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Gustav Mahler: The Ninth Symphony

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Gustav Mahler
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Gustav Mahler.
It is the expression of an extraordinary love for this Earth, the longing to live peacefully on it, to enjoy nature at her deepest depths - before death comes. For it comes, irresistibly1.

In May 1911, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler died, leaving two completed but unperformed works: the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) and the Ninth Symphony. Both of these works were given their first performances by Mahler's close friend and protégé, the conductor Bruno Walter.

Mahler was rather superstitious about writing a 'Ninth' symphony, fearing that, like Beethoven and Bruckner before him, it would be his last. By entitling his previous work Das Lied von der Erde - a symphony in all but name - he felt he had somehow cheated the system, but the reticence remained. However, by early October, 1910 at the latest, he was able to write to Oskar Fried2 that: ‘Meine 9. ist fertig’ (My Ninth is finished).


Mahler arrived at the third of his summer retreats, Toblach3, around 13 June, 1909. Departing from Vienna, he had accompanied his wife Alma, their daughter Anna and Anna's governess, Miss Turner, to Levico4, where Alma was to 'take the cure' at the plush spa. After staying a few days with his family, Mahler returned alone5 to Toblach. There, he had rented for the summer the upper floors of a large house belonging to the Trenker family, which lived on the ground floor.

The location of this house, in terms of the views and mountain walks available, must have been superb, if this was sufficient to compensate for the drawbacks. Mahler complained constantly in letters to his wife about the noise from the family, their friends, children and dog, and the cheeses they kept in the basement. The smell of these attracted hordes of midges; Mahler had to have mosquito netting fitted to the windows in an attempt to keep them out, with incomplete success, due in part to the fact that Agnes refused to have netting fitted to the windows in the kitchen!

For the first month that Mahler was there, the weather was terrible: cold and constantly rainy. It was certainly too cold to work in the little composing hut (häuschen) he had had built, so he kept to the main house, where at least he had a couple of heating stoves. Mahler initially worked on the programmes for the forthcoming concert season in New York, and probably some draft sketches6 for the new symphony. But once he was able to use the häuschen, work on the symphony proceeded rapidly - so rapidly that, by Mahler's own admission to Walter, 'The score is quite mangled, and probably altogether illegible to unfamiliar eyes.'

It was completed - at least as far as a draft orchestral score - in that single summer. Normally, the sketching and composition of a new symphony would occupy him for two summers, with completion of the detailed orchestration and production of a fair copy of the complete score occupying the winter months following the second summer.

Further work on the symphony's orchestration was done over the winter of 1909-10, and a fair copy score completed in New York in March 1910. Substantial revisions were made subsequently, and indeed Mahler was still working on the score almost until his death. As a result of these revisions, less time was available during the winter of 1910-11 - time he would have otherwise spent fleshing out the skeleton of the Tenth Symphony. Consequently, and regrettably, the Tenth is left to us only as a fragment.

Musical Form and Outline

  • 1st movement: Andante comodo
  • 2nd movement: Ländler
  • 3rd movement: Rondo. Burleske
  • 4th movement: Adagio

In mood, the Ninth Symphony continues on from the song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. For much of the time that the work has been available for performance and study, there have been regular assertions that it is the product of a composer who was obsessed with death - that it is a grief-laden farewell to life. This originates, at least in part, from the fact that at several places in the draft score of the first movement the little figure of a descending major second has Leb'wol (Farewell) written above it. The established wisdom of this being Mahler's conscious farewell to life is now being challenged.

1907 was certainly a traumatic year for the composer, having been dominated by three events: the death of his beloved daughter, Maria, from scarlet fever and diphtheria; the diagnosis of his heart valve defect; and being driven by a hostile media from his prestigious post as director of the Vienna Court Opera. In truth, Mahler soon realised the latter opened up an opportunity in the United States to earn a comfortable living, and at the same time free him from what he regarded as the drudgery of the day-to-day routine of a European opera house. While it is true that since 1907 he had become acutely aware of his mortality, he was making plans to accumulate sufficient money to able to retire completely and concentrate on composition alone. This is certainly not the attitude of a man waiting and expecting to die imminently.

Although still rooted in the major-minor tonality, Mahler's increasing use of chromaticism and dissonance in this final phase of his compositions were a precursor to what the composers of the Second Viennese School - Schoenberg, Berg and Webern- would do after Mahler's death. Note that Berg and Webern were both present at the symphony's première on 26 June, 1912.


The symphony is scored for a large orchestra: piccolo, four flutes, three oboes, cor anglais, four clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, contra-bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, pitched bells, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, snare drum, two harps, violins, violas, cellos and double-basses.

First Movement

Andante comodo (Leisurely)

Uniquely in Mahler's symphonies, the Ninth both starts and ends with a slow movement. This apparent symmetry - an element that is not uncommon in the composer's symphonies - does not on this occasion tell us how the symphony will progress. Consider how far apart harmonically the two movements are: the first in D major, the last in D flat major - the greatest possible separation.

The symphony starts in a very relaxed manner. After a few quiet murmurs from cellos, harp and horns, the first theme appears on the second violins. This D major theme - with the Leb'woll figure - has a rocking, sighing quality, and is accompanied by similar sighing figures for one of the horns. The second theme is in the tonic (D) minor and is taken at a moderately quicker tempo.

From these two themes, the whole of this complex movement is constructed. But rather than complement each other - the 'classical' expectation - the two themes seem to be antagonistic, and the movement overall has a feeling of barely concealed aggression. Skirmishes break out a number of times, always returning to the quieter atmosphere of the first theme.

Formally, the movement is open to a number of interpretations. It can be seen as having a sonata-form outline with introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation and coda sections. In the exposition, the first and second themes are alternated twice (A-B-A-B), the second theme appearing first in D minor, then in B flat major7, the first theme bringing us back to D major. This frequent return to D major by the first theme also suggests Rondo-form, a form which will be fully explored in the third movement.

Second Movement

Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers (In a comfortable Ländler tempo)

For the second movement, Mahler wheeled out one of his favourite components for an inner movement: the ländler8. But this movement is not a straightforward ländler, with one or more central trio sections, as seen previously in the composer's First, Second, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies. Here Mahler employs two ländlers and two waltzes, interleaving them, almost in the manner of a Rondo. The ländlers are given a slow, deliberate, almost plodding tempo, while the waltzes are quicker. However, as in the third movement of the Fifth Symphony, Mahler ironically parodies the waltz; here, one waltz appears in the tempo and orchestration of the other.

The sequence of ländler and waltz in this movement is L1–W1–W2 –L2–W1–L2–L1–W2–W1–L1. Ländler 1 always appears in the key of C major, Ländler 2 in F major, and Waltz 2 in E flat. Waltz 1 appears, by turn, in the keys of E, D and B flat.

Third Movement

Rondo. Burleske

Mahler now sets himself an exercise in counterpoint. Whether this was to achieve some kind of cathartic diversion, or simply an intellectual challenge, we do not know. For the exercise, Mahler chooses one of the most time-honoured musical forms - the classical Rondo. In the Rondo form, a pattern, comprising a recurring theme (A), alternating with contrasting passages, known as episodes, is developed. In this movement the pattern adopted is A-B-A-B-A-C-A, followed by a brief coda.

A couple of bars of introduction on horns, trumpet and strings lead straight to theme A, a march-like tune in A minor. The first episode - the F major theme B - when it in turn appears is lyrical and seems to be related rhythmically to a tune, popular at the time, from Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow. These two themes are treated by Mahler in fugato style - that is, in the manner of a fugue, without actually being fugal. Again, as with the waltzes in the second movement, the counterpoint is mocking, confirming the term Burleske9 in the movement's outline description.

A number of models have been suggested for this movement, including Beethoven's Grosse Fuge for String Quartet Op 133, and the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). We must also remember Mahler's extensive study of the works of JS Bach.

The extensive C passage, in the key of D major, is a typical piece of Mahlerian angst, with lush string writing, harp glissandos, shrill high woodwind and poignant brass. Its first motif comes from the fugato passages, but it is also a preview of the principal element of the fourth movement finale that is to follow, with its wide interval leaps and sighing falls.

A final appearance of a variant of the A-theme march, first in D minor, then back in the home key of A minor, is followed by a presto coda, bringing the movement to a scurrying conclusion.

Fourth Movement

Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend  (Very slow and yet restrained)

This 20-25 minute slow movement is quiet and reflective. Although the whole orchestra has a role to play, the strings dominate the texture. The Adagio is founded mostly on a single expansive theme, but one subjected to repeated variation. The movement is not only reflective in mood - it also recalls moments from earlier movements, and indeed earlier works. There are passing references to both the Second and Third Symphonies, but most clearly to the final movement of the work Mahler composed prior to this symphony, the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde.

A two-bar introduction on the violins contains, even within the first bar, a little fall and rise figure - hinted at in the previous movement - that is a signature motto of the movement: four semiquavers10 followed by a minim11 (eg F-E flat-D natural-E flat-G flat). After this introduction, the violins are joined by the lower strings and the main theme is heard in the movement's home key of D flat major. Mahler at this point marks the score molto expressivo (very expressively) and grosser ton (with full tone). It is not long before the theme is interrupted briefly by a snatch of a second theme. It lasts for only two bars; more is made of this second theme later. For now, we return to the first theme.

Building slowly, the theme strives to achieve a climax, which it eventually manages, approaching it by means of a figure comprising four steps of a rising interval of a sixth, each followed by a falling second12. After the climax, the yearning figure collapses and expends itself.

The fragment of the second theme, when it appears briefly to interrupt the main theme, is heard on a solo bassoon above a D flat pedal in the first violins. At this juncture it is little more than a slow, stepwise scale ascent of the tonic key in its minor mode. At its first full appearance, the bassoon theme, now in C sharp minor, is pitched low down in the contrabassoon and cellos, with a thin, wispy violin thread floating high above it. These are joined by a plaintive solo violin and a flute, and later by the oboes and clarinets. It is here that the quotation from the Third Symphony is heard in the counterpoint to the second theme. At its third appearance, again in C sharp minor, the theme is preceded by a clear quotation from Der Abschied - the final song in Das Lied von der Erde - before playing around among the woodwind instruments.

The Coda, scored for string instruments alone, is taken very slowly and quietly. Faint whispers of the little signature figure are heard, before the movement dies away into silence.

Mahler, of course, never heard the symphony being performed. Had he, the history of previous symphonies indicates he would have made further changes. The extent of those changes we will never know. Therefore, we must be content with what stands as the composer's last completed work.

1In a letter to his wife, fellow composer Alban Berg refers to the first movement of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony.2A young conductor, personal friend and protégé of Mahler.3Then in the southern Austrian Tyrol, now known as Dobbiaco in Italy.4Like Toblach, Levico was then in the southern Austrian Tyrol; it is now in the Italian province of Trento.5Alone, that is, apart from Agnes, his cook, and Kathi, the chambermaid.6It is possible some preliminary sketches were started the previous summer.7This is sometimes described as being a third theme.8The ländler is an Austrian country dance, in ¾ time, that is often seen as rustic in comparison with its sophisticated cousin the Viennese waltz.9Meaning, in British English, a work that ridicules the conventions of the day.10US: 16th note.11US: half note.12First appearance: G flat/F - E flat/D flat - C/B flat - A flat/G flat.

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