- Alban Berg wrote of the lengthy first movement of Mahler’s 9th: “[It] is the most heavenly thing Mahler has written... an expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depths – before death comes…”
- The second movement scherzo is “In the tempo of an easygoing Ländler, somewhat heavy footed and very vigorous”.
- A folksy theme stumbles into violent, increasing vulgarity, giving way to a distorted waltz (the first trio), which is supplanted by a reminiscence of the first movement’s main theme. A second trio again suggests innocent revels gone wrong. Themes intermingle and fade away.
- The defiant, dissonant third movement Rondo-Burleske is characterized by Deryck Cooke as a “ferocious outburst at the futility of everything...crazy music, made up of rapid, vehement motives combined in rhythmically disjointed counterpoints.”
- The finale interweaves themes from the preceding movements, stripping them (mostly) of their bleakness, their irony, even their darkness, and ultimately bringing a profound peace and a farewell, without regrets, without recollections of life’s beastliness, only its beauties.
Length: 90 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (4th = English horn), E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 players), percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, large bells, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 13, 1969, John Barbirolli conducting
With the Ninth Symphony, Gustav Mahler closed the circle of a musical autobiography that began in 1883 with Songs of a Wayfarer, to his own texts of love, longing and death. Some three decades later – with several leave-takings along the way (the notion of death plays a part in everything he wrote) – Mahler bid his final farewell twice, in words (those of Hans Bethge, based on ancient Chinese poems) in the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) of 1909; and a year later, only months before his actual death, in the purely orchestral Ninth Symphony. One takes one’s pick as to which is the more heart-wrenching, the emotions made literal in the one (Das Lied), or the long, slow finale of the symphony, filtering down to pppp, marked “ersterbend” (dying away), “like the melting into the ethereal blue,” in the description of Bruno Walter, the composer’s friend and disciple, who conducted the posthumous first performance of the Ninth in Vienna in 1912.
The Ninth Symphony was completed in April of 1910, toward the end of Mahler’s second season as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He was already suffering from the heart condition diagnosed in 1907 and which resulted in his resignation from his post as principal conductor of the Vienna Opera. A healthier man might, however, not have been able to survive the punishing schedule that Mahler set for himself for most of his career. But the end was always in sight for Gustav Mahler, whether as finality or as a state from which one could recover, as in the Second Symphony, meaningfully subtitled “Resurrection.”
A half-year before the completion of the Ninth Symphony, the composer Alban Berg was given the opportunity to study its first movement, of which he wrote to Helene Nahowski, his wife-to-be: “The whole first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler has written... an expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depths – before death comes. For he comes irresistibly. The whole movement is permeated by premonitions of death. Again and again it crops up, all the elements of earthly dreaming culminate in it... most potently in the colossal passage where this premonition becomes certainty, where in the midst of the utmost intensity of almost painful joy in life [a reference to the first movement’s mightiest climax, about two thirds of the way through], Death itself is announced with the utmost violence...”
Bruno Walter, writing in 1936 but no less obsessed with the romance of death, referred to the same music as “a tragically moving and noble paraphrase of the farewell feeling. A unique soaring between farewell sadness and a vision of heavenly light... lifts the movement into an atmosphere of celestial bliss.”
The introductory opening measures, strikingly spare in texture (Webern is in the offing), set the mood for four thematic ideas which will recur throughout the movement: a cello and horn motif that inevitably suggests a faltering heartbeat, a tolling figure for the harp, a sad horn phrase, and what Mahler scholar Deryck Cooke called “a palpitation on the violas,” all building to what might be regarded as the movement’s main, D-major theme, based on sad falling seconds in the violins, in turn based on the central “Lebewohl” (Farewell) figure of Beethoven’s piano Sonata in E-flat, Op. 81a. The entire first half of the Symphony’s opening movement is rooted, to put the matter somewhat over-simply, in the conflict between this D-major theme and another, more violent one, in D minor.
The “big” themes are, however, part of a vast scenario that also includes numerous, seemingly independent sub-themes and thematic fragments, widely ranging in tonality. And as soon as the composer has lulled you into a feeling of safe tonal haven, e.g., D major, the feeling of security is shattered by some unexpected modulation or harmonic twist. Mahler employs a welter of contrasting, not to say conflicting, ideas in juxtaposition, a collage effect producing a coherent picture, with the themes “interpenetrating each other,” in Deryck Cooke’s graphic description.
Looking at the work more broadly – and it is easy to get stuck in the gorgeous rut of that vast, infinitely varied and expressive opening movement, which runs to nearly a half-hour’s playing time – it becomes apparent that it is the farewell not only to one man’s life but to a stylistic epoch, in which symphonic thought was governed in large part by sonata form, which Mahler has so modified here to serve his own ends – as with the sheer bulk and power of the first movement’s development section – as to barely resemble the classical model. All of which takes us, if we wish to go in that direction, down the tricky path of pondering whether the Mahler Ninth is an “ending” or a “beginning.” If we insist on viewing Mahler primarily as a harbinger of various stages of 20th-century musical thought, we lose sight of what a self-sufficient original he was.
By contrast, the second movement – the Symphony’s scherzo – seems, at first, to ask no alarming questions, as Mahler’s marking suggests: “In the tempo of an easygoing Ländler, somewhat heavy footed and very vigorous.” It is in fact a subtle rhythmic transformation of the “Lebewohl” theme of the preceding movement.
But the opening is a sucker-punch: the innocence of the folksy theme (in nominally bright C major) barely outlasts its first statement, as it begins to stumble into violent, ever more dissonant vulgarity, giving way to a distorted waltz (the first trio). This is in turn supplanted by a reminiscence of the first movement’s D-major theme, now shorn of its longing sweetness, and then a second trio, suggestive once more of innocent revels gone violently wrong. The themes intermingle, menacingly – as a foretaste of the subsequent movement – and fade away, all energy spent.
The Rondo-Burleske, in A minor, is the most cruelly taunting, defiant, dissonantly “modern” music Mahler wrote – the birthplace of Shostakovich, perhaps. It is characterized by Deryck Cooke as a “ferocious outburst at the futility of everything... crazy music, made up of rapid, vehement motives combined in rhythmically disjointed counterpoints. A wild, wryly modulating march offers a chance of comparative stability, but is swept away in the general uproar.” Note the “lewd” (Cooke’s adjective) theme for the solo trumpet, whose mocking sweetness will evolve (as will the other horrors of the movement) into the hymn-like beauty of the finale.
The finale in fact interweaves the pertinent themes from all of the preceding movements, stripping them (for the most part) of their bleakness, their irony, even their darkness, and ultimately bringing a profound peace and a farewell, without regrets, without recollections of life’s beastliness, only its beauties.
Coming on the heels of the unease and doubt amid the first movement’s lyric beauties and the sardonic anger of movements two and three, the nobility and grandiose repose of the finale’s main theme – in which the strings are asked to produce all the throbbing tonal richness of which they are capable – comes as somewhat of a shock. Its luminousness takes getting used to, and perhaps the sudden injection of a curiously bleak bassoon solo to break the mood is intended to give us time to adjust – to prepare the ear for the strings’ even greater intensification of the main theme. And the composer subsequently pulls another of his shocking surprises, with several measures of skeletal, hollow music that would again seem to be leading us down some dark alley of the soul. Mocking phrases from the third movement are recalled. Then the heavenly music resumes, even slower than before.
Cooke argues convincingly, by the way, that the overall structure of the Ninth Symphony was influenced by the layout of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” (1893), with its two huge slow movements surrounding a steady dance and a fast march. Mahler had conducted the “Pathétique” when it was new with little enthusiasm, but returned to Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, now admiringly, in 1910 while orchestrating the Ninth. (In referring to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as his last, it should be remembered that after finishing the Ninth he immediately began a tenth, completing only the first movement.)
Herbert Glass has written for many publications in the U.S. and abroad and was for 15 years an editor-annotator for the Salzburg Festival.