For the NEC Philharmonia's final concert of the season on April 29, NEC's Calderwood Director of Orchestras Hugh Wolff has programmed Gustav Mahler's final completed symphony, the Ninth. In the following notes, Wolff walks through the stories told in this epic, four-movement work that is filled with "grandeur, passion, and longing … wit and sarcasm."
Wolff's conducting students offer an unusual experience to re-experience Mahler the following night, with a performance of his Fourth Symphony.
Not a Farewell?
In 1907, three fateful events changed Gustav Mahler’s life forever. In April he resigned after a decade as director of the Vienna State Opera. His leadership had been turbulent: despite dramatically raising the standard of performance and increasing the breadth of repertoire, he had been dogged by political infighting and anti-Semitic attacks. In July his four-year-old daughter Maria died of rheumatic fever. And then Mahler himself was diagnosed with a heart defect and advised by his doctors to drastically restrict his activities. But Mahler was not the type to slow down. On January 1, 1908, he made his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with Tristan und Isolde and conducted concerts with the New York Symphony. That summer he wrote Das Lied von der Erde, and the following year returned to New York to lead the New York Philharmonic, with which he had signed a three-year contract. The Ninth Symphony was written in the summer of 1909. Though often morbidly preoccupied with death, Mahler did not imagine the Ninth as his farewell. In fact, he began work on his Tenth Symphony immediately after finishing the Ninth, as if to deny Fate the opportunity to stop him after nine, as it had Beethoven and Bruckner. In a letter to his protégé Bruno Walter, written as he was finishing the symphony’s first draft, Mahler refers to it simply as a “very worthwhile addition to my little family [of symphonies].”
Such understatement hardly begins to describe the symphony’s power and originality. It is Mahler’s first symphony since his Sixth with four movements, but these are not the four of Beethoven and Bruckner. The outer movements, each about twenty-five minutes, are slower and full of grandeur, passion, and longing. The inner movements, together about twenty-five minutes, are sharply etched dance movements of wit and sarcasm.
Alban Berg described the first movement:
“It is the expression of a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully and to enjoy nature to its deepest depths—before death comes. For death is inevitable. This whole movement is dominated by the presentiment of death, which makes itself known again and again over the movement's course. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense eruptions following the most gentle passages, and of course this intensity is strongest in the horrible moment where death becomes a certainty, where, in the middle of the deepest, most poignant longing for life, death makes itself known 'with the greatest violence.' Against that, there is no resistance."
The massive canvas begins with a quiet stuttering note described by Bruno Walter as resembling Mahler’s somewhat ungainly walk and by Leonard Bernstein as the irregular heartbeat of a man diagnosed with a heart valve problem. As in several Mahler symphonic movements, acceptance, even resignation, battles with passion and the will to go on: D major and a two-note sighing appoggiatura, heard in the second violins at the beginning, alternates with D minor and passionate rising figures. The conflict is left unresolved: the quiet coda ends with a single high D, neither major nor minor, in the cellos and piccolo.
The second movement is a Ländler, a folk dance in triple meter, with the instruction “somewhat stumbling and very coarse.” The second violins take the lead with a tune marked “heavy-footed, like fiddlers.” This morphs first into a quicker waltz, then a slower Ländler that is almost a lullaby. Mahler plays around with these, mixing and matching melodic material from one dance with the tempo of another.
The third movement, marked “very defiant,” is a headlong rondo with hyperactive counterpoint. About six minutes in, the mood abruptly changes, the trumpet playing a quiet melody characterized by four equal notes revolving like an ornament around a single pitch. This unexpected gesture ushers in an extended calm passage, with simple melody replacing all the counterpoint and fury. Though the defiant music returns and the movement rushes to a bitter close, the listener is left with the question mark of the quiet central section.
The Finale starts to answer that question: the four-note figure reappears immediately, now the central expressive melodic figure in a passionate string hymn. As in the first movement, Mahler alternates between diametrically opposed moods: rich, yearning, ecstatic music interrupted by quiet, eerie, Zen-like calm. Twice the ecstatic music tries to achieve the kind of apotheosis we hear in Mahler’s Second, Third and Eighth symphonies. The first time, the violins are left alone, furiously repeating a single fortissimo C flat. The second time, the music disintegrates, the same C flat rising to a ghostly pianissimo C natural. A gentle falling glissando in the second violins ushers in one of the most astonishing symphonic codas ever written. Yearning gives way to acceptance. Passion is drained away. The strings alone, never louder than pianissimo, try to hold a melody together but it breaks into fragments. The first violins quote Mahler’s own Kindertotenlieder at the moment the singer describes the feeling of a parent who has lost a child—the feeling that the child has just gone out and will return. “I will meet them again in the sunlight—the day is beautiful on these heights.” The music fades into nothingness. This from a man who had lost a child just two years prior, and was facing his own mortality. As Berg said, “Against that, there is no resistance."