Why Mahler, why??

Over the last few months I have been studying and then rehearsing Mahler’s Symphony No.10 and one particular movement has caused me more sleepless nights than any other – the second movement Scherzo. It is a question that I am sure almost every conductor who has performed or studied the Deryck Cooke performing version of Mahler 10 has asked – why? Why did he write it as he did?
For those of you who don’t know this movement, here it is, played by one of the foremost advocates of the Deryck Cooke version and arguably, its greatest interpreter, Sir Simon Rattle.
So, you may ask, what is the problem?
I did a cursory count (and excuse me if my numbers are not 100% accurate, but you’ll get the drift) and the statistics are as follows,
522 bars long
344 bars of 3/4
109 bars of 4/4 or 2/2
51 bars of 5/4
18 bars of 2/4
10 bars of 3/2
In these enlightened days of the 21st Century, post The Rite of Spring, these figures should not be shocking. But in 1909/10, these figures would have been a shock, had the world ever got to see the score for Mahler’s 10th Symphony. Most of these time changes appear in the first and last thirds of the movement, but even taken as an average, the scherzo changes time, on average, every 2.77 bars (the 3/4 tally divided by the total of the rest). 
Before we answer the question of “why”, we ought to look at the evidence – how much of this Scherzo is Mahler and how much is Cooke? The preface to the printed score clearly states that this movement was laid out in full score but was sketchy at best. Cooke himself says in the preface the special difficulty with this movement lies in connection with the multifarious changes of time signature. Mahler wrote hardly any specific time signatures and Cooke just had to establish them from the notation.  A facsimile page of the short score shows that Mahler was clear in his intentions – every bar is clear as to how many beats are in it.
The question of the scoring is different, and one I will not dive into in this post. This Scherzo does seem to have needed more “fleshing out” than the movements either side of it but I believe it had little or no bearing on the time signature issue to which I refer.
So, why after many years of composition did Mahler suddenly write a movement so complicated in meter and so far advanced for its time? In the previous symphonies he had only ever once got close to writing music like this, that being in the Scherzo of this Symphony No.6. But in that movement the use of different time signatures is used in a different way – he lengthens and shortens the phrases with time changes but during the more relaxed and reflective sections. These time changes make the music seem poised, thoughtful and at times, hesitant. The bulk of the rest of that scherzo is, more often than not, in 3 but almost always driving and relentless in feel.
Here are a couple of my theories.
Firstly, in the Scherzo of No.10, the reflective music is almost always in 3. The middle section is a sort of Ländler with its theme being derived from the first subject of the opening Adagio. To me it harks back to Austria and is a haven amidst the more complicated ‘modern’ music that surrounds it which could represent New York. He was writing this symphony whilst being thousands of miles from home in what would have been a fairly alien environment. Maybe the shock of the new infiltrated his psyche and led to the outer sections feeling more jagged and terse, with its feeling of uneasiness?
Secondly, maybe he just wanted to take his macabre Scherzo writing one step further? All of his scherzo movements have moments of the macabre, sometimes mixed in with aggression and sarcasm. He might have had in mind some sort of lopsided, three-legged dance that was out of control from the start and only in the central section is some sort of normality reached!
But I finally come to the reason for this post. I have a third theory and I believe it might hold some water. During his time in New York, Mahler had dealings with another conductor ,Arturo Toscanini. It must be remembered that Mahler had gone to New York to mainly conduct at the Metropolitan Opera and ended up conducting far less opera than was at first envisaged! This was partly down to the Met changing management and hiring Toscanini, meaning that Mahler was slowly squeezed out, ending up conducting the New York Philharmonic.
There seems to be little evidence of Mahler actively personally disliking Toscanini or vice versa. But in these early days of the 20th Century, Toscanini was making big noises over at the Met and the world of the “star” conductor was being born. There would have been the obvious comparisons made in the press between these two great conductors. So maybe, just maybe, Mahler wanted to show the world that he was still the best conductor out there and the best way to do this was to write himself the hardest piece to conduct yet written!
And, let’s face it, that is exactly what he did. Up until that point, no piece of music I can think of has that many time changes in it over such a short period of time. In that short Scherzo Mahler would have shown the world that he was still the force to be reckoned with and that he was to still be taken seriously.

It is not my belief that this last theory was the main reason for the use of many different time signatures. I’m sure he was not that interested in showing off! What I am saying is that he was pushing the boundaires of both harmony and meter in this symphony and that maybe he was also trying to push the boundaries of conducting at the same time? The result would have been that the world would have seen conducting like this for the first time and he would have been the pioneer.

It would be great to show you a YouTube clip of a conductor conducting this from the orchestra’s point of view but sadly it does not exist. There are two complete performances on YouTube, one by Inbal and another by Lintu. There is also this clip of the scherzo in question featuring Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic. During all of these clips, you clearly see the orchestra at times counting like mad! As someone who has both played and conducted this movement, it is also no surprise to me to see real “signs of relief” at the end of all of these clips! I can tell you that it is one of the hardest things I have ever had to conduct technically, if not THE hardest!
Hopefully you might agree with one, two or even all three of my theories. Of course if Mahler had lived a few years longer he may have revised his original thoughts and written something a little easier and less revolutionary?  In the end it doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with me – the world should be thankful that Alma Mahler allowed Deryck Cooke to complete his performing version and the world got to hear one of the greatest pieces ever written, at the very least one of the toughest challenges for any conductor!
Next time, my thoughts on how to accompany pianists in concerti and why this is harder than it at first appears.

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