Symphony No. 9 in D major
Related Artists/CompaniesGustav Mahler
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Mahler's Symphony No. 9 - Mar. 19 - 21, 2015
Eschenbach's multi-season exploration of Gustav Mahler--whom the NSO Music Director has called "the greatest symphonist ever"--begins with the composer's powerful Symphony No. 9, written following Mahler's struggle with several life challenges.
About the Work
The large orchestra specified in the score comprises a piccolo, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, 3 large bells, chimes, cymbals, tam tam, triangle, glockenspiel, 2 harps, and strings. Duration, 85 minutes.
Back in the days when the symphonies of both Mahler and Bruckner were "novelties" in our concert halls, the two composers tended to be bracketed together in the minds of many musicians and their audiences, on fairly superficial grounds: both composers wrote unusually long symphonies which took a long time to work their way into the so-called standard repertory, their creative lives overlapped for a dozen years or so, and in many instances they were championed by the same conductors—such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, both of whom had actually been assistants to Mahler. Mahler, in his student years, had some lessons from Bruckner, and prepared a piano reduction of that master's Third Symphony; later in his life he sometimes performed Bruckner's works, and on one famous occasion, when he conducted the Te Deum , he crossed out the words "for chorus, soli and orchestra, organ ad libitum" on the title page, and wrote in their stead, "For the tongues of angels, heaven-blessed, chastened hearts, and souls purified in fire!" For the most part, though, parallels between Bruckner and Mahler are to be found more in the way of background statistics than in the substance of their works. We find, for instance, that while each of these composers is credited with nine symphonies each actually wrote eleven, and that each ended his cycle of symphonies with a conscious farewell to life which he did not live to complete.
In Bruckner's case the two supplemental symphonies are early works: the so-called "No. 0" in D minor and the "Youth" Symphony in F minor, both written before his "official" Symphony No. 1. In his own Ninth Bruckner wrote a section which he labeled "Farewell to Life"; he dedicated the work to God, and prayed that he would live to provide the work with a finale. We might say it was the Dedicatee's unerring judgment that the composer's prayer was denied and the sublime Adagio stands as his final symphonic word. For Mahler, whose Ninth ends with an Adagio according to his own fully realized design, both of the "extra" symphonies came at the end of his life and were in fact components of his tripartite leave-taking. His decision to withhold a number from the earliest part of his farewell triptych was in part a consequence of Bruckner's having died without finishing his Ninth.
In the summer of 1907, by which time Mahler had completed eight of his symphonies and performed six of them, his life was shattered by the "three blows of fate" which he had predicted in the final movement of his Sixth. Both of his young daughters caught scarlet fever that summer: Anna, the younger one, recovered, but the five-year-old Maria contracted diphtheria and died after much suffering. Then Mahler's wife, barely recovered from surgery herself, collapsed from "extreme exhaustion of the heart"; in an attempt to cheer her, Mahler invited her physician to examine him, too, and his own fatal heart disease was diagnosed.
Mahler was not at all prepared for what the doctor told him, and that diagnosis came at a critical time in his professional life as well as a tragic one for his family. In that same year, 1907, Mahler concluded his brilliant but stormy tenure as director of the Vienna Opera and took up a new one with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. At that critical time his life had to be changed, all his physical activities curtailed; at the age of 47, he concentrated his creative energies on achieving as much as he could under what he himself referred to as a "death sentence." In her memoirs, many years later, Alma Mahler would describe 1907 as a year "so blackly underlined in the calendar of our life," and the summer of the following year as
the saddest we had ever spent or were to spend together. Every excursion, every attempt at distraction, was a failure. Grief and anxiety pursued us wherever we went. Work was his one resource. He slaved at Das Lied von der Erde and the first drafts of the Ninth.
It is understandable that under such circumstances even a man as driven as Mahler would indulge himself in superstition in respect to affixing the number Nine to a symphony. The idea of a Ninth Symphony had taken on a certain mystique and portentousness. A Ninth had ended Beethoven's output of symphonies. Bruckner had died without completing his Ninth . Mahler was not only concerned, but extremely apprehensive about producing a Ninth Symphony of his own, and it was for that reason alone that he decided, upon completing Das Lied von der Erde in 1908, not to call that work "Symphony No. 9" as he had originally intended (though he did label it "a symphony for alto, tenor and orchestra"). According to Alma,
When later he was writing his next symphony, which he called the Ninth, he said to me: "Actually, of course, it's the Tenth, because Das Lied von der Erde was really the Ninth." Finally, when he was composing the Tenth he said, "Now the danger is past." And thus he thought to give God the slip . . . yet he did not live to see the Ninth performed, or to finish the Tenth.
Those three final works, according to Mahler's plan, were to constitute his valediction, and none of them was performed in his lifetime. Each in its way addresses ideas of death and forewell; the score of the uncompleted Tenth is strewn with personal notations of heart-rending urgency. Bruno Walter conducted the premiere of Das Lied von der Erde in Munich eight months before he presided over that of the Ninth in Vienna; no part of the Tenth was heard until 1924, when Franz Schalk conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the two movements Mahler himself had compmleted and orchestrated, material having been copied and prepared for that occasion by Ernst Krenek with the assistance of Alban Berg. (Krenek had married Mahler's daughter Anna the previous year; they were divorced in 1925 and Anna subsequently married the conductor Anatole Fistoulari. Alma had by then married the architect Walter Gropius and borne him a daughter, whose early death at decade later was to inspire Berg's Violin Concerto.)
In 1938 Henry Boys wrote that the predominant mood of both Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony "is one of consuming nostalgia and world-weariness," and that the drama of the Ninth "might be thought of as expressing the conflict of final reconciliation of Mahler's personal world with some more peaceful world towards which he had always aspired." Mahler himself, who once declared that "all music since Beethoven has been program music," said of his own Ninth (and specifically of its final Adagio ), "There is no more irony, no sarcasm, no resentment whatever; there is only the majesty of death."
In this work Mahler reverted to the four-movement layout which he had used in only three of his earlier symphonies (Nos. 1, 4 and 6), but there is a very striking difference between the format here and that of the traditional four-movement symphony. Instead of fast outer movements framing a slow movement and a scherzo, Mahler gave his Ninth two vast slow movements for beginning and end, separating them with two shorter (but hardly "short") quick movements. This arrangement was not entirely without precedent—even Haydn had experimented with something similar—but the very obviousness of the truly close precedent has perhaps caused it to be overlooked or dismissed in most discussions, and, without making too much of it, it is worth noting.
In 1893, some 15 years before Mahler began working on his Ninth, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who had met him in Hamburg the previous year, ended his own series of symphonies with the now famous and much beloved Pathétique, another work filled with "the majesty of death." Tchaikovsky, who cited actual chants for the dead in his final symphony, did live to hear it performed, under his own direction, but died nine days after the premiere, under somewhat curious conditions. The Pathétique is a good deal shorter than Mahler's Ninth, but its layout is more or less the same, certainly close enough to have provided a pattern. Even the respective inner movements seem to underscore the correspondence: Tchaikovsky's second movement is a "limping waltz," in 3/4 time, Mahler's is in the tempo of a Ländler, the rustic antecedent of the waltz; Tchaikovskys' third movement is a bizarre march, Mahler's is a more extended and still more bizarre Rondo-Burleske with echoes of the barracks and parade ground.
Mahler, one of the most eminent conductors of his time, definitely knew the Pathétique : he conducted the work both in Europe and in New York, and complained that his American audiences demanded it too frequently. It is doubtful, however, that he consciously copied Tchaikovsky's innovative outline. Both his symphony and Tchaikovsky's are remarkably original works, each utterly characteristic of its composer, and in each the format is more or less dictated by the work's overall emotional burden. The two finales, moreover, are quite different from each other, beyond the matter of length. Although Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony proved to be his farewell gesture, there is every evidence that it was not so intended: its conclusion is brooding and mournful in accordance with the conventional view of death observed, rather than that of death experienced or anticipated. Maher's extraordinary finale, which in its own right is quite without precedent, is not mournful, but exalted: in this valedictory utterance "the majesty of death" is illumined by a glow of serenity and confident affirmation.
Bruno Walter, who conducted the posthumous premieres of both Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony, was Mahler's closest associate and disciple; he left us a book on Mahler in which he wrote that the Ninth
in design, movement, technique, and polyphony . . . continues the line of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies. It is, however, inspired by an intense spiritual agitation: the sense of departure. And, although it is also purely orchestral music, it differs from the middle group, is nearer to the earlier symphonies in its deeply subjective and emotional mood.
Walter observed also the "Der Abschied" ("The Farewell"), the title of the concluding section of Das Lied von der Erde , "might serve as rubric for the Ninth Symphony. Its first movement is derived from the mood of Das Lied , though in no sense musically related to it." Others have found some of the roots of the first movement in the opening song of the Kindertotenlieder , the song-cycle Mahler composed between 1901 and 1904, wherein the same specific tonalities—D major and D minor—may be observed in similar alternation. And, while one hesitates to dispute Bruno Walter on any point regarding Mahler, it would appear that a musical link with Das Lied von der Erde does exist, for a thematic fragment in the middle of the first movement all but echoes the words "Du, aber, Mensch," sung by the tenor in the opening song of Das Lied , called "Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" ("Drinking Song of the Earth's Sorrow"). The line in full is: "Du aber, Mensch, wie lange lebst denn du?" ("But thou, o man, how long is thy lifespan?") The reference is a most poignant one, fully in accord with the emotional thrust of the movement, and the listener familiar with Das Lied von der Erde may be struck by various other resemblances—never actual themes, but rather fragments of themes and sub-motifs.
The first movement as a whole represents one of Mahler's characteristically personal construction plans, wherein sonata form is only vaguely acknowledged, more or less passed over in favor of a loose variation form. The entire movement is a series of metamorphoses of the three-note figure introduced at the outset by harp and horns, an Urmotiv apparently based on the opening of Beethoven's Op. 81a Piano Sonata, Les Adieux , which Beethoven designed to fit the words "Lebe wohl" ("Farewell"). Theodor W. Adorno, one of the earliest and most sympathetic commentators on Mahler's music, described this long and complex movement as a discourse in which the music takes on an
avid expressiveness and similarity to speech. The themes are neither active nor passive, but gush forth as though the music received the impulse to continue only during the discourse itself.
Toward the end of the movement are a duet for flute and horn and further passages for solo flute which are reminiscent of the flute solo over fading trumpets just prior to the choral section in the finale of the Second Symphony (the Resurrection ), an episode which in that work represents the hovering "Bird of Death." The end, reached with an air of weariness, is almost childlike in its simple sweetness. Alban Berg summed it up in a letter to his wife just after the work's premiere in 1912:
The entire movement is based on a premonition of death which constantly recurs. All earthly dreams lead to it; that is why the tenderest passages are followed by tremendous climaxes, like new eruptions of a volcaono. This, of course, is most obvious of all in the place where the premonition of death becomes certain knowledge, where, in the most profound and anguished love of life, death announces itself with utmost power . . . Against that, there is no more resistance to be offered, and I see what follows as a sort of resignation.
Mundane images are evoked and distorted in both of the inner movements. The second movement, headed "In the tempo of an easy-going Ländler," begins with a tune that fits that description. It is succeeded by a smoother and faster section, actually a waltz, and then by a much slower Ländler. These materials (plus a fleeing reminiscence of the Symphony's opening motif) are brought to a rhythmic boil, and then float away in fragments in muted brasses. At the end there is a final grotesque appearance of the original Ländler phrase, with a pithy comment from the piccolo and contrabassoon projecting an image of hollowness and the feeling that, as Bruno Walter put it, "the dance is over."
Shostakovich, a profound admirer of Mahler, expanded on Mahler juxtaposition of piccolo and contrabassoon in some of his own works, and the Ninth's third movement may well have served as prototype for some of the Russian composer's similarly demonic scherzos. Mahler offered a sardonic dedication of this Rondo-Burleske, "To my brothers in Apollo"—at once a reminder of how misunderstood his music had been and a defiant assertion of his confidence in having chosen the path he chose. "Mahler seems to revel in his contrapuntal mastery," Henry Boys wrote, adding, "The music seems to alternate between a terrific, often frenzied agitation and an attitude of devil-may-care." By way of trio to this fantastic scherzo is a contrasting middle section marked Mit grosser Empfindung ("With great feeling"), which affords a glimpse ahead to the rarefied atmosphere of the finale.
A gesture of sobriety and resignation, stated by the violins, opens the Adagio , and after a few bars the aural fabric is enriched by the addition of the lower strings. This unique finale is both an instrumental sequel to the "Abschied" in Das Lied von der Erde and a conspicuous contrast to Mahler's earlier symphonic offering on the subject of death, the Second Symphony, composed some 15 years earlier. In the finale of the Second Mahler had deployed a huge apparatus—chorus, two solo singers, organ and offstage band in addition to the large orchestra—in a ringing, proclamative statement. In the finale of the Ninth the large orchestra, without those supplemental forces, is used sparingly and delicately to achieve a chamber-music intimacy, and the intensity that grows so uncontrivedly is a wholly "interior" phenomenon, in contrast to the relatively "public" manner of the earlier choral finale. Here Mahler serenely accepts the actuality of transfiguration, even as motifs from the earlier movements are subtly transfigured in passing. In the one grand climax—an episode marked Fliessender, doch durchaus nicht eilend ("Flowing, but unrushed throughout"), a little more than halfway through the movement—the clouds roll back, the heavens open, and for a blinding instant the pilgrim stares into the radiant fulfillment of his spiritual journey. The aftermath of this stunning episode is a gradual dying-away interrupted by a second fortissimo; the violins climb higher and higher, ever more softly, until only they and the cellos are left playing. The coda, assigned to the strings alone, is made up of fragmented echoes and poignant silences; the final bar is marked erstebend, the German equivalent of the Italian morendo: "dying away."
Looking back on the rich and varied character of music in the last century, several commentators have suggested that it was this last completed symphony of Mahler's, and not The Rite of Spring or any work of the so-called Second Viennese School, that marked that century's real beginning. What is beyond argument is that this Ninth marked a new and altogether exceptional level in illuminating the collective and contradictory phenomena we have come to call "the human condition." Mahler may not have known that phrase, but he was confident that his time would come, as it indeed did when the need for this particular kind of illumination was most deeply felt, and today it seems more pertinent than ever.