The work grew out of a time of despair. In delicate physical health, he was confronted with a shattering emotional blow: the discovery of Alma's infidelity with the young architect Walter Gropius. The score of his Tenth Symphony includes anguished scrawls to Alma: "To live for you, To die for you Almschi!" The crisis led Mahler to ask for a consultation with Sigmund Freud.
Many of Mahler’s most gripping slow movements combine rondo with variation form. Every time the theme returns, it is elaborated, ornamented, extended, or combined with a countermelody or even a variation of itself. In this way, themes that are already very powerful when first stated, reach ever higher degrees of intensity. In the Tenth Symphony, this mode of expression reaches its greatest realization.