Program notes for November 22, 2014


Mahler: Symphony No. 9

Gustav Mahler's ninth symphony is often seen as his musical farewell, although he was working on his tenth when he succumbed to a blood infection a few weeks before his fifty-first birthday. According to conductor Bruno Walter's biography of his friend, "for Beethoven and Bruckner, a Ninth was written finis. [Mahler] hesitated to challenge fate." Mahler's wife Alma (who is not always a reliable source) claimed that his previous symphonic work, which would have been his ninth if it had been numbered, was named Das Lied von der Erde just to avoid the fatal "curse" of the number 9.

Whether Mahler was concerned about any curse is of less importance than the fact that his life had taken a decisive turn after weathering several blows in 1907. He had resigned a position as artistic director of the Vienna Court Opera, due to anti-Semitism. He had lost his young daughter Maria to scarlet fever and diphtheria. He had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Yet between 1907 and his death in 1911, Mahler completed Das Lied, directed the New York Metropolitan Opera and then became director of the New York Philharmonic, and gave concerts throughout Europe. And in the summer of 1909, he completed his Symphony No. 9 in his "composing hut" in Toblach, in the Dolomite mountains of South Tyrol. The symphony was not performed in his lifetime. In 1910 he began work on his tenth symphony, but fell ill that winter in New York with an infection that became bacterial endocarditis, a condition common to those suffering from defective heart valves. Antibiotics were not yet available, and though Mahler returned to Europe and sought treatment in Paris and Vienna, he died in May, 1911.

The Ninth Symphony opens quietly, with a halting rhythmic figure that sets the structure for the first movement. Leonard Bernstein thought this rhythm represented Mahler's own irregular heartbeat. The second violins and a solo horn then introduce the lovely main theme. A darker second theme emerges, then a series of fanfares herald the development, full of wild extremes. The "halting pulse" continues throughout, either in the tolling harp or, at the climax, in thundering trombones. After these emotional outbursts, the coda is once again quiet, with what critic Michael Steinberg calls "simultaneous monologues of … dissociated instruments." A single flute and violin bring the first movement to its close.

The second movement is one of Mahler's grotesque scherzos, beginning with a Ländler (country dance) that the composer described as "leisurely, clumsy, heavy-footed, coarse." A second waltz is lighter and quicker, and a final Ländler more sentimental, with lilting motifs in the violins and oboe. The three themes alternate in a way that seems almost without direction. The movement, like its predecessor, doesn't end as much as break into fragments and silence.

The urgent Rondo-Burleske displays Mahler's mastery of counterpoint, with three motifs vying for our attention in feverish motion. Its trio is more serene, with a trumpet transforming one of the frantic ­figures into a lyrical song. This turns out to be one of the main themes of the Finale, as if, in the middle of the throes of death-denial, the composer has a premonition of acceptance and peace. Thus do composers create webs of thematic and emotional interconnections between movements. But we have only a few moments to catch our breath before the opening demons reappear and the movement comes to a dramatic close.

The final Adagio is marked sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend: "Very slow and yet still hesitating." It opens with a lush, longing hymn in the strings. To this, however, Mahler provides something unexpected—a quiet solo bassoon, which interrupts the hymn momentarily. The hymn continues in variations, but the bassoon's solo becomes a haunting exploration of high (strings) and low (contrabassoon) tones. Phrases from the Burleske appear, as well as themes from Das Lied. A final set of variations comes to a climax, but in the quiet that follows, the cellos begin whispering a slow motif. Muted strings play pianississimo. A melody from Mahler's Kindertotenlieder is sounded by first violins. The music recedes, and the movement dissolves into silence. Are these Mahler's musical last breaths? Or is it the sound of a spirit soaring quietly to heaven? It is a measure of Mahler's artistry that his music can evoke so many beautiful, haunting images with these final quiet notes.

— Barbara Heninger