The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 9 in D major

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Thomas May

Music possesses an uncanny capacity to provoke and foster contemplation of the ultimate questions of our existence-to give voice to all manner of attempts to answer them, from the consolations of faith afforded by organized religion to the most subjectively based, idiosyncratic visions.

For a composer as restlessly searching as Gustav Mahler, the manner of addressing these issues underwent continual change. Images of death and transcendence recur throughout his career but assume a remarkable diversity of guises. Take the idea of the funeral march, a familiar Mahlerian trope, or moments that intimate "the beyond"- those moments when his symphonies open onto revelatory new vistas. For all the infernos his music can conjure, Mahler hardly limited himself to the tragic mode, to "Paradise Lost," but sought to capture the redemptive and utopian as well. The Second Symphony grapples with the idea of resurrection itself, while the Fourth and the Eighth each convey highly singular fantasies of heaven.

Preoccupation with mortality and final things is inseparable from Mahler's philosophical ambitions for the symphony as a genre. Though this focus can be traced back to the legacy of Romanticism, in the Ninth Symphony in particular it acquires a new character-one that sloughs off and ultimately renounces the familiar patterns (in both their tragic and optimistic aspects). The Ninth accomplishes this in a way that seems both yearningly retrospective and aware of the Modernist revolution to come. The latter, in turn, would shatter faith in the power of art itself to express the kind of meaning that had motivated Mahler all along.

Composed during the summer of 1909 at his Tyrolian retreat in Toblach, the Ninth-arguably the acme of Mahler's symphonic cycle-reflects the aftermath of a period of turmoil and crisis, much as Beethoven proceeded to develop his late works (including his own Ninth) after surviving years of emotional stress. The crisis Mahler had undergone reached a climax in the awful summer of 1907 and "left him shaken to the very roots of his being," writes biographer Jens Malte Fischer. "That crisis continued to resonate in him...."

In addition to the loss of his beloved elder daughter Maria to scarlet fever, which increased the strain in his marriage to Alma, Mahler had received a diagnosis of a grave heart condition and was ordered to abstain from the long walks he associated with creativity and from other simple pleasures once taken for granted. Fischer elucidates an additional philosophical and aesthetic crisis, besides the personal devastation, that found parallel expression in the famous "Letter of Lord Chandos" written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1902. Using the pretext of an imaginary letter penned during the Elizabethan era to Francis Bacon, Hofmannsthal depicts a nightmarish condition in which meaning disintegrates and language loses its power to communicate, resulting in a breakdown, as Fischer puts it, "affecting not only our consciousness but also our very existence...." If Mahler lost his confidence in the adequacy of "the materials that he had hitherto used to construct his worlds of sound," the Ninth may represent his search for a new means-one might even say, a new faith: "The opening movement is an expression of [his recent experiences of crisis] and poses a question that the final movement then attempts to answer."

Mahler referred to the sea change he had withstood in a letter of his own written in 1908 to his protégé Bruno Walter, who would conduct the posthumous premiere of the Ninth in Vienna four years later: "It is certainly not that hypochondriac fear of death, as you suppose ... I'll just tell you that at a blow I have simply lost all the clarity and quietude I ever achieved and that I stood vis-à-vis de rien, and now at the end of life am again a beginner who must find his feet."

Acceptance of the impermanence of life itself emerges as the emotional core of the Ninth Symphony. Mahler expresses this with a profoundly moving vulnerability, drawing on all the technical resources he had mastered and the language he had distilled into his mature style. The early-twentieth-century music critic Paul Bekker, a keen observer of Mahler's art, called the Ninth "an attritional song, not really created for the ears of this world, [that] tells of the afterlife," adding that the composer "had seen God in that final revelation that it is given to us to encompass with our eyes here on earth: God as death."

Even so, the indelible aura of leave-taking in the Ninth should not be conflated with the last gasps of an artist on his deathbed. Mahler authority Henry-Louis de La Grange emphasizes that the composer was more actively engaged than ever in the period surrounding the Ninth. His contentious directorship of the Vienna Opera had been replaced by stimulating (though exhausting) experiences in America conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and then the New York Philharmonic, and with the premiere of his Eighth Symphony in Munich in 1910 he enjoyed the most spectacular triumph he would know as a composer.

Indeed, after a lull since completing that work, Mahler experienced a fresh creative outburst beginning with Das Lied von der Erde in 1908-the work immediately preceding the Ninth-which rehearses some of the musical language and sensibility that will find its way into the symphony. He managed to complete his draft score of the Ninth in a single summer, faster than his usual process. For all its portents of death, the composer-only 49 when he wrote this music-was in fact benefitting from a resurgence of vitality. And while the presumed finality of the number nine is another source of the Ninth's mystique (and admittedly a superstition to which Mahler himself subscribed), he did after all "outlive" the Ninth long enough to compose the Tenth Symphony in short score. When he died in May 1911, Mahler by no means believed he had reached the end of his life's creative work.

In his study of Mahler, Walter points out that the Ninth marries the technical advances of the purely instrumental middle-period symphonies with the "deeply subjective and emotional mood" of the Wunderhorn symphonies (Nos. 2-4, so-called on account of their inclusion of movements setting texts from the Romantic folk poetry collection known as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, of The Youth's Magic Horn).

Even more, it's possible to find aspects of Mahler's entire oeuvre woven into the Ninth's fabric. The composer himself pointed to a key parallel with the arc of the Fourth: both embark from a sense of innocence that is regained-though in dramatically different ways-by the end. Moreover, along with specific allusions to his own music, the Ninth encodes references to musical history especially significant for Mahler, from the polyphony of Bach to Beethoven and, fleetingly, the apotheosis of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Another possible reference is itself a symphony associated with final things: the Sixth (Pathétique) by Tchaikovsky. Both works defy convention to end with a weighty slow movement; both feature inner movements that suggest certain parallels.

At the same time, Mahler reveals some classicizing tendencies by adopting a fourmovement design (though, as mentioned, the order of movements, ending with an Adagio, is unconventional); the proportions and even orchestration are a far cry from the excesses of the Third or the preceding Eighth. Overall, two large-scale outer movements frame two middle movements, each of which is roughly half as long, that introduce a strikingly different tone into the work. Mahler had evolved varied responses throughout his career to the choral innovation of Beethoven's final symphony, but for his own Ninth, he dispenses with words entirely, making only implicit reference to earlier song settings.

Originating from a mysterious, dark space, the vast first movement opens with a montage of three brief motifs: a three-note halting rhythm, a four-note bell-like knell on harp, and a five-note call on stopped horn. From these gestures there emerges the first theme proper, music of patient, breathtaking beauty that blossoms from a simple two-note seed: these notes by themselves are nothing more than the start of a descending cadence, following the gravitational pull downward toward the tonic. Here Mahler alludes to the opening of Beethoven's Piano Sonata Les Adieux, Op. 81a (whose first movement is associated with a musical gesture of bidding "farewell" to a loved one).

But the sense of leave-taking is only part of the dialectic that generates the entire movement. Shifting from major to minor, a new theme in the violins strives upward-the Samsara of desire, as perceived in Buddhism-with music as angular and passionate as the first was serene. The rest of this movement transforms and recombines all these ideas into novel permutations. A young Alban Berg discovered in this music "an extraordinary love of this earth, for Nature; the longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one's being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does." Following the last of three large climaxes that punctuate its course, Mahler steers the music into an entirely unforeseen place of austere, chamber music-like scoring, well beyond the implications of recapitulation or resolution. It foreshadows the withdrawal of the final Adagio as the fabric dissolves into otherworldly strands and fragments, the picture now changed entirely.

Yet Mahler is far from abandoning the earthly, which returns with robust vigor in the three dance-based musical ideas filling the second movement, albeit in mockingly exaggerated terms. First comes a Ländler or relaxed movement in the style of a triple meter folk dance (Mahler's instructions are that it should sound "somewhat clumsy and coarse"), followed by a speeded-up, funhouse waltz, and a gentler dance that echoes the "farewell" theme but is overshadowed by the first two elements.

From this humor Mahler makes a foray into savage irony in the "Rondo Burleske," which is inscribed "to my brothers in Apollo" (i.e., the critics who skewered him). Its frantically driven counterpoint is both overstimulated and nihilistic-the hellish reversal of the life-affirming Scherzo of Mahler's Fifth, which is anchored to a similar three-note motif. But a prolonged episode at the center of the movement unexpectedly opens onto a new dimension and, for a spell, the cynical attitude is kept at bay. This visionary idyll-a kind of remembered innocence-springs from an unassuming motif based on the undulating figure known as a "turn" (first heard in the trumpet). It also looks ahead to the final movement, in which this turn features prominently.

Like the first movement, the Adagio is built from two ideas that are not merely contrasting but even seem to contradict each other, though they are in fact related: the first is a full-voiced chorale hymned by the strings, while the second is a bleak phrase rising from the depths in lonely counterpoint to the violins' line descending from on high. Mahler revisits the essential conflict of the first movement-the pull toward love of life and the knowledge of death's inevitability-but now from a more distanced perspective.

In the final pages, the music steadily dissolves in tempo, texture, and dynamics. The pulse slows to a near flat-line as the orchestration is reduced to strings. With an effect comparable to eyes adjusting to sustained darkness, each motion at this subdued volume-verging on the point of inaudibility-becomes fraught with significance. Mahler has no more use for the theatrics of Romanticism, with all its empty promises. The melodic "turn," a decorative texture from the musical past transfigured into ultimate substance, expires in a last breath: an end and a beginning.