Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D major

GUSTAV MAHLER

BORN: July 7, 1860. Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia (Now Czech Republic)

DIED: May 18, 1911. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: Begun in late spring of 1909, with the orchestral draft being finished that fall. The score was complete by April 1, 1910

WORLD PREMIERE: June 26, 1912. Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic

US PREMIERE:  October 16, 1931. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—April 1965. Josef Krips conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2013. Michael Tilson Thomas led

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes and English horn, 4 clarinets (4th doubling E-flat clarinet) and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, low-pitched chimes, 2 harps, and strings(Mahler’s autograph has only a single harp; the decision to divide the part between two players was Bruno Walter’s.)

DURATION: About 90 mins

THE BACKSTORY The Ninth Symphony is the last score Mahler completed. Some part of him would have wanted it so. With Beethoven’s Ninth and Bruckner’s unfinished Ninth in mind, he entertained a deep-rooted superstition about symphonies and the number nine. But there was also the side to Mahler that caused him, for all his fascination with death, always to choose life. That was the Mahler who was more interested in writing music than in flirting with his superstitions or his penchant for morbid fancy; that was also the Mahler who, within days of completing the Ninth Symphony, plunged with tempestuous energy into the task of composing a Tenth, a task on which he had made significant progress when he died of a blood infection seven weeks before his fifty-first birthday.

The Ninth was the last of Mahler’s completed scores to be presented to the public. This has surely contributed to the tradition of reading the work as the composer’s farewell. The gestures of dissolution and parting with which this symphony ends are of an annihilating poignancy matched not even by Mahler himself; nonetheless, it is well to understand that Mahler cannot have meant this as an actual farewell. To insist on reading it thus is to indulge in a sentimentality that weakens the stab of this music. Mahler’s symphonies fall into groups whose members share points of view and even material details, each piece being more richly understood in the context of its group. The Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies, for example, are all tied to Mahler’s love for and work on the Romantic anthology of folk poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). The Ninth is part of a trilogy that begins with Das Lied von der Erde and leads to the unfinished Symphony No. 10. It is in some respects commentary upon and extension of the song-symphony, while the Tenth both quotes Das Lied von der Erde and further explores certain ideas and features of the Ninth.

Mahler wrote the Ninth Symphony in the whirlwind that was the last chapter of his life. That chapter began in 1907, a year in which four momentous things happened. First, on March 17, Mahler resigned the artistic directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, ending a ten-year term whose achievement has become legend. Mahler was drained by the struggles that were the price of that achievement, worn down by anti-Semitic attacks, and feeling the need to give more time to composition. He was not, however, able to resist the podium’s lure, and on June 5 he signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Then, on July 5, his daughter Maria, four and a half, died following a two-week battle with scarlet fever and diphtheria. A few days after the funeral, a physician delivered the verdict that things were not as they should be with Mahler’s heart. Mahler, dedicated hiker, cyclist, and swimmer, was put on a regimen of depressingly restricted activity. Still, what happened from 1907 until 1911 is not the story of an invalid. During this period Mahler gave concerts throughout Europe, assumed directorship of the New York Philharmonic, composed Das Lied von der Erde. And these are simply highlights of those years.

THE MUSIC In the Ninth, Mahler returns to a four-movement design for the first time since the Sixth Symphony of 1903-05. But if the four movements of the revised Sixth still correspond to those of the normal Classical and Romantic symphony, Mahler is clearly after another aim altogether in the Ninth. He begins with a very large movement whose basic tempo is semi-slow but which tends to spill over into allegro. Next comes a double intermezzo in the form of a vividly contrasted pair of scherzos, a set of ländlers and a burleske. The finale is an adagio whose weight and span approach those of the first movement.

As for the first movement, it is surely Mahler’s greatest achievement in symphonic composition, the high point in his practice of the subtle art of transition, organic expansion, and continuous variation. In deep quiet, cellos and horn set a rhythmic frame. The notes are disconcertingly placed in the time flow. Leonard Bernstein suggested that their halting rhythm reflects the irregular pulse of Mahler’s heart. Cellos and horn play the same pitch, A, and it will be more than fifty measures before we meet a bar in which A is not a crucial component. The harp begins a tolling about that low A, while a stopped horn projects another thought in a variant of the faltering-pulse rhythm. The accompaniment becomes denser, though it always remains transparent. All this prepares a melody that the second violins build step by step, full of literal or subtly varied repetitions.

We soon hear that the melody is in fact a duet, for the horn re-emerges with thoughts of its own on the material. The accompanying figures in the harp, clarinet, and divided lower strings use the same vocabulary—the same intervals and rhythmic patterns. Do the accompaniments reflect the melody, or is the melody the expansion of the elements that make up the ever-present, ever-changing background? Before this melody is done growing, the first violins have replaced the horn as the seconds’ duet partner, while clarinet and cellos cross the border, turning from accompanists into singers. Here you have a miraculous example of Mahler’s inspired art of transition, so convincing in its appearance of utter spontaneity and natural growth. The transitions, moreover, exist in two dimensions—horizontal, as the melody proceeds from one event to the next, and vertical, in the integration of the melodic strands and their accompaniments.

This long opening melody keeps returning, always with new details of shape and texture. The most persistent element of contrast comes in an impassioned, thrusting theme in minor, whose stormy character is new but whose intervals, rhythms, and accompaniments continue the patterns established earlier. The “faltering pulse” and the harp tollings persist; dramatic abruptions shatter the seamless continuities; urgent trumpet signals mark towering climaxes. From one of these high points the music plunges into sudden quiet and the slowest tempo so far. The coda is virtually chamber music with simultaneous monologues of all but dissociated instruments. The space between events grows wider until at last silence wins out over sound.

The second movement returns us forcefully to earth. Mahler always loved the vernacular, and here is one of his fantastical explorations of dance music. He shows us three kinds: a ländler—leisurely, clumsy, heavy-footed, coarse (the adjectives are Mahler’s); something quicker and more waltz-like; and another ländler, lilting and sentimental. These tunes, tempos, and characters lend themselves to delightful combinations. This movement, too, finishes in a disintegrating coda.

Where the second movement was expansive and leisurely, the Burleske is music of violent urgency. It opens by hurling three distinct motifs at us. That concentration is fair warning of what is to follow, presented with a virtuosic display of contrapuntal craft. A contrasting trio brings a march and even some amiability. Deeply touching is the trumpet’s shining transformation of one of the Burleske’s most jagged themes into a melody of tenderly consoling warmth. But it is the fierce music that brings this movement to its crashing final cadence.

Now Mahler builds an adagio to balance and, as it were, complete the first movement. He begins with a great cry of violins. All the strings, who are adjured to play with big tone, sound a richly textured hymn. Their song is interrupted by a quiet, virtually unaccompanied phrase of a single bassoon, but impassioned declamation resumes immediately. That other world, however, insists on its rights, and Mahler gives us passages of a ghostly and hollow music, very high and very low. Between the two extremes lies a great chasm. The two musics alternate, the hymnic song being more intense and urgent at each return. We hear echoes of Das Lied von der Erde and phrases from the Burleske.

Here, too, disintegration begins. All instruments but the strings fall silent. Cellos sing a phrase that they can scarcely bear to let go. Then, after a great stillness, the music seems to draw breath to begin again, even slower than before, and whispered pianississimo to the end. As though with infinite regret, with almost every trace of physicality removed, muted strings recall moments of their journey, and ours. The first violins, alone unmuted among their colleagues, remember something from still longer ago, the Kindertotenlieder, those laments on the deaths of children that Mahler had written two years before death took his daughter Maria. “Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n!”—the day is so lovely on those heights. “Might this not,” asks Mahler’s biographer Michael Kennedy, “be his requiem for his daughter, dead only two years when he began to compose it, and for his long-dead brothers and sisters?” The music recedes. Grief gives way to peace, music and silence become one.—Michael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)

This note first appeared in different form in the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(June 2019)