Theodor Adorno claimed that Mahler was “the first composer since Beethoven to have had a unique style”. And this is why certain authors still believe that, in the Ninth Symphony, Mahler put his own death to music and that he was, in 1909, a seriously ill person being haunted by the spectre of his impending death. In fact, at 49 years of age, Mahler was still – more than ever – brimming with energy. Each year he crossed the Atlantic to direct long seasons of operas and concerts in the United States. A good part of the summer in 1909 was spent reading scores in preparation for the first season of New York Philharmonic Concerts, during which he would conduct some sixty programmes, not including rehearsals. It was during this time that the Ninth Symphony was born. Isn’t that still a busy schedule for someone who is dying?
And yet somehow, we are forced to accept that the Ninth Symphony, like the Song of the Earth that preceded it, was born under the sign of death. But you don’t have to go far back to find death in Mahler’s past.
From his childhood, as one of seven young brothers and sisters (nothing out of the ordinary at that time), he was still in pain and constantly filled the family home with doom and gloom. In 1901, a severe haemorrhage nearly took his life and the works he composed the following summer were almost all of a sombre nature.
However, it was in 1907 that Mahler suffered his greatest life trauma. During this year, he left the Vienna Opera numerous times, a place where he had given the best of himself for ten years. This was due to the loss of his eldest daughter at the beginning of the summer, a radiant 4-year-old child to whom he was extremely attached. Just a few days later, he was diagnosed with a heart murmur and “mitral insufficiency”. Convinced, no doubt by Alma, that his work was causing him excess stress, the Viennese specialists frightened him: he was ordered to give up his favourite sports, which he did for several months and in an almost obsessive manner he spent his days living like an ill man, counting each of his steps and even lying down between rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera.
However, a year later, normal life was resumed. At the end of spring, Alma rented two storeys of a large house located some three kilometres from Toblach, in Alt-Schluderbach, and had a wooden Komponierhäuschen built for her husband. Then, at the beginning of summer, Mahler underwent treatment for his nerves in Levico near Trente. The few weeks spent alone in his little studio, amidst the pine trees, helped restore Mahler’s equilibrium. Because, after all, it takes unbeatable courage and the hypersensitivity of a genius to face a crisis and overcome grief. When Bruno Walter enquired about his welfare, believing he was suffering from some psychosomatic illness, Mahler replied, with a touch of annoyance: “I can only come to myself and become conscious of myself here in
solitude. Because since this panic fear overcame me, I have tried nothing other than to look and listen around me. If I am to find the way back to myself, then I must give myself up to the horrors of loneliness.(…) In any case, it’s not at all that hypochondriac fear of death, as you seem to think. I have always been aware of my own mortality. But, without here trying to explain or describe to you something for which there are perhaps no words at all, I shall only tell you that quite simply, at a stroke, I lost all the clarity and reassurance that I ever achieved and that I stood face-to-face with nothing and now at the end of a life I must learn to stand and walk again as a beginner.”
Mahler described the reason for this panic fear in the same letter to Bruno Walter: he had had to give up all his favourite sports, swimming, rowing, mountain and bicycle excursions: This is the greatest calamity that has ever befallen me. (…) In terms of my “Work”, it is somewhat depressing to have to start and learn all over again. I am unable to compose while sitting at my table. In order to be able to “exercise” my mind, I need physical exercise. (…) An ordinary, moderate walk gives me such a rapid pulse and anxiety to the point that I never achieve the purpose of walking – to forget one’s body. (…) For many years, I have been used to constant and vigorous exercise, roaming about in the forests, climbing mountains, and then like a kind of jaunty bandit, bearing home my [musical] drafts. I used to go to my desk only as a peasant goes into his barn, to work up my drafts.”
Gradually, however, a miracle would eventually occur. And it was during the composition that Mahler “finds the way back to myself”. The first completed work, fifteen months after the death of little Maria, was The Song of the Earth, a hybrid work which encompasses both a symphony and a Lieder cycle. At the beginning, it did not have a subtitle. It was in New York, probably during the winter of 1908-1909, that Mahler finally noted on a piece of paper: “The Song of the Earth, taken from classic Chinese poetry” and lower down, “Ninth Symphony in four movements”. For Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner, the number nine had proved to be fatal. Mahler, on the other hand, wanted to cheat fate: in reality, his Ninth was actually his Tenth and he completed the formidable journey without encountering any real hurdles. Throughout the summer of 1910, he worked furiously on his Tenth Symphony, no doubt wanting to ward off the fate that lay in wait and would take revenge by preventing him from completing it just a few weeks later.
But let us go back to 1909. Once the style and tone of his “way of telling” had been found the previous year in The Song of the Earth, Mahler gained momentum and immediately began composing the Ninth. No doubt drafted – at least in part – during the summer of 1908, the work was completed the following year. In Mahler’s correspondence, there was almost no mention of his creative activity during the summer of 1909, as if the composer wanted to draw attention away from this new score which carried an unlucky number. “I’ve been working a lot and I’m finishing my new symphony,” he wrote to Bruno Walter. (…) The piece itself is a happy enrichment for my little family (as far as I really know them because up until know I have been writing like a blind man, to free myself. Now I’m just starting to orchestrate the last movement and I cannot even remember the first). Here, something is said which has been on the tip of my tongue for a long time, something that, on the whole, could sit nicely alongside the Fourth (and which is however quite different). The score has been written at breakneck speed and is illegible to anyone other than me. I really hope that I will have enough time to clean it up this winter.”
The comparison with the Fourth Symphony is unexpected to say the least, and one can hardly notice any similarity other than the number of movements common to both scores. But what is most striking in these lines is Mahler’s extreme reserve in comparison to the fanatical terms in which he had once described the Third and Eighth Symphonies, for example, during their composition and again, after their completion. But he knew he had become a new man: “With regards myself, there would be too much to write for me to even know where to start. I have had so many new experiences in the past year and a half that I am unable to talk about them. Is it even possible to describe such a terrible plight? I am seeing everything in a new light, and I am changing so quickly! I wouldn’t even be surprised if I woke up one morning with a new body (like Faust in the last adaptation). More than ever, my thirst for life is holding on, more than ever I find real pleasure in “the sweet habit of existing”. (…) How absurd it is to let oneself be submerged by the churned up river of existence! To be unfaithful, if only for one hour, to yourself and to this higher power that is bigger than all of us. And yet, even as I write this, I already know that, at the next opportunity, and probably when I leave this room, I will be just as crazy as the others. What is it inside of us that thinks and acts? It’s so strange! When I listen to music or conduct, I hear precise answers to all these questions and achieve a sense of absolute certainty and clarity. Better still, I feel very strongly that there are not even questions! “
Consequently, it becomes evident that Mahler coped perfectly well with any turmoil he experienced in the months following the death of his daughter and his departure from Vienna. And, more likely, these events played a big part in changing him as a person. In the Ninth Symphony’s Andante, an ardent love of life continuously reappears. Alban Berg was not mistaken when he wrote the following in one of his letters: “Once again I played through Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. The first movement is the most wonderful that Mahler has ever written. It is an expression of tremendous love for this earth and a longing to live upon it in peace, to enjoy nature to its greatest depths – before death comes. Then death does come, inexorably. This whole movement is based on the premonition of death. It makes its presence known more and more. All earthly dreaming reaches a peak (that’s why there are always seemingly new outbursts breaking out after the most tender passages). Naturally, this is strongest at the terrifying moment when this premonition of death becomes certainty, where in this profound, most anguished desire for life, death announces its arrival with (Mit höchster Kraft) (with greatest force). Then there are these eerie viola and violin solos and military sounds: death in armour. Against him there is no rebellion. What comes after this seems like resignation. Always with thoughts of the “hereafter”. Which appear during the misterioso, (…) and once again, for the last time, Mahler turns towards earth. No longer to battles and wartime exploits which he brushes off (as he did in ‘Das Lied’ with descending chromatic morendo runs) but rather to nature. He wants to enjoy whatever treasures the earth still has to offer him. He wants to create for himself a home, far away from all troubles, in the free and thin air of the Semmering Mountain, to drink this air, this purest earthly air with deeper and deeper breaths so that the heart, this most wonderful heart ever to have beaten amongst men, widens – widens more and more – before it must stop beating.”
Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is made up of four movements:
While “Farewell” is undoubtedly the theme and main subject underpinning the Ninth Symphony, as well as the Song of the Earth, it is certainly not, as has often been claimed, a farewell to the world of a man who knows he is condemned to death. Certainly, on the penultimate page of the recently discovered first orchestral manuscript of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale, it reads: “O Youth, Love, farewell! “ and, on the last page: “O World, farewell!”? However, it should be remembered that Mahler’s symphonic journey does not end with the Ninth Symphony, and the first movements of the Tenth Symphony, written a year later, have a completely different tone. It should also not be forgotten that in the middle of the initial Andante of the same Symphony, the following sentence appears: “O days of youth! Vanished! O Love! scattered!” For those among us that know the couple’s future and the crisis that would divide them, even destroy them, during the summer of 1910, these sentences seem to suggest that Mahler was already aware of Alma’s estrangement. Certainly, in the first movement, the omnipresence of the “farewell” motif from Beethoven’s “Farewell, Absence and Return” Sonata confirms that it is indeed the “subject” of the piece. But we will never tire of repeating the fact that Mahler, at that time, had not yet spoken about being ill and that for a year he had been working at his previous tireless rhythm. There is nothing to suggest, therefore, that he had foreseen an imminent end; an end which, moreover, would not actually occur until two years later after he was struck down with an incurable infectious disease (before the discovery of penicillin). We must therefore consider that the farewell contained in the last pages of the Ninth Symphony, and the Song of the Earth, is more metaphorical in nature than literal. It is, in my opinion, a meditation about the fate that no man can escape and on the pain of never taking leave of a loved one. Therefore, I think it would be fitting to considerably reduce the scope of these two works and to stop simply seeing them as the grumblings of a musician about his imminent end: we must be cautious in connecting one’s life to artistic output and an artist’s ability to foresee his own demise. There is no doubt that creators can be considered visionaries, but they predict their own future in a lesser manner than those watching on.
In the Ninth Symphony, other ambience and moods allow us to distance ourselves from this initial farewell aura. First of all, there is this intense love of life which animates many passages in the first movement with feverish ardour. Beyond this serenity, Mahler rediscovers his passion. In the intermediate movements he even rediscovers the disturbing visions and ghosts from his previous pieces.
Few of Mahler’s works had ever been so poignant, or so turbulent. The general structure of the Ninth Symphony brings together two opposing universes, and two slow pieces that frame two fast movements. It could almost be called schizophrenic in nature. As he has done on several occasions in his previous symphonies, Mahler used a key that can be qualified as “progressive”: he shows even less respect for the traditional tonal unity, since each movement belongs to a different key; what starts in D major ends in the key of D flat major.
In his later works, it was often noted that Mahler distanced himself from traditional moulds, in particular the Sonata form. In the opening Andante of the Ninth Symphony, he gives up on his contrasting tones, dynamism and drama and even the traditional principles of thematic elaboration. However, the dialectical alternation between the two main elements remains evident, even if they belong to the same key and only contrast the major (Farewell) and minor (vital momentum) modes . Towards the end of the movement, a recapitulation outline is sure to strike the attentive listener. However, the most striking feature is the constant evolution of the material and the refusal of any symmetry, literal recapitulation or turning back (Adorno’s Nichtumkehrbarkeit). Very brief cells, sometimes increased, sometimes decreased, sometimes even reversed, develop and renew themselves. They break away, increase in constantly varying and linked protean melodies, sometimes broken down, sometimes superimposed elsewhere. As in Das Lied, even the “accompaniments” participate in the general theme, showcasing Schönbergian techniques, complete thematism and perpetual and increasing variations. Is it really any wonder that the “three Viennese” were so fascinated by Mahler’s last completed symphony?
-1- Andante comodo, 4/4, D major /minor
After a few introductory bars, the initial movement, like many other Mahler works, adopts a slow walking rhythm, which sometimes accelerates to resume its unrelenting course. A dramatic intensity, which sometimes accelerates and then resumes its unrelenting course. The dramatic intensity, which previously characterized Mahler’s initial movements, here seem to give way to a painful resignation, accompanied, however, by great outbursts of nostalgia which sometimes overflow into passion (theme b, etwas frischer). At first glance, one might be tempted to consider the first bars as an introduction intended to create an atmosphere, when in fact they expose the entire melodic substance of the movement. Even better, Mahler shows himself as an ancestor of Schönberg and Webern of the Klangfarbenmelodie. The initial rhythm is shared between the cellos and the horn; the harp then exposes the three-note motif which dominates the whole movement, and finally the horn, this time muted, announces a third fundamental motif, a simple third on the violas. As in Das Lied von der Erde, the descending second (violins) plays a symbolic role throughout the piece. In contrast to the model it is based on, namely the Farewell motif of Beethoven’s Sonata “The Farewell, Absence and Return”, this motif of two notes – F sharp to E – does not go down to the tonic and remains suspended, thus giving the work an openly infinite dimension. However, this same leitmotif of two notes, third and second scale degree, had just completed The Song of the Earth with the famous ewig of the solo viola (mi – re [do]). The first theme appears simplistic, yet it is never the same and it is constantly changed, fragmented and divided between several instruments. These successive transformations give it such an elusive and wandering aspect that we can say, without any doubt, that it doesn’t really exist and that, in actual fact, all of this thematic data represents simply the variants and different faces of a an underground theme; one which we occasionally catch a glimpse of but can never really see properly, even at the end of the movement. After the double exposition of this initial theme, the violins play a new and more passionate thematic element in minor, which the horns soon latch on to, before the resumption of the main theme, a chromatic motif in triplets.
The symbolic importance of the syncopated rhythm of the first bars is evident as it reappears three times during the movement, like the imperious voice of fate. As we saw above, Alban Berg interpreted this as a symbol of death. The coda which follows stops all notion of time. The flute slowly rises to a super-high pitch, before gradually descending back down to a never-heard-before atmosphere evoking interstellar space. A distant and fond memory of the main theme then concludes the piece in an atmosphere of ineffable resignation and fervour.
-2- Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländler [In the tempo of a comfortable Ländler], 3/4, C major
This Ländler, which was first called a Minuet, is the roughest and most caricatural of all those created by Mahler. A large part of its charm comes from the very first bars of its orchestration, with patterns of quick scales being entrusted to the violas and bassoons. This quirkiness and dark and sardonic humour contained within were unique for this time, other than in Stravinsky’s Petrushka and the neo-classical music between the wars. There are three alternating main themes and tempos, a particularly rustic Ländler (etwas täppisch und sehr derb [somewhat clumsy and very rough]) and then a fast waltz which accelerates several times in a whirlwind of expressionist savagery; and finally a second Ländler, so slow that it evokes an old-fashioned minuet.
-3- Rondo-Burleske. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig [very determined], 2/2, A minor
Dedicated in one of the original manuscripts “To my brothers in Apollo”, this movement still surpasses the previous in terms of its grimacing violence. It is a piece of high orchestral virtuosity, an almost constant fugato in which all the instruments take on a solo role. Here, Mahler uses his polyphonist skills as if to make fun of the counterpoint itself; it’s almost as if he was sticking his tongue out at the “scholars” who, throughout his life, never ceased to insult him.
In this real race to the abyss, which at times makes you dizzy, two contrasting episodes intervene. The first, at 2/4, recalls a passage from the Finale of the Seventh Symphony, itself inspired by the Weiber-Song from The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar. The second interrupts the feverish agitation of the Rondo (Etwas gehalten. Mit grosser Empfindung [A little restrained. With a lot of emotion]) and, in anticipation of the Finale motif, we hear a simple grupetto, an ornament to the glorious baroque past; an ode to classical and even romantic music, and maybe even testament to the music of Wagner. Several times, it takes on a parodical character but the parody here comes before the sentence. Indeed, the final Adagio will later use the same grupetto for expressive purposes.
-4- Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend [very slow and still restrained], 4/4 D flat
The large initial violin phrase serves as an introduction, while denoting, as was the case at the beginning of the initial Andante, two essential motifs, the main one of which is the famous grupetto played in the slower episode of the Rondo. Before Mahler, no one had ever had the audacity to feed a whole movement with such a simple motif. The solemn gravity of the main theme evokes that of a religious hymn but the famous grupetti, secondary parts in eighth or sixteenth notes, the sometimes very surprising harmonic sequences and the countless dissonances disturb the almost Brucknerian calm. The second element is no less striking: it comes early, in an extreme low-pitched key, between the two sentences of the first, and is then frankly presented using two voices (separated by a pause of several octaves). There is something frightening about its simplicity, its starkness, what I would even call its solar nakedness. These two main melodic elements then become quite varied and the whole piece is divided into four main sections. Perhaps most astonishing is the way in which the motifs slowly fragment and disintegrate into the coda, using the mellow sound of muted strings. Towards the end, the famous grupetto carries on alone, becoming slower and slower, more and more hesitant, almost idealistic.
The tenderness and clarity of this conclusion is similar to that of the Lied von der Erde, but also that of the Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen which Mahler composed at the age of 24. Just like the Song of the Earth, the entire Finale diffuses a feeling that God is everywhere and in everything, and that man aspires to a union, even a fusion, with the comfort of nature. At the end of the piece, the final harmonization of the two universes – man and nature -, which Mahler may have wanted to suggest in the two main episodes of this Finale, are consumed in peace by acceptance and silence. But it is an eternal tranquillity, infinitely soft and completely acknowledged, that the final idealisation of the material suggests, notably in the final grupetto which can be considered as man’s last means of expression.
Just like in the Song of the Earth, this conclusion is neither pessimistic nor desperate. Whether one wants to see this as a message of hope, or a heart-breaking farewell, or even a serene acceptance of fate, no one would dream of denying that this final Adagio is a supreme achievement and extremely cathartic. This story of “noise and fury” ends in a state fervour and contemplation, so typically characteristic of all Mahler’s work. The public is never mistaken; it feels the exceptional charge of rising emotions as the music becomes fragmented and slowly trails off. We have only ever witnessed the triumphs of the Ninth Symphony. We can see how the piece drives the performers to surpass themselves and the listeners to come together