Mahler Sym 9

Severance Hall
January 11 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
January 12 – Friday at 8:00 p.m.
January 13 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.


Symphony No. 9

Gustav Mahler   (1860-1911)
composed 1909-11

At a Glance
Mahler composed most of his Ninth Symphony between late June and early September 1909, although some sketches may have existed from earlier that year or as early as the year before. He completed the full orchestral draft later in 1909, and had finished the full score by the beginning of April 1910. He reviewed and marked a printer’s proof of the score in early 1911. The symphony was first performed more than a year after Mahler’s death, with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic on June 26, 1912. The work was introduced to the United States in October 1931, by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

This four-movement symphony runs about 80 minutes. Mahler scored it for piccolo, 4 flutes, 4 oboes (fourth doubling english horn), 3 clarinets, small clarinet in E-flat, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (fourth doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (two players), percussion (bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, glockenspiel, 3 low-pitched chimes), harp, and strings.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in November 1948 under George Szell’s direction. It has been programmed occasionally since then, most recently in October 2005 under Franz Welser-Möst’s direction.

The Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi recorded Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in 1997 for Decca. A live concert performance led by George Szell was included as part of the Szell Centennial Compact Disc Edition released by the Orchestra in 1997.

About the Music
Franz Welser-Möst has prepared the following comments about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony:

A lot has been written and said about Mahler’s Ninth. It was the last symphony he completed — and is often viewed as his personal farewell. It is a mystical work, in which Mahler shares with us reflections on his search for transcendence in and from this world.

Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony rather quickly and quietly across the summer of 1909. As he worked, he discussed this music with almost no one.

This was a time of reflection and consideration. Mahler’s life had changed in many ways in the previous two years. Internal politics and intrigue had forced him to resign as general music director of the Vienna State Opera in 1907. That summer, one of his daughters died suddenly. At the same time, his own weakened heart was diagnosed — and his doctors advised him to stop taking the long, vigorous walks and swims he so enjoyed and so counted on to clear his mind and help distill his thoughts.

In the coming years, Mahler at times ignored his doctors’ advice. His own career as a conductor, afterall, was one of strenuous exertion, and he actively continued this work as he began a new chapter of his life in New York, first with the Metropolitan Opera and then with the New York Philharmonic. And we know now that his doctors were overly cautious in their concern — without the blood infection that Mahler suffered in 1911, he could have actively lived for a decade and more, even with his heart valve condition.

After writing nothing in the troubled year of 1907, Mahler resumed his normal composition schedule in the summer of 1908 — upon returning to Austria between seasons in New York — to work on what he eventually titled Das Lied von der Erde [The Song of the Earth]. Subtitled a “symphony,” Das Lied features two vocal soloists, across six movements, who take turns singing about life’s joys and pains, and mortality’s final farewell.

Again in 1909, the Mahlers sailed back to Europe for the summer. They stopped first in Paris, where Mahler sat for Auguste Rodin, who was to create a bust of this world-famous musician. He also corresponded about plans to conduct his Seventh Symphony in Amsterdam that autumn, and about the premiere of his Eighth Symphony the following year.

Creating a new symphony
By June, Mahler had secluded himself in quarters of a rented house near Toblach in the southern Alps. The first part of the summer, Alma was in nearby Levico on the other side of the mountains, taking treatment at the famous spa there. This left Mahler to concentrate on his work (and to complain in letters to Alma about how and when and what food was served to him without her careful and thoughtful planning).

By late June, Mahler had begun serious work on his next symphony, completing most of it by the beginning of September. Superstitious about writing a “Ninth” symphony, he did not give the score a title on paper, nor did he talk about it in any detail with friends who visited. (He finally labeled it as “Symphony No. 9” while completing the full orchestral score the next year.)

For the Ninth, Mahler returned to a more traditional format for a symphony, of four movements. From this appearance of normality, however, he builds the work in unusual ways, both in order and in harmonic form.

If we look at the work’s overall structure, we notice that Mahler arranges it with two outer slow movements surrounding two faster, more agitated, shorter movements. The long opening Andante movement is followed by a dance-filled Scherzo. Then comes a maniacal, sarcastic Allegro, followed by a lengthy — and intimate — concluding Adagio.

Some of this he had done in previous symphonies.   The Second and Third’s longest movements are at the start and finish. The Sixth, too, ends at length. And, like the Ninth, the Third ends in a large Adagio, seeking transcendence within Mahler’s long and repeated phrases. Earlier symphonies, too, had included themes shared, or shadowed, between movements.

But the size and contrasts of the movements are only part of the story. In the Ninth, Mahler also signals to us his ideas and intentions through his key choices. When we look at the harmonic structure, we find something highly unusual, almost as if Mahler has finally tossed away the notion of harmonic unity and progression in a symphony: the first movement is in D major (human triumph), the second in C major (optimism), the third in A minor (melancholy), and the last one in D-flat major (bittersweet farewell).

Here, as so often with Mahler, he is using a surface of normality (what can be more usual than a symphony in four movements?) to lead us to deep levels of the soul, and to wrestle with struggles for human fulfillment and understanding. Like all of his works, this symphony is a journey.

I am quite certain there is meaning in the tonal structure of D / C / a / D-flat. When I look at this, I believe the “DCA” stands for “da capo al” and is an unfinished “Da capo al fine” (literally Italian for “from the head” or, for musicians, “from the beginning”). In this context, in the understood meaning behind different keys, the D-flat major at the end stands for the mixed joys and sad sweetness of farewell, for the kind of poignantly mixed feelings that an ending brings — such as the closing moments of Wagner’s four-opera Ring of the Nibelung, ending in D-flat major. Every life begins and ends, and is filled with cherished moments, but also with things left unfinished.

Movement by movement
Let us now examine how this plays out across the four movements.

At the opening of the first movement, Mahler begins with two notes played very softly in a rhythm that reminds us of a beating heart. Some have suggested that this is an irregular heartbeat, mirroring Mahler’s own, but almost all evidence suggests that Mahler’s heart valve problem did not manifest itself in an arrhythmical beat. Perhaps the irregular aspect of this rhythm is merely how Mahler portrays the idea of a heartbeat. This is followed by four notes played by the harp, an instrument often associated with heaven. Later in the symphony, these four notes turn out to be a musical symbol standing for death bells. But here at the start, they are immediately followed by a stopped horn (representing the pained human soul) uttering a musical motif of the cross, accompanied by trembling notes in the violas. Thus, in just the first few measures, we have musical symbols for mortality, heaven, death bells, the cross (or, more generally, burdens) that one carries in life, and anguish.

All of this comes before and sets the stage for Mahler to write the movement’s first theme, which portrays farewell, quite literally, for in his sketches Mahler labeled it “Lebewohl” (or “farewell”), with the music quoting or mirroring the downward phrase directly from Beethoven’s Farewell Sonata. This and the phrasing of the music suggest we are looking back. The end is the beginning, or the beginning shows us the end, and we are now going to review life’s journey in reverse.

Twice in the first movement, the musical development seems to be reaching toward a positive climax in a major key. But, instead, it results in a feeling of catastrophe. This sense of trying and not succeeding pervades the entire first movement. At one point, Mahler quotes a waltz by Johann Strauss: Freuet euch des Lebens [“Enjoy Life,“ Opus 340]. Sarcastic? No, I don’t think so. Sarcasm will come later. This is merely irony, in the way that life brings together good with bad, or happiness mixed with sadness. Mahler has chosen to write in D major, the key of human triumph, but he undermines that basic meaning with opposite expressions — of farewell, of a funeral march, of depression, and anguish. From this mixture, examined and developed at length, he ends the movement in a state of uncertain melancholy and remembrance, with a last chord stated like a question mark.

The second movement is a scherzo built on dance rhythms. Here Mahler uses three different ones: an opening Ländler (marked “Etwas täppisch und sehr derb” — “somewhat awkward and rather rough”), a waltz, and then a slow Ländler. All of this, in Mahler’s hands, becomes a caricature of a “dance of life.” This is merriment and fun, the “good times” portrayed with bitter and animated feelings — what Mahler called the “Lebenstrudel,” the commotion and bustling activity of everyday life. Here, indeed, we have sarcasm.

The third movement is labelled “Rondo-Burleske,” to which Mahler added a cynical dedication to his “Brothers of Apollo,” meaning his composing colleagues, especially (as the music suggests through sarcasm) the ones he didn’t respect. This movement expresses much furor at the absurdity of the world, with the music taking or making unexpected turns and twisting commentary on itself. Part of this is as a fugue structure, amplifying the sarcasm against his colleagues by showing his own skill, even with such unusual musical material. (Of course, Richard Wagner had done much the same thing with his fugal treatment of themes in the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, thumbing his nose at critics who thought he was unlearned in music traditions.)

Toward the end of the movement, Mahler focuses on a contrasting idea, of paradise. But, again through the music, we understand that such a paradise does not actually exist. Here, he also introduces an “Überschlag” (or “somersault”), a kind of circling musical phrase, which Wagner had often used to represent love, for instance in Isolde’s “Liebestod” or Love-Death in Tristan and Isolde. But the musical context, here in the Ninth Symphony, tells us that love in paradise is not real. Indeed. And the movement lurches forward again, and we are given a wild, adamant, violently sarcastic ending.

Then comes the last movement, built on an arching theme from an angelic chorale (“Abide My Lord”) across thirteen (!!!) variations, culminating with an important Coda. (Overall, this movement can be seen as both a continuation and completion of the Ninth’s first movement and as a parallel movement to the great long adagio ending Mahler’s Third, which also affirms life’s mystery and power, but in quite a different way.) First, there is a short introduction starting with a “godly” octave sweeping up, along with the “Überschlag,” again symbolizing Love. The chorale variations then commence and are juxtaposed with, or sometimes are twisted against or intertwined with, music of a rather ghostly and uncertain kind — low growls and high strains. The two musical worlds wrestle, to move forward or fall apart.

Eventually, after Mahler has explored a range of emotions across the chorale’s thirteen variations, it seems that the music is reaching a climax. Against this, however, there are also conflicting feelings, of the music seeming to disintegrate or de-materialize, sometimes into single strands or voices. Then, in a long line, drawn out by the violins, Mahler quotes from his own heartbreaking song cycle Kindertotenlieder [“Songs on the Death of Children”], expanding the final line of the third song and phrasing over the words “Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n” [“The day is beautiful on yonder heights”]. Mahler is signaling that he is still looking for hope and purpose. Yet, at the same time, he also understands how uncertain life is for each of us, and especially, perhaps, for him personally. The time before his own death is limited — perhaps years lie ahead, perhaps much less. He does not know. But he understands that the end will come. He is accepting the fact of death.

Slowly, in a beautiful, quietly-voiced agony of emotion, the music itself accepts the inevitable. The finality is underlined by the drawn out ending phrases, which lead us — slowly, quietly, almost imperceptibly — into a stillness that seems infinite.

Franz Welser-Möst © 2018

The 2017-18 season marks Franz Welser-Möst’s sixteenth year as music director of The Cleveland Orchestra.