Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Mahler Symphony No. 9

On 26 June 1912 Bruno Walter conducted the premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in D with the Vienna Philharmonic. Mahler himself could not be present as he had died the year before, knowing that his Ninth Symphony was the last great symphonic work that he had completed. The superstitious Mahler had felt a premonition of this: this Ninth Symphony, like those of Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner, was to be his final completed work. After completing his Eighth Symphony he had tried to escape what he felt to be his destiny by composing a symphony in song, his Das Lied von der Erde, rather than a ninth symphony as such. He then composed the Ninth Symphony we know today and began a Tenth Symphony; this work, however, was never to be completed. All that existed at his death on 18 May 1911 was a more or less complete opening Adagio and a quantity of sketches for the remaining movements.

Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony during 1908-1909 in a small cabin in Toblach. Despite being initially extremely disturbed by noisy neighbours and a barking dog, and given that he previously took a full two years to compose a symphony, the new symphony was more or less complete in August 1908. The piece was 'a fine addition to my little family', he wrote during that month. 'I have said everything in it that I have long been wanting to say; it possibly resembles the Fourth the most, but it is nevertheless very different'.

The Ninth resembles the Fourth in that both are conceived in terms of chamber music, but the similarities end there, for in the Ninth he had begun to abandon the trappings of the old symphonic forms. The structure of the symphony as a whole is unusual: the outer movements are in slow tempi and the central movements in faster tempi. Some commentators have seen in this respect a parallel with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, composed in 1893. There are fewer broad melodic passages for the listener to enjoy in the Ninth than in his earlier works; Mahler instead takes shorter themes and fragments that he then develops in an almost improvisatory manner. The work still has a 19th century air about it, although the doors to the 20th century are already wide open. According to the philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Mahler had composed 'the first work of the new music' at a time when composers such as Stravinsky and Bartók were beginning to be talked about.

Arnold Schönberg, one of the new revolutionary composers, also described his experience of the Ninth Symphony: 'Mahler’s Ninth is most strange. In it, the author hardly speaks as an individual any longer. It almost seems as though this work must have a concealed author who used Mahler merely as his spokesman, as his mouthpiece. This symphony is no longer couched in the personal tone. It consists, so to speak, of objective, almost passionless statements of a beauty which becomes perceptible only to one who can dispense with animal warmth and who feels at home in spiritual coolness'.

It was not only from older forms of music that Mahler took his leave with his Ninth Symphony; the piece also represents a farewell to life. Willem Mengelberg stated that it was 'a farewell to everybody whom he had loved and to the world. And to his art, his life, his music'. Mahler himself wrote the words ‘O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O Liebe! Verwehte!’ in his final draft of the score.

Many things went awry in the final years of Mahler’s life. In 1907 his daughter Maria died at the age of four, he himself was diagnosed with heart disease, he lost his position at the Vienna Court Opera, and his beloved Alma’s love for him began to wane. Mahler’s preoccupation with leave-taking and with death during this time first became evident in Das Lied von der Erde and was followed by the Ninth Symphony; the falling second with which the alto hymns eternal life in Der Abschied — the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde — also resounds in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony. Mahler’s references to a theme from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 81a, known as the 'Farewell', cannot be purely coincidental. Does the faltering rhythm that pervades the first movement a depiction of Mahler’s heart problems?

The composer Alban Berg, a contemporary of Mahler’s, stated that 'the first movement is the most sublime music that Mahler ever wrote. It is the expression of his incredible love for this earth, of his longing to be able to live on it in peace, and to enjoy the profoundest reaches of Nature — until death comes, irrevocable. This entire movement is pervaded with premonitions of his approaching end'. The form of the first movement bears a slight resemblance to sonata form, but has also been described as being in a type of variation form. Some musicologists have seen a resemblance to the later methods of the Second Viennese School or the serialist composers in Mahler’s handling of his material here. Polyphony and linear thought also play an important role. In the first movement there are also great contrasts in dynamics and atmosphere between tenderly sonorous passages and menacing eruptions, despair and astonishment. An enormous climax leads to a funeral march marked 'like a solemn funeral procession'.

The second movement, according to the composer Dieter Schnebel, is made up of 'ruins set to music'. We hear a Ländler and a waltz, both of which Mahler has imbued with gruesomely grotesque humour. Could it be a dance of death in which the devil plays his violin?

The following movement — dedicated to 'my brothers in Apollo' — is also full of black sarcasm. Themes full of mockery and passages in fugal style unfold in the scherzo. The Mahler expert Deryck Cooke described this movement as 'well-designed chaos… a fierce outburst of hellish laughter at the futility of everything'; Willem Mengelberg felt it more as gallows humour.

The final movement now arrives, a broadly-written Adagio, although not in D major but in D flat major. Cooke: 'Piercing through the painful grief of the finale, after all the horror and hopelessness of the first three movements, Mahler’s indestructible love for life still remains visible thanks to the power of truly great music to give simultaneous expression to different and seemingly contradictory emotions. This symphony is the musical equivalent of what the poet Rilke describes as ‘dennoch preisen’: the exaltation of life, despite everything'. Shortly before the end of the movement Mahler quotes from his own Kindertotenlieder — ‘the day is fair on those heights’ — as if he had already gone beyond this world. Above the final bars, as the final notes of the symphony die away, he wrote the words 'O Schönheit! Liebe! Leb wol! Leb wol!'

Dirk Luijmes
Translation: Peter Lockwood