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Symphony No. 9 (1909-10)

  • 1. Andante comodo
  • 2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb
  • 3. Rondo-Burleske. Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig
  • 4. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend

In 1907, after more than a decade as Director of the Vienna Court Opera, Mahler accepted a post at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For the remaining four years of his life, he spent six months in New York (October to March) and six months in Austria (April to September), where he continued to spend the summer in his beloved mountain landscapes. Das Lied von der Erde, the Eighth, Ninth and unfinished Tenth symphonies were all written in a small forest hut in the Dolomites (then part of Austria, now in Italy). The tension Mahler endured all his life, between a hectic conducting season in the city and the solitude of his summer composing retreats, must have felt even more pronounced in these last years. Returning to the idyllic peace of the Tyrol, after long transatlantic crossings and the foreignness of his American life (he spoke very little English), must have been marked by an overwhelming sense of homecoming. Such a feeling is evident in both Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony.

Mahler's late music is often associated with the idea of farewell, specifically a farewell to life itself (he was diagnosed with a fatal heart disease in 1907). This association was first elaborated after the posthumous première of the Ninth Symphony on 26 June 1912, conducted in Vienna by Bruno Walter. The idea was repeated over and again, and continues today as a dominant reading of the symphony. 'If you want to learn to weep,' wrote one critic after the première, 'you should listen to the first movement of the Ninth, the great, magnificent song of ultimate farewell.' But one should be cautious about reading the Ninth Symphony too literally. Mahler's biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, underlines that the effects of Mahler's heart disease have often been exaggerated. When he wrote the Ninth, at the age of 49, he was in good health, and at the end of that summer returned not only to his post at the Metropolitan Opera, but to conduct his first season with the New York Philharmonic (some 46 concerts). The following year he drafted the majority of his Tenth Symphony and had the greatest success of his composing career with the triumphal première of the Eighth Symphony in Munich, before travelling back to New York for his fourth season there. Hardly, perhaps, the actions of a man on his deathbed.

So one might hear in the Ninth Symphony, alongside Mahler's lifelong theme of farewell, a powerful sense of return. The first movement is saturated with this double-edged sense, of both a final homecoming and of a world viewed from an increasingly great distance. The Mahler who returned from New York in 1909 to the luminous space of the Austrian mountains was not quite the same Mahler who set out as a young man in the First Symphony, some 20 years earlier. The lively gait of Mahler's 'fahrenden Gesellen', striding across the fields on a spring morning, has now become the rather halting pace of his opening, decidedly autumnal Andante. The peculiar intensity of this movement has something to do with its retrospective gaze, a quality shared with those unbelievably bright autumn days when everything seems to stand out in blinding focus. Alban Berg, present at the première, captured this sense in a letter to his wife: 'The first movement is the most glorious he ever wrote. It expresses 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.'

The Ninth Symphony opens tentatively and in a curiously fragmentary way: a single, faltering rhythm shared between the cello and horn, a low harp figure like the tolling of bells, a rustling in the violas and a single phrase of a distant horn call. Only as these broken elements coalesce does the music gain a downbeat and the Andante proper begin. The songlike theme in the violins seems to generate itself little by little, from a single sighing fall to an increasingly expansive melody. Its proximity to the Leb'wohl (Farewell) theme of Beethoven's Les Adieux sonata, and Mahler's scribbled annotations on the score, have always marked out this D major 'song' as one of poignant valediction. Others have suggested that the theme closely resembles a melody from Johann Strauss's waltz suite Freut Euch des Lebens (Enjoy life!), which makes sense given its tinge of sentimentality and Mahler's inclination to irony even at moments of greatest sincerity. There is also a telling overlap with the closing pages of Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler's much-discussed use of pentatonicism in that earlier work, to achieve its uniquely weightless ending, is also present at the start of the Ninth. As the violin melody falls (F sharp to E) so the counterpoint in the horn rises (A to B). The symmetry of the movement and the resulting harmonic richness, suggest a simple motion that might rock gently back and forth for ever.

But this is not the end of a work, it is the beginning. Mahler uses his poignantly lyrical Andante in D major as one element in a polarised opposition. The negative pole is a more impassioned and chromatic version in D minor. With each successive alternation between the two, the distance between these worlds seems to increase, as the music plunges from heroic striving, on the brink of some rapturous breakthrough, to moments of complete collapse into a shadowy, empty landscape (Mahler's marking is Schattenhaft - shadowy). Berg's reading, that the whole first movement 'is based on a premonition of death', captures the proximity in this music between the terror of an implacable force and the sense of cherishing every last detail of the earth. Faced with no hope of reconciling such an opposition, the end of the movement is shaped by quiet withdrawal and dream-like reminiscence. Mahler marks the final page of the score 'lingering'; in the sketches, he wrote simply 'Leb'wohl!' (Farewell!).

The second movement alternates four contrasting Austrian dances - two Ländler (of the countryside) and two waltzes (of the city). The first Ländler is marked 'somewhat clumsy and very crude', its raw quality underlined by the bad behaviour of the horns and the instruction to the violinists to play 'like fiddlers'. This is a country dance in heavy, muddy boots, done with great affection even as it gently falls apart into garrulous repetitions. The rustic cartoon is interrupted by a mad waltz that spirals out of control, changing key with a sense of drunken abandon. A second waltz, given in the low brass, sounds as though a military band has invaded the orchestra, before a second, slower Ländler wistfully recollects a quieter, more rural life. Mahler's modernity here lies not so much in his materials (bewilderingly familiar to his first listeners) but in the way that he foregrounds the lack of fit between them as the music lurches from the frivolous to the grotesque, the sentimental to the modern. At the end of the movement, he allows his orchestra to fall apart like a machine shedding its parts one by one. The music breaks into fragments, scattered around the orchestra, until the whole thing simply runs out of steam.

In the third movement, the sense of distortion and exaggeration is greatly magnified. Mahler's Rondo-Burleske presents a highly energetic and contrapuntal music, but one that struggles to contain its plural voices, all tugging in different directions at once. Just as it seems ready to implode under its own weight, this unrelentingly strict style gives way to a lightweight music that sounds like operetta (some critics heard echoes of Lehár's The Merry Widow). The recurrent interruption of one element by the other is eventually broken by an astonishingly self-conscious act of authorial intrusion. Mahler 'rips up' the music heard thus far, like a film-director suddenly intercutting a completely different scene. A series of glissandi in the harp introduces a disjointed set of musical voices - some of them grotesque and distorted (the E flat clarinet) and others earnestly expressive (the solo trumpet). This whole passage, suspended out of normal symphonic time, functions like a set of dream visions of what might yet be, before we are thrown back into the movement's opening material, gathering its ferocious force all the way to the end.

What are we to make of the tone of this movement, signalled by Mahler's pointed title of Rondo-Burleske? The musicologist Stephen Hefling calls it 'virtuosically sarcastic' and there are plenty of echoes of Berlioz's technique, in the Finale of the Symphonie fantastique, of presenting grotesquely distorted and caricatured versions of material earlier given as noble and beautiful. The studied contrapuntal texture of the movement seems to suggest Mahler's fascination and admiration, in the last decade of his life, for the music of Bach, but here this musical technique for harmonious order seems to spin off in all directions and produce the opposite result. The same is true of Mahler's use of the orchestra, which throughout this symphony breaks up musical lines into smaller, dissociated particles, just like contemporary painters were doing with colour at the same time. For the concert-goers of Vienna or Munich or Paris, the orchestra represented one of the highest achievements of European culture, a model of perfect integration and coherence, yet Mahler seems to set this well-oiled machine at odds with itself, breaking its voice from within. It is perhaps no wonder that critics reacted with such angry incomprehension.

Though Mahler had ended a symphony with a hymn-like Adagio before, in the Third Symphony, its affirmative conclusion is completely at odds with the extended withdrawal of the Adagio that concludes the Ninth. In the closing years of the 19th century there was a deliberate attempt among Austro-German composers to recover the noble solemnity associated with some of Beethoven's Adagio movements and the Adagio of Mahler's Ninth has sometimes been compared to that of Beethoven's last String Quartet (Op.135). For us, Bruckner's Ninth Symphony may provide the most obvious model, though when it was premièred posthumously in Vienna in 1903, his Te Deum was inserted in place of the Finale that Bruckner failed to complete before his death in 1896. Mahler's Adagio ending, like that to Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony (of 1893), was fully intended to be the close of the work.

The Finale stands in absolute and complete contrast to the Scherzo and Rondo-Burleske. Where they delivered a succession of ironic voices, thrown around the orchestra in a mad whirl, the Adagio presents one of his most intense statements of an authentic lyrical voice. It is signalled in its solemn and hymn-like gait, but above all in the intensity of tone that he wrings from the close scoring of the strings. That the orchestra stands in for a kind of internalised singing voice is underlined by the drawn out and unaccompanied anacrusis with which the movement begins - its upward reach, turn figure and painfully accented descent are like an extremely slowed-down and exaggerated version of a singer's decoration of a cadence, before returning to the main melody of an aria. Here, and repeatedly throughout this movement, Mahler stretches his musical voice almost to breaking point. As Adorno put it: 'He charges tonality with an expression that it is no longer constituted to bear. Overstretched, its voice cracks...The forced tone itself becomes expressive.'

Once again, progress is defined by the alternation of two different types of music - the richly scored, passionate and painfully beautiful opening, and a passage of bare, two-part music, shocking for its apparent emptiness and marked to be played 'without emotion'. But the hymn-like tread of the opening music is constantly misdirected from its goal by a spiralling chord sequence first heard in the first waltz of the Scherzo. The arrival and closure for which this music seems to strive is constantly withheld. Yet in spite of everything - the emptiness of the silences, the absence of arrival, the dissolution of the voice - the music continues. If the Ninth is indeed a farewell, it does not 'go gentle into that good night'.

Nobody who feels this music intensely would be so crass as to attempt to say 'what it is' that Mahler's music sings about. What lingers long after the resonance of the last fragile notes have died away into silence, is that he did - that such a passionate singing was voiced. As all three preceding movements have done, the Finale also ends by means of a gradual process of fragmentation, but whereas the middle movements break down or fall apart, the Finale gently dissolves, its constituent lines, no longer held together, evaporate one by one. The final Adagissimo must be the longest last page in music history, as the remaining fragments of melodic lines, receding into the distance, are gradually reclaimed by an incoming tide of silence.

© Julian Johnson