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Gustav Mahler was thinking about death when he composed the Ninth. His fouryear- old daughter had died in 1907, traumatizing the composer – he could not bear mention of the child’s name – and forcing the family to move to find a new summer retreat, one free of painful associations. They settled on Toblach (Dobbiaco) in the mountainous Tyrol region on the Austro-Italian border. Mahler would compose his final music during his summers there: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in 1908, the Ninth Symphony in 1909, and the unfinished Tenth in 1910.

In 1907, Mahler was also diagnosed with the heart condition that would kill him four years later. To a man who loved nature and found inspiration in out-door excursions, the doctor’s order that he refrain from strenuous physical activity meant a drastic lifestyle change. Instead of rambling around the woods and mountains in Toblach, he spent much of his time alone in his composing cabin. In a 1908 letter to the conductor Bruno Walter, Mahler wrote, “The solitude, in which my attention is turned more inward, makes me feel all the more distinctly that everything is not right with me physically. Perhaps indeed I am being too gloomy – but since I have been in the country I have been feeling worse than I did in town, where all the distractions helped to take my mind off things.”

So in the Ninth Symphony we definitely have a composer preoccupied with “the end,” with his own and others’ mortality. But Mahler didn’t see the Ninth as his final work – the Tenth, much of which he completed before he died, ended up being that. He was simply grappling with the same questions of life and death he faced in much of his music – according to his long-time friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, the first opus to flow from Mahler’s pen, at the age of six, no less, was “a polka, to which he added a funeral march as an introduction.”

The symphony opens with a massive movement lasting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 minutes. Mahler was the last in a 150-year line of Austro- German composers stretching back to the era of Mozart and Haydn to write symphonies, and he pushed the genre’s basic forms to its limits. The sheer length of this opening movement – it lasts as long as many complete four-movement symphonies – is testament enough to that. How Mahler sustains his musical argument over such a span is fascinating. In this movement, he combines two key forms with roots in the classical era – sonata and rondo – bringing his opening theme back seven times over the course of the movement in typical rondo fashion while simultaneously working through his material in a manner derived from traditional sonata form. Mahler derives his themes from a four-note motto heard at the outset – really a rhythmic pattern derived from the words “Leb’ wohl!” (Farewell), which Mahler wrote in the score at this point – played first by the harps, then taken up and elaborated by the strings. The movement’s climax comes about 19 minutes in, and is interrupted “with the greatest violence” – Mahler’s indication – by the brass, underpinned by the bass drum and the tam-tam.

The composer Alban Berg was one of the many on whom this movement, and this moment in particular, left a deep impression. “I have once again played through Mahler’s Ninth Symphony,” Berg wrote to his wife in 1912. “The first movement is the greatest Mahler ever composed. It is the expression of a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully and to enjoy nature to its deepest depths – before death comes. For death is inevitable. This whole movement is dominated by the presentiment of death, which makes itself known again and again over the movement’s course. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense eruptions following the most gentle passages, and of course this intensity is strongest in the horrible moment where death becomes a certainty, where, in the middle of the deepest, most poignant longing for life, death makes itself known ‘with the greatest violence.’ Against that, there is no resistance.”

The second movement finds Mahler returning to one of his favorite types of music, the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance whose earthy character – a product of its slow triple rhythm and its emphasis on the first beat of each bar – resonated with Mahler’s own love of nature and the outof- doors. This easy-going country dance alternates with faster, increasingly reckless waltz-like sections (still in 3/4 time – the constant rhythm helps unify the movement over its 15-minute-plus course). For its final itera-tion, Mahler scores the Ländler transparently, with solos for the horns, several of the winds, and the violas. The movement ends with a little wisp of sound – the Ländler motive played by the piccolo, underscored by the contrabassoon and pizzicato violins and violas.

The third-movement Rondo-Burleske ratchets up the tension after its comparatively relaxed and graceful predecessor. Here the fleeting darkness that haunted the Ländler-Waltz is given free rein in music of blistering intensity and staggering contrapuntal virtuosity. (According to Mahler biographer Michael Kennedy, the composer dedicated this movement “to his brothers in Apollo,” a sly reference to its musical complexity and a rejoinder to critics who accused him of being unable to write counterpoint.) The third contrasting episode, announced by a cymbal crash, a brief, chorale-like passage for the brass, and a short, eloquent trumpet solo, offers some balm in the midst of the movement, presaging the atmosphere of the Adagio finale.

The finale balances the first movement in the symphony’s overall structure – it, too, is about 25 minutes in length. The movement, with its often fervent atmosphere and reflective tone, lends itself to the interpretation of the symphony as a farewell – the warm, nostalgic, horn-led half-cadence during the opening stringsaturated theme is a case in point. There is darkness in the symphony’s finale as well, for example in the contrabassoonled countersubject we hear about fourand- a-half minutes in. The movement ends with a vision of the beyond, as the first violins quote a melodic fragment from the end of the fourth song of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children): “…in the sunshine! The day is fair on those hills in the distance.”

Bruno Walter, who conducted the work’s posthumous premiere on June 26, 1912, with the Vienna Philharmonic, described this last movement as “a peaceful farewell; with the conclusion, the clouds dissolve in the blue of heaven.” Walter had never seen the score of the Ninth during Mahler’s lifetime; he only received it when Mahler’s widow Alma approached him about giving the premiere. He went on to become one of the work’s most eloquent exponents. Many consider his 1938 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, made live on the eve of the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria, to be one of the high watermarks in recorded Mahler performance, and Walter returned to the work during his “Indian summer” in Los Angeles, re-recording it with the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra,” a pickup band that included studio musicians and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at the American Legion Hall on Highland Avenue just south of the Hollywood Bowl in early 1961.

John Mangum