Mozart and Mahler, Unfinished

I’ve spent most of today trying (and failing) to complete what’s left of my examination marking. Now I’ll have to finish it during the weekend, because I stopped this evening in order to catch a concert by the BBC National Orchestra (and, for the latter part) Chorus, of Wales at the splendid St David’s Hall here in Cardiff. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, in fact, so if you happened to listen in at 7pm this evening then I was among the applauds. The programme was introduced by Catherine Bott, whose voice I’ve heard many times on the radio but have never actually seen before in the flesh, so to speak. There she was on stage doing the intro, as large as life. And that’s really quite large, I can tell you.

The concert featured two uncompleted works. First we had a piece completely new to me, which was intended to be the first movement of  Gustav Mahler‘s 10th Symphony.The composer died a hundred years ago in 1910 having only just started this work.  I’ve never heard this music before and it both fascinated and surprised me. It’s quintessentially Mahler in many ways, but it’s a strange opening for a symphony because it’s a very long Adagio movement (lasting about 30 minutes). I wonder how long the entire symphony would have been if Mahler had finished it? And how would it have developed?

I thought the single movement we heard was extraordinarily beautiful but then ever since I was introduced to Mahler I’ve been a complete devotee. In fact, I  think if I could listen to Mahler all day I probably wouldn’t bother thinking about anything else at all.  Thank you, John.

After the interval we heard the Mozart Requiem, with  four excellent soloists and a choir added to the orchestra. Mozart only really finished two sections of this work, and we heard the standard completion of the rest of it done by Süssmayr. I don’t think anybody knows for sure exactly what was done by Mozart and what wasn’t, but the opening section is so spine-tinglingly marvellous it just has to be authentic Mozart. On the other hand, the sections for four voices don’t seem to have the magic that Mozart managed to conjure up in his operas so perhaps they aren’t of the same provenance. There’ll always be a mystery about this work, and I guess that will always be among its fascinations. In any case, even a little Mozart will always go a very long way.

Just over £20  for seats so close that I could read the score of the first Cello too. And people ask me why I moved to Cardiff!

15 Responses to “Mozart and Mahler, Unfinished”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I find Mahler almost unlistenable-to, because (1) he is a genius; and (2) he expresses, predominantly, existential despair. These traits both reach their peak in that first movement of the 10th symphony. Here are two paragraphs from an essay about the history of music by Alan Morrison, which show what happened next:

    Orchestral music had gone about as far as it could possibly go with Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in Vienna, who set out to encapsulate ‘the whole of life’ in his massive symphonies. Mahler himself was not actually dedicated to the idea of atonality (as were many of his admirers), but the fear of his looming death from heart disease suffused every piece he composed after the Eighth Symphony with a chromatic melancholy which stretched his sound-world to breaking point. When the Adagio from his Tenth Symphony screamed out an awesome ten-note chord – probably the most overwhelmingly frightening moment in the entire history of music – the chaotic chasm of atonality opened up, ready to swallow up the one who would take the leap.

    The mantle fell to his pupil of the ‘Second Viennese School’, Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). His first real attempt at atonal composition (2nd String Quartet, slow movement), demonstrated the alien nature of this new departure when the voice of a soprano entered on the words “I feel the air of another planet”. Schoenberg seems to have been aware that he was entering forbidden territory, for he later wrote of this moment: “Personally I had the feeling as if I had fallen into an ocean of boiling water….. It burned not only my skin, it burned also internally”.

    In the 1980s the Cambridge mathematician Richard Maunder did his best to strip Suessmayr out of the Mozart Requiem and replaced his contributions by his own, also in Mozart’s style. The result is a lot shorter. Whether it’s better is a wonderful subject for discussion. But the scholar Wolfgang Plath found sketches in 1960 showing that Suessmayr had had more of Mozart’s to go on than was commonly believed.

    The biggest mystery about Mozart’s Requiem was also solved in the 1960s, when the anonymous stranger who commissioned the work – which Mozart found deeply creepy – was found to have been acting on behalf of one Count Walsegg. Honour to O.E. Deutsch, who made this discovery.


  2. telescoper Says:


    It probably is right to see Mahler as some kind of apotheosis. The famous chord referred to in your quote appears apparently from nowhere like a shriek of despair. It took me completely by surprised and sent cold shivers down my spine. I hadn’t heard the piece before last night.

    Surprisingly, for all that angst, I don’t find Mahler at all difficult to listen to, although it does disturb me a bit that he seemed to know exactly what to do to trigger a deeply emotional response. It seems almost unfair that some people are able to pull other peoples’ strings like that.

    As for the Requiem there are several different completions, I believe, but the Suessmayr one is by far the best known. The written evidence relates only to a small part of the work (two full sections, some vocal lines, and sketches of other passages). However, I’m given to understand that Suessmayr had ample opportunity to discuss this work with Mozart and it may be that he had a better idea of what he intended than these bare bones suggest.

    I also believe Count Walsegg wanted to procure a work that he could pass off as his own. Mozart only took on the job because he was desperate for money, and Constanza only arranged for it to be completed because she inherited Mozart’s debts when he died. True to his plan, Walsegg added his own name to the front page of the work when he finally got his hands on it.


  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    St. David’s Hall is very familiar to me, as a regular attender of orchestral concerts who has previously lived in Cardiff. I’ve heard a great many excellent concerts there from a diverse range of performers.

    I heard much of last night’s concert on the radio (though not all), and it was very enjoyable.

    Radio 3 concerts broadcast live these days are unusual in that they start at 7:00 p.m., not the 7:30 p.m. that classical concerts normally start, and the radio announcer stands up in front of the audience and reads out the introductions to the pieces to the concert hall. This is an innovation of the past few years.

    I have mixed opinions about the music of Mahler. I really like the First and Fourth Symphonies, and the Second is spectacular. However, the angst, restlessness and changes in direction detract from the music somewhat for me. His music can be too personal and self-indulgent at times.

    The Adagio of the incomplete Tenth Symphony is an interesting piece, I feel Mahler wrote in a style that is less angst-ridden than many of his other symphonies. It must be said that the striking, dissonant chords in Mahler’s movement from his Tenth Symphony are a lot less radical and shocking than the equivalent in the Adagio of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony; certainly the style of the Tenth’s movement does remind me quite a lot of Bruckner.

  4. John Peacock Says:


    Glad you liked the start of Mahler 10. You don’t have to guess about the rest of the symphony, since it exists (and the answer is about 75 minutes, over 5 movements in total). Although unfinished, Mahler had completed the entire structure of the sympony: all the main themes, with indications of harmony and critical orchestration, were in place in a “short score” that varies between 2 and 4 lines. He orchestrated all of movement 1 and half of movement 3 before he died, so all of the clues needed for a convincing performing version of the score are in place. The task of filling in the orchestration in an idiomatic way was first taken up in the 1960s by a team of musicologists under Deryck Cooke, and for me the result is a revelation. The whole exercise is worth it just for the flute solo near the start of the finale. Perhaps most interesting is that, despite terrors on the journey, the ending is basically optimistic – which gives you a very different impression from the fading away and resignation to death at the end of the 9th. You have to hear it – there’s several good CDs; try the CFP of Rattle/Bournemouth for a bargain.

    I find this whole idea of reconstruction (a word that Cooke explicitly rejects) fascinating. It’s so wonderful to take a few almost illegible strokes of a pen and turn it into living music that might easily have been lost forever. I suppose this is partly a skill like crossword puzzles – but with a much more important outcome. There have been other great successes in this line of work. I’m especially fond of Schubert’s 7th and 10th symphonies, which were in a similar state of completion to Mahler 10. It’s amazing these aren’t performed more often.

    A more challenging piece of work was the finale of Bruckner 9. This is particularly interesting, since it is known so well in 3 movements, and it makes a convincing whole ending with the adagio. You often read that Bruckner struggled with the finale but never finished it, leaving just a set of unconnected fragmentary sketches. I accepted this myth for years, but only discovered recently that it is nonsense. What seems to have happened, tragically, is that souvenir-seekers ransacked Bruckner’s room after his death and made off with bits of the finale, which was in the final phases of orchestration. Even so, a very nearly complete thread of short score is in place (although even sparser than Mahler 10), and a performing version of the movement is possible. There is a wonderful recording on Naxos conducted by Johannes Wildner, which I strongly recommend; you can tell the players really believe in the music, and it’s far from an academic exercise. Even if I wouldn’t go as far on insisting on always hearing the piece in 4 movements, this finale is great music, and I’m so grateful that people took the trouble to decode it so I can hear it.

  5. telescoper Says:


    I’ll definitely seek out the recording you mention. I don’t know how I’d managed to miss Mahler’s 10th. I think I always assumed that people were talking about The Song of the Earth when they mentioned it. That’s a symphony in all but name and should really be his 10th, I think.


  6. John Peacock Says:


    Song of the Earth was his 9th – but he was too superstitious to give it that number at the time (in the shadow of Beethoven’s Choral).

    For satisfying curiosity about various obscure pieces, I would recommend Spotify, while allows you 20 hours free listening per month (if you can tolerate the occasional advert). I find it very useful compared to the usual 30-second clip you get on Amazon or whatever, and you can eliminate the risk of buying a recording only to be disappointed.

  7. telescoper Says:

    Silly me. I thought there were 9 symphonies plus the Song of the Earth. I sit corrected.

  8. Bryn Jones Says:

    The Cooke completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was broadcast on Radio 3 within the past few weeks, if I remember correctly. It is not normally included in Mahler symphony cycle recordings and I do not have a recording of it myself. (I have the Tennstedt-London-Philharmonic Mahler cycle on CD.)

    One other, impressive, part-written musical work that has been completed by another is Elgar’s Third Symphony, completed by Anthony Paine.

    I do have a copy of the Naxos recording of the completion of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The competed fourth movement is good, but does not in my view match the three movements published after Bruckner’s death. Indeed, the original three movements are so profound in their impact that it is difficult to imagine how a fourth movement could build on them. Bruckner’s standard technique was to try to bring themes from earlier movements together and drive on to a logical conclusion, then on reaching that logical end, stop. A fourth moevement changes the whole balance of the symphony. Perhaps I am too used to the three-movement work to accept a four-movement version, but the three-movement standard version works brilliantly. The whole feel of the piece is created by that enormous, searing Adagio that builds up to a thunderous climax, quietens, then repeats that climax but even more loudly and with a shocking, painful dissonance, then gradually quietens, slows, and fades out profoundly gently and sublimely.

    I suppose I’m showing my tastes here, moderately enthusiastic about Mahler, but highly enthusiastic about Bruckner.

    Incidentally, Bruckner completed 10 symphonies and nearly all of another: They are numbered by musicologists as: Double-zero, Zero, One, Two, …, Nine. Apparently, musicologists have no understanding of negative integers.

  9. John Peacock Says:


    You’re right about radio 3: But Peter had better hurry up, as it’s only online for another 24 hours.

    As for Payne’s Elgar completions, I am much less keen than the Mahler, Schubert and Bruckner. With Elgar, the amount of original material is just too little and has too many gaps for a proper performing edition of something you can feel is largely authentic in the basics. For large sections, Payne had nothing to go on and had to indulge in 100% original composing. The result tends to be referred to as the Elgar/Payne symphony, and this is a fair label. For me, it doesn’t come close to the proper symphonies, whereas I think large sections of Mahler 10 and Schubert 7 & 10 stand comparison with the best of the completed works.

    Regarding B9 finale, I did say explicitly that I’m still happy the 3-movement version works as it always has. I tend to listen to the finale as a piece in isolation – but I think it’s magnificent. Nevertheless, it’s interesting on occasion to try to hear the piece as the composer intended. You shift the weight away from the earlier movements, and get quite a different perspective.

  10. telescoper Says:

    We could perhaps say this is a process of analytic continuation ..

  11. Bryn Jones Says:


    I’m surprised that the Radio 3 broadcast of the Cooke completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony was only six days ago, but my feeling that it was a few weeks ago was clearly wrong.

    I seem to remember hearing some broadcast of Elgar’s parts from his Third Symphony many years ago and was surprised that they were quite substantial, meaning that Payne’s task was a little closer to completion than a new composition. But I believe he refers to his efforts as “realisation”, which is a term that implies something more than completion. Personally, I prefer the Elgar-Payne symphony to Elgar’s First and Second Symphonies.

    Perhaps on a scientific blog we should mention Borodin, who was too busy with his research in chemistry to complete many of his works. They had to be completed after his death by musical friends.


  12. “I don’t think anybody knows for sure exactly what was done by Mozart and what wasn’t, but the opening section is so spine-tinglingly marvellous it just has to be authentic Mozart.”

    This raises an interesting question: Is it possible for someone to write something in the style of an old master and have it accepted as such? It is possible to quantify the style, to some extent—my music-theory teacher used to give us “write a chorale in the style of Bach” as homework—and the details can be filled in by a person, or indeed by a computer. The problem is that I could play the uninitiated something by Bach and say it was a piece by Mozart and they wouldn’t hear the difference, whereas the initiated would know it’s not Mozart since they know all of his stuff. So, in practice, in order to convince the initiated a forger has to fake the paper, the ink etc since this, ultimately, is what can prove it to be a forgery (though lack of proof does not, of course, prove that it is original), but this is a different issue than the original question.

    Of course, this applies to painting, literature etc as well as music.

    I recall Konrad Kujau, famous for selling forged Hitler diaries to a magazine for millions who also faked paintings in the style of the old masters. Later, after he got out of jail, he continued, but signed them with his own name. However, even to someone rather familiar with the painters in question, the degree to which he could capture the style was extraordinary.

    Before anyone says that originality is what is really important (perhaps in conncetion with quality, since anyone can be trivially original—this applies to most of modern art, in my opinion), recall that J.S. Bach was not very original at all, and in his day was regarded as decidedly “retro”. In his own lifetime, his sons were more famous, and much of his work was driven by the fear that the old art of composition would be lost, so he set about codifying things.

    Maybe, as Pirsig maintains, quality really is undefinable. 🙂

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: quite! Why stop at reconstructing everybody’s 10th symphonies? I look forward to hearing Mahler 11, Brahms 5, Mozart 42 etc. But nobody else could have written the slow movements of Bach’s violin concertos.

    I prefer Michael Polanyi to Robert Pirsig on the notion of quality. Polanyi is the philosopher who discusses “what we know that we don’t know we know” – ie, stuff that you cannot pick up from books, but *have* to learn on the job, in a generalised apprentice system.


  14. Bryn Jones Says:

    Coincidentally, I tried sorting some old compact discs today and came across a recording of the Deryck Cooke completion of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. And for more of a coincidence, it was performed by the B.B.C. National Orchestra of Wales (conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, who was the orcherstra’s principal conductor in the late 1990s). And an even bigger coincidence for myself and Peter is that the performance took place in the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (in 1993, by the way).

  15. […] Incidentally, Das Lied von der Erde is a symphony and it was written by Mahler after the 8th Symphony. However, it isn’t the 9th Symphony, which is a different work, or indeed the 10th which was unfinished at Mahler’s death and which I heard here in Cardiff recently. […]

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