smoley

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