The unfinished 10th Symphony on which Austrian conductor and composer Gustav Mahler scrawled desperate messages to his faithless wife, Alma, will go on sale at Sotheby's here Friday. The $600,000 to $700,000 it is expected to bring from some private collector has raised a chorus of dismays from the Austrian government and eminent musicologists.
One of the most poignant and significant scores in musical history, the work has been kept in the family since Mahler's death in 1911. Alma Mahler issued a partial facsimile of the score in 1924 and kept the manuscript with her when she fled Vienna from the Nazis, settling in 1942 in Beverly Hills. Upon her death in 1964, the score passed to her sculptor daughter, Anna, who once lived in West Hollywood.
In recent years, the manuscript was lodged for safekeeping with a London antiquarian bookseller, Albi Rosenthal. After Anna Mahler's death in 1989, Rosenthal sought to reunite it with other fragments of the same work that found their way into the Austrian National Library. Vienna offered just under $500,000 for the score but the deal fell through when Mahler's granddaughter, Marina Fistoulari, put it up for sale last month in London.
The Austrians have issued a biting official denunciation, accusing Fistoulari of placing business interests above ancestral reverence. The graver concern, however, is that few public institutions can afford Sotheby's price and the score may vanish into a private investor's vault. Even the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which holds the world's largest Mahler collection, is understood to be out of the bidding.
"I'm very sorry that it is not staying in the Mahler family," says Donald Mitchell, the foremost British Mahlerian and friend of Anna Mahler's. "I also regret very much that this work, of all works, is being auctioned off and not finding its place in some appropriate institution. Things like this can disappear; people sit on them for years."
Mahler composed the work in the summer of 1910 while his flighty young wife was waging a passionate affair with architect Walter Gropius. In fragile health, Mahler broke off composing to consult Sigmund Freud in a famous meeting of great minds. He took the score that winter to New York, where he was conducting the New York Philharmonic, but collapsed in February, 1911, and crawled home to die three months later in Vienna at the age of 50.
Over and between the staves of the symphony he scribbled frantic cries to his wife and God. Into the closing bar of the finale, he inscribed Alma's pet name and beneath it the couplet, "To live for you, to die for you." Across another page, he wrote: "You alone know what it means." His torment reached fever pitch in a cry of "Madness, take hold of me, destroy me!" Another sheet ends in sheer agony: "Ach! Ach! Ach!"
Musicians have been allowed to scrutinize the composer's sketches with the aim of bringing to life a performable version. A 1964 realization of the 10th Symphony by British musicologist Deryck Cooke has won near-universal acceptance in recordings by Eugene Ormandy, James Levine, Simon Rattle and others.