Mahler: Symphony No. 9

The following originally appeared as a program note to a DePaul Symphony Orchestra performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9.  You are welcome to reprint it free of change; but please let me know about it and attribute me.  Thanks! 

Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony is, technically speaking, his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (the Song of the Earth).  A superstitious man, though, he avoided calling it "Symphony No. 9" because of the notable composers who had died shortly after or while writing their Ninth Symphonies (Beethoven, Bruckner, and, as far as he knew, Schubert).  Mahler believed he had avoided the curse by writing a Ninth Symphony without naming it that, thus he was free to call his next work his by that appellation without fear.  Fate had other ideas, it seems, as he was really only one completed movement into his Tenth (numbered) Symphony when he died on May 18, 1911 in Vienna.  The Ninth was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic on June 26, 1912 and conducted by his young assistant, Bruno Walter.

Though Mahler ostensibly believed he had broken the curse, ideas of death seem to have dominated his thinking ever since his serious illness in 1901.  Many contemporaries of Mahler interpreted the symphony programmatically.  Wrote Alban Berg, movingly, to his wife about the first movement: "it is the expression of an unheard-of love for this earth, the longing to live in peace upon her, Nature, still to enjoy her utterly, even to her deepest depths – before Death comes.  For it comes irresistibly.  This entire movement is based upon a presentiment of death."  While such intuitions may well be true and such poetic flights of fancy evocative, there is also a certain technical truth to them.  The idea of death and decay acts as a musical device in the work.

The sprawling, gargantuan, 27-minute first movement opens with a stuttering motif in the cellos (Mahler's irregular heart beat, according to Leonard Bernstein) immediately followed by poignant D major fragments in the 2nd violins and 2nd horn.  This first theme is less a melody than a series of short, broken phrases – more the vague recollection of music than a theme as we might normally definite it.  For the first few bars, the 2nd violins harp relentless on scale-degree 3 descending to scale-degree 2.  While it is reminiscent of the closing pages of Das Lied von der Erde (the soprano sings the same notes as she repeats the German word ewig – "forever" or "eternity"), is also notable because it pointedly avoids resolving to scale-degree 1.  This thematic area is developed considerably, including a contrasting area in D minor, and eventually a huge climax in D major.  A momentary pause leads to a slightly faster secondary area whose lyrical, flowing theme involves another descending figure; it is hammered out by the entire ensemble.  The exposition ends in a blaze of B-flat major glory.

The development section begins with a reminder of the heart-beat motif and spends some time mired in bitterness and stasis.  Slowly the violins return us to D major; the solo violin plays a paraphrase of a Strauss waltz (Freuet Euch des Lebens', or "Enjoy Life") accompanied by the thematic material from the main theme.  Is this a sort of altered recapitulation?  No, as it turns out.  The music gradually turns violent ("with rage" says the score) after a quotation in the trumpets of a fanfare from Mahler's First Symphony; it eventually collapses, leading to a passionate outpouring by the strings.  The form continues to stammer along, eventually reaching a lowpoint with string tremolos described as “shadowy.”  Again D major returns; surely this is the real recapitulation.  Again, though, the music wanders to other key areas and this time excitedly develops the lyrical second subject.  Just as the music seems on the verge of a tremendous break-through, the heart-beat motif interrupts cataclysmically in the trombones.  The trumpet quotation from the first symphony returns again, this time “like a solemn funeral procession,” according to the instruction.  The actual recapitulation ensues this time, in the correct key of D major; everything seems changed, though.  Odd instrumentations create a feeling that something is still not quite right.  An interpolation of ghostly chamber music between the 1st horn and 1st flute confirms this impression.  The music slouches towards D major.  A wistful horn regretfully remembers fragments from earlier in the movement.  The solo flute heads to dark key areas.  The horns and oboe are eventually left, haltingly and tentatively trying still to descend from scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to scale-degree 1.  The D arrives only on the last note, as the music evaporates into the piccolo part.

The second movement – “rather clumsy and very coarse” says the tempo (?) marking – begins as a ländler (an Austrian peasant dance) that mocks the first movement’s struggles.  The banal clarinet trouble has no trouble getting from scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to scale-degree 1 in two bars.  Simple-mindedly in a diatonic C major, this dance is interrupted by another one, the Trio section of the movement, a faster waltz played by the strings.  This music, unlike the opening, is unstable and changes keys precipitously.  The beginning of the movement makes a sudden appearance in the hullaballoo and is just as quickly ignored.  The tempo slows down again, even less hurried this time than originally, for another, exceedingly leisurely, ländler, different from the opening; the solo horn plays the scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to motif from the first movement.  More exaggerated versions of the waltz and the slow ländler trade blows before allowing a tentative reminiscence of the movement’s opening to take shape.  This is the equivalent of the repetition of the minuet after the Trio of a classical symphony; here, as in other movements of this symphony, though, something is wrong.  This time, keys slip with suspicious effortlessness into other ones.  Almost immediately, the tempo begins to quicken, and soon we find ourselves right back in the waltz, this time even faster and getting more so.  As the music spins out of control the opening ländler interrupts inappropriately, bizarrely, embarrassingly.  Now everything is wrong – entrances in wrong keys, on the wrong beat become the norm.  Meter and stable tonality break down.  The coda becomes increasing fragmentary until, just as in the first movement, the music evaporates.

The third movement, bearing the unusual title Rondo-Burleske, is told to be “very defiant.”  Sarcastically dedicated by Mahler to “my brothers in Apollo” (i.e., those composers who would be interested in the relatively academic composition style to which it makes reference) it is a whirlwind tour-de-force of contrapuntal complexity.  What makes this movement stand out, though, is the variety of tonalities constantly being referenced – a sort of calculated indecision that gives the movement a level of surface dissonance unparalleled elsewhere in Mahler’s music.  The movement alternates at first between sections in which vehement voices are ferociously independent and lighter moments of fugato that prefigure the Finale’s main theme.  A cymbal crash intervenes to introduce a slower middle section whose main subject is a tender trumpet solo in the key of D major, the first movement’s key.  The trumpet’s melody is a decoration of an F-sharp: it goes up a step and down a step (this figure will feature prominently in the Finale as well).  The otherwise beautiful surface of the music marred by its inability to follow up its momentous build-ups with cadences.  Themes from the movement’s opening begin to return sardonically in the new tempo.  It is not until a sudden, savage trombone outburst, though, opens the floodgates that the listener is subjected to a coda of hair-raising violence found nowhere else in Mahler’s oeuvre.

The Finale of Mahler’s final symphony is in the key of D-flat major.  This fact is significant because the work began in D major; while it is not unusual for Mahler to begin and end a piece in a different key, the change normally involves an ascent rather than vice-versa (see, for example, the Fifth Symphony, which begins in C-sharp minor and ends in D major).  The work itself is sinking.  The movement’s title (not tempo marking!) is Adagio; it begins with an expressive outpouring from the violins that leads directly to the main theme.  Hymn-like in character, surely predictable is the fact that it is based on the scale-degree 3 to scale-degree 2 to scale-degree 1 descent we have heard so much already.  Here, though, while scale-degree 1 is present, it is always harmonized incorrectly (the chord is often A major, the dominant of D major, as if futilely striving to regain what it had before).  Brucknerian in form, the movement alternates extremely slowly and episodically between the opening hymn-like theme and a much cooler, ascending minor-key melody first heard in its full form in the contrabassoon, cellos, and basses.  After two cycles of this, the music suddenly gains intensity and leads to a climactic return of the hymn-like melody, which makes one last attempt at a triumphal cadence.  This fails, and the fabric of the movement begins to slowly come apart, to slip away, instruments ceasing their noise-making gradually, leaving only woodwind soloists and eventually the string section alone.  The final minutes of the symphony see the thematic material of the movement become increasingly, exaggeratedly, dangerously slow and fragmentary, more and more enveloped in silence, as if ever more difficult to perceive and to grasp and to hold onto.  Writing the word ersterbend (“dying”) no less than five times in the last pages of the score, Gustav Mahler says farewell to music.