Introduction | Chronology | Filmography
Historical background and analysis:
Symphony No. 1 | Symphony No. 2 | Symphony No. 3 | Symphony No. 4 | Symphony No. 5
Symphony No. 6 | Symphony No. 7 | Symphony No. 8 | Das Lied von der Erde | Symphony No. 9
SYMPHONY NO. 9
Theodor Adorno saw in Mahler 'the first composer since Beethoven to have a '"late style"', a statement that may perhaps explain why a majority of commentators still believe that, in writing his Ninth Symphony, Mahler in 1909 was gravely ill and haunted by the spectre of his impending death. In fact, he was then forty-nine years old and more active than ever. Each year he crossed the Atlantic to conduct long seasons of operas and concerts in the United States. Yet there is no denying that like its predecessor, Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony was written in the shadow of death, that two years earlier Mahler lost a four-year-old and dearly beloved daughter, that he was obliged to quit the Vienna Court Opera and that in the course of a routine examination, a doctor diagnosed a serious—if not fatal—heart condition.
Within a year, however, life had changed course once more. At the end of the spring of 1908, Alma rented two floors of a large house in the mountains of South-Tirol and had a wooden Komponierhäuschen built for her husband among fir trees. There Mahler once again began to recover his inner balance. He had always combined the hypersensitivity of genius with an invincible courage that enabled him to face up to all crises. When Bruno Walter enquired after his health and suggested he was suffering from a psychosomatic disorder, Maher replied, not without a trace of annoyance:
In the same letter to Bruno Walter, Mahler spelt out the real reason for the panic that had seized hold of him: he had been obliged to give up all his favourite sports, including swimming, rowing, walking in the mountains and cycling:
Gradually, however, the miracle happened. After he had discovered in Das Lied von der Erde the main features of his 'late style', he forged ahead the following summer and set to work on what was to become his last completed symphony, the Ninth. It is clear, therefore, that Mahler had come to terms with the emotional crisis that had seized him during the months following the death of his daughter and his departure from Vienna, and it is no less certain that these events had changed him. Other thoughts had taken possession of him that had little to do with that of death. Thus the Andante of the Ninth Symphony is shot through with a burning love of life. Alban Berg was not mistaken when he wrote in one of his letters to his wife:
The omnipresence of the 'farewell' motif from Beethoven's op. 81a Piano Sonata ('Les adieux') in the first movement of the symphony clearly confirms that this is the 'subject matter' of the Andante. Yet, in the Ninth Symphony, other moods and other dispositions lead us far away from this initial sense of valediction. First and foremost, there is the intense love of life that pervades countless passages in the opening movement with its feverish ardour. Beyond serenity, Mahler rediscovers passion and, in the middle movements, even the grotesque visions of his earlier works. In the Seventh Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, the intermediary movements had functioned more or less as intermezzos. In the Ninth, the demon of derision is unleashed with an aggressive violence never before encountered in Mahler's works. The Scherzo and the Rondo-Burleske push to their very limits some of the features that had so disconcerted the composer's contemporaries in many of his earlier works, with their distortions and grinning parody. Here they are taken to their furthest extreme. The absurdity of the world is savagely caricatured in a veritable delirium of counterpoint with a sort of destructive rage.
It has often been observed that in his final works Mahler distanced himself from sonata form. In the opening Andante of the Ninth Symphony he dispenses with the contrastive tonalities associated with sonata form, if not with its traditional principle of thematic development. The dialectic alternation between two subjects also survives, even if those subjects are in the same key and involve only a contrast in modes between leave-taking (major) and 'thirst for life' (minor).
1. After a few bars of introduction, in which the economy of means and refined choice of sonorities irresistibly recalls those of Webern, the opening movement (Andante comodo, 4/4, D major/minor) adopts, like so many others by the composer, the rhythm of a slow march that sometimes builds up speed, only to revert to its earlier inexorable tread. The dramatic intensity that had typified Mahler's previous opening movements gives way here to a sense of mournful resignation that is none the less accompanied by great outbursts of passion (Second subject: 'etwas frischer'). The initial rhythm is shared between the cellos and fourth horn; the harp then states the three-note motif that is to dominate the movement as a whole, after which the second horn (now stopped) announces the third of the basic motifs, a sextuplet on the violas consisting of two notes a third apart. As in Das Lied von der Erde, the interval of a falling second on the violins plays a symbolic role throughout the entire movement. Unlike its model—the 'farewell' motif from Beethoven's Piano Sonata 'Les adieux'—this two-note motif (F-sharp—E) does not descend to the tonic but remains in suspense, thus giving the work an element of openness: open to infinity. Moreover, it was precisely this two-note motif, comprising the third and second degrees of the scale, that had ended Das Lied von der Erde with the contralto solo's famous 'ewig' (E—D [—C]).
The syncopated rhythm of the opening bars is of symbolic importance: it occurs three times within the course of the movement, where it seems to represent the imperious voice of fate. As pointed out above, Alban Berg saw in it a symbol of death. Following the double exposition of this initial theme, the violins introduce a new thematic element in the minor, this time impassioned. To this, the horns soon add another important element, a chromatic triplet motif before the return of the principal theme. In the final coda, all sense of time is suspended. The flute ascends slowly towards its highest register before gradually returning to earth in a rarefied atmosphere. A distant, tender memory of the principal theme brings the movement to an end on a note of unutterable resignation and ineffable fervour.
2. Of all Mahler's Scherzos, that of the Ninth (Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers [At the tempo of a leisurely ländler], 3/4, C major), which Mahler had originally thought of as a Minuet, is the most ironic and grotesque. It derives a good deal of its character from its orchestration, as is clear from its very first bars, in which rapid scalar motifs are entrusted to the violas and bassoons. Such sardonic humour was without precedent at the time, except perhaps in Stravinsky's contemporary Petrushka and the Neo-Classical music, written later between the two wars. Three subjects and three principal tempi alternate with each other: a strikingly rustic ländler (the performance marking is 'etwas täppisch und sehr derb' [somewhat ungainly and very coarse]), followed by a fast waltz that gradually builds up speed in a whirlwind of expressionist savagery, and finally a second ländler that is so slow that it calls to mind an old-fashioned minuet.
3. The Rondo-Burleske (Allegro assai (Sehr trotzig [Very defiant]), 2/2, A minor) is dedicated in one of the autographed manuscripts 'To my brothers in Apollo'; the present movement surpasses even its predecessor in grim violence. It demands a high degree of orchestral virtuosity, with a quasi-permanent fugato in which all the different instrumental groups assume a solo role in turn. Mahler deploys all his polyphonic skills but does so in such a way that he appears to be making a mockery of contrapuntal techniques and thumbing his nose at the 'academics' who, throughout his life, had showered him with endless insults.
In this often dizzying race to the abyss, two contrasting episodes claim our attention. The first, in 2/4-time, recalls the 'Weiber-Chanson' from Act Two of Lehár's Die lustige Witwe, while the second interrupts the febrile agitation of the Rondo ('Etwas gehalten. Mit großer Empfindung' [Held back a little. With great feeling]). It states by anticipation the final movement's principal motif in the form of a simple gruppetto. More than once it assumes a parodistic air, but the parody here is avant la lettre, for in the final Adagio, it will it be used only for expressive ends.
4. The broad descending phrase on the violins which serves as an introduction to the Finale (Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend [Very slow and still held back], 4/4, D-flat major), announces two essential motifs, the more important of which is the gruppetto already heard in the slow section of the Rondo. No other composer before Mahler would ever had dared to build an entire movement around so simple a motif. The solemn gravity of the principal theme suggests a hymn ('Nearer my God to thee' has been suggested as a model and Mahler might have heard this hymn in New York), but the obsessive gruppetti in the inner parts in quavers or semiquavers, the very unusual harmonic progression in the middle of Bar 3 of the movement and the countless dissonances disturb the quasi-Brucknerian calm. The second subject is no less striking: it is anticipated in the lowest register of the first bassoon before being stated in full some time later in two voices separated by a yawning void of several octaves. Its simplicity, sobriety and, one might almost say, its unadorned starkness has something frightening about it. These two principal melodic elements are now varied, with the movement as a whole divided into four great sections. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of all is the way in which the motifs fragment and slowly disintegrate in the coda, with its gently muted strings. By the end, only the gruppetto remains, growing ever slower and ever more hesitant, as if somehow idealised.
The tenderness and limpidity of this ending recall the conclusion not only of Das Lied von der Erde but also—across a distance of many years—of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, which Mahler had written at the age of twenty-four. The whole of this final movement, like that of Das Lied von der Erde, is imbued with the feeling that God is present in all things and that man aspires to union, not to say fusion, with the consoling world of Nature. The reconciliation between these two worlds—man and Nature—is one that Mahler may well have wanted to suggest in the two main episodes of this final movement and is achieved at the very end of the work, with its sense of acceptance, silence and peace. It is eternal rest, infinitely gentle and fully accepted, that is suggested by what I have termed the final idealisation of the material, notably in the last gruppetto, which may be regarded as an ultimate assertion of expressivity and, hence, of humanity.
Like that of Das Lied von der Erde, this ending is in no
way pessimistic or tinged with despair. Whether one discovers here
a message of hope, a farewell of heartrending tenderness or the serene
acceptance of fate, few listeners will deny that this final Adagio
brings with it a sense supreme fulfillment, an ideal catharsis. Fervent
in its meditation, it crowns and completes the huge 'novel' in nine
chapters, 'full of sound and fury', that constitutes Mahler's oeuvre.
Audiences are not mistaken when they feel an exceptional emotional
charge as the music fragments and grows ever more rarefied. The work
invariably carries the audience with it. It seems to compel its performers
to outdo themselves and invites its listeners to feel at one with
© Henry-Louis de La Grange