Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mahler's Symphony No. 9: Up Close & Personal

The following is my pre-concert talk for the Harrisburg Symphony's performances today and tomorrow of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9.

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When I started thinking about what I could possibly say about this work that could fit into 20 minutes, I kept thinking of one of my colleagues at the University of Connecticut who started out preparing a few lectures on Mahler’s Symphonies which eventually became a semester-long course. If you want the ultimate biography of the composer, check out the one by Henri-Louis de la Grange who wanted to write a more complete telling of Mahler’s life and ended up writing a four-volume work... I have the Vol. 2 and Vol. 3, each one about a thousand pages long: Vol. 4 was published last March and at 1,072 pages sells retail for $140...

Mahler was not a prolific composer. He was busier as a conductor most of his life which allowed him to spend only a couple of months each summer composing, sometimes a movement or two of a symphony, sometimes just a couple of songs. He wrote only symphonies and songs – after his mid-20s, he wrote no chamber music, no concertos and, curiously for someone who was primarily an opera conductor, no operas (perhaps he knew better).

Many people’s first reactions to Mahler’s symphonies is how long they are. The shortest ones are about an hour long. Some of them are almost 90 minutes long. Depending on the tempos taken, this one, his last completed symphony, runs about 80 minutes. It’s the only work on the program so there is no intermission – given that information, you might want to consider a visit to the rest rooms before the concert begins: it might be the most important thing I say, here...

Another thing that people may be surprised to find in his music is how complex they are. I could spend a lot of time talking about his harmony, how he used his thematic and harmonic material in light of what else was going on musically around him – particularly regarding a young composer whom he, at least initially, reluctantly befriended named Arnold Schoenberg. Compared to what had been written before, Mahler was the leading light for New Music in German Culture, especially after Richard Strauss went all neo-classical with Der Rosenkavalier around 1911, the year Mahler died, when the young avant-garde composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky were writing Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring.

One of the great things about great art, though, is how that complexity – and not just in a technical sense but in an intellectual and aesthetic sense – allows for different interpretations, for new things to discover each time to come to it. When I was talking to Stuart Malina about this performance, he said this is the first time he’s conducted it – it’s the sort of piece that will reveal more about itself with repeated performances (or from a listener’s standpoint, repeated hearings). He was delighted, after the first run-through on Thursday how well the orchestra was playing it, just reading through it. There were things I heard here that were cleaner than in some of the recordings I’ve heard.

I don’t want to say it’s a difficult work to come to know, since I don’t want to scare you off, but it’s a challenging work to play. After playing three intense movements for an hour, then you get to play the slow movement which, while it may not have the fast notes and the wild climaxes some of the others have, it may be the most intense to play. And it lasts another twenty minutes!

There are lots of questions that have to be answered in rehearsals and conveyed quickly to save time. One concerns Mahler’s obsessive details about dynamics – not only between sections of contrasting loud and soft passages, but even at the same time. Some of this is to bring out the proper balance, having, say, the bass clarinet (a usually quiet instrument) able to be heard through a denser texture of strings and bassoons, so he marks the bass clarinet forte (loud) and the rest piano (soft). A bass clarinetist might think that’s a misprint. At one point, everyone is playing different strands of music, mostly loud and louder, but the 2nd Violins are playing the same the thing horns are playing fortissimo, but they are marked piano! It has more to do with color and the orchestrational effects Mahler – a famous conductor and orchestral technician – was trying to produce. The curious thing is, he never had a chance to rehearse the 9th Symphony. He frequently would revise things and change his mind about things, alter something because, for this performance, this was better, perhaps, and if not rework certain passages that didn’t perform well for whatever reason, he certainly changed details like articulation and dynamics as well as the order of movements, even deleted one, and made other changes before a work would be published. So we wonder, looking at this immense detail on the page, what kinds of things he might have changed – or added – or clarified?

As Leonard Bernstein says in his “Four Ways to Say Farewell,” his “personal introduction” to Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony, “All Mahler symphonies look back nostalgically to the innocent past and having failed to find it, look forward (fearfully or hopefully) to some sense of resolution.” In the 9th, each movement a farewell: the 1st is a farewell to tenderness, passion - human love; the 2nd and 3rd are farewells to life – first to country life, then to urban society; the finale is a farewell to life itself.

The first thing we hear is “a premonition of death” - the irregular rhythm that Bernstein was convinced represented Mahler’s irregular heartbeat. A heart specialist may argue that what Bernstein describes as “an irregular heart beat” is not quite accurate, medically speaking. The term would imply a heartbeat that is erratic, sometimes faster or slower than it ought to be, but Mahler’s rhythm is very regular in its irregularity – certainly not what a heartbeat should be, but not erratic. What Mahler had, actually, was a rheumatic heart with a heart murmur, the result of a bout of strep throat that sidelined him much of the summer of 1897 when he was first appointed conductor (and shortly, director) of the Vienna Opera, one of the most significant musical posts in Vienna (and in the German-speaking world) at the time. He was 37 years old that summer.

Ten years later, shortly after Mahler’s 5-year-old daughter died, a physician came to the house to comfort Mahler’s wife, Alma, who was suffering from the kind of grief and depression you might expect a mother to be feeling following the death of her child. Mahler rather casually suggested that the doctor examine him at the same time, perhaps as a way of comforting Alma, and that’s when the doctor told him he had a heart murmur and should be examined more thoroughly. He was diagnosed with “post-rheumatic heart disease” which in those days was treated by reducing the patient’s activities so as not to strain the heart any further. Mahler, a vigorous and busy conductor who liked to hike and mountain-climb, was not one to be treated like an invalid – especially as he would be leaving Vienna soon to take up the directorship of the orchestra that later became the New York Philharmonic – and yet psychologically the news was definitely traumatic.

And ironically, only the year before, he had premiered his 6th Symphony with its finale – a movement that lasts more than a half-hour itself – that includes three “hammerblows of fate” played literally by a percussionist pounding a large wooden box with a huge hammer, symbolizing three blows of fate, each one knocking the hero down until the third one which, as Alma described it, “fells him like a tree.” After the first two hammer-blows, the music slowly rebuilds to resume a more forceful, positive outcome but after the third one, there is no recovery and the music fades away to the dismal, vanquished end, chopped off by the most brutal final chord in the symphonic repertoire.

(Curiously, this was written during one of the happiest periods of his life!)

So here, a year later, Mahler is dealing with the death of his 5-year-old daughter and the news he has a heart condition – small wonder, whenever he conducted the 6th Symphony again, he took out that third hammer-blow...

How close this condition was to killing Mahler at the time is hard to say: after he suffered the original infection at the age of 37, he returned to Vienna in August to conduct Wagner’s Lohengrin, Gounod's Faust (a last-minute replacement w/out a rehearsal), Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, Otto Nikolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, Meyerbeer’s La Prophete, Weber’s Der Freischutz and Mozart’s Don Giovanni – all in one month (that’s 8 different operas in four weeks) all the while preparing new productions of a complete Ring Cycle that began at the end of that month...

But at 47, he was a different man and his heart had no doubt weakened over the decade. He had married Alma Schindler in 1902 – he was 41, she was 22 – and she had once wrote that she was frightened by the “whistling” she had heard in his heart-beat. It is this heart beat – two pulses, a pause, a slightly different sound with the ‘whistle’ – that Mahler captures at the beginning of the symphony: two pulses in the cellos, a pause, and the whistled beat in the french horn.

Mahler knew he had this heart condition and he knew it would probably kill him, sooner or later. But symphonies are not to be about anything, theoretically – it was in 1907, just before his diagnosis, that Sibelius and Mahler had their famous discussion about “what is a symphony” – Sibelius defined it as something abstract and abstract with its severity of form and its profound logic which Mahler summarily dismissed with a wave of his hand. To him, “a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

People argue that Mahler’s symphonies are beyond programmatic music – that they’re not autobiographical. Yet Mahler came down from composing the first movement of his 6th Symphony one morning to tell Alma he had just created a theme that was supposed to be a portrait of her. A passage in the symphony’s scherzo was inspired by watching his children playing in the sand. The opening of the 7th Symphony also came to him from a non-musical source – the dipping of a boat’s oars into the water as he rowed across the lake one summer night – which though it might not supply a programmatic element to the music is at least an extra-musical inflection from Mahler’s reality, except to say the whole symphony is imbued with nocturnal elements.

So why wouldn’t Mahler take the rhythm of his own heart as a starting place, whether the piece is about his heart-beat or not?

There is another fact to keep in mind, here. Mahler was generally not a superstitious man, even if he did delete the third hammer blow from his 6th Symphony. But he was also aware that Beethoven wrote 9 symphonies and died; and Bruckner, one of his own teachers, had died before completing the last movement of his 9th Symphony. At the time, that’s all he would have been aware of: Dvorak had only published 5 of his 9 symphonies, no one knew how many symphonies Schubert had written (the Great C Major, his last symphony, would later be considered his 7th, his 9th or his 10th), even Ludwig Spohr (once very popular) had published nine symphonies (he completed a tenth but never published it). Later, Ralph Vaughan Williams would die shortly after completing his 9th Symphony. And so on. But this “curse of the 9th” was very real to Mahler: he did not want to become one of its statistics. If he ever failed at anything, it was at that: avoiding the curse of the 9th...

Mahler tried to outwit this by not calling the vast song-cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” - The Song of the Earth – a symphony, even if it really could be considered one. The 8th, the immense “Symphony of a Thousand,” is hardly any more a symphony than “Das Lied von der Erde.” So in a way, he was probably thinking his Symphony No. 9 was really the tenth one he wrote. As it turned out, he had completed only two movements and considerable sketches for the rest of what would be his Symphony No. 10 when he died in 1911. His last completed symphony, his 9th. was premiered a year after his death by his friend and protege, Bruno Walter. Perhaps, after finishing the symphony we’ll hear today, he should’ve gone back, retitled the recently completed “Das Lied von der Erde” as the Symphony No. 9 and called this one his Symphony No. 10...?

Anyway, getting back to his heart-beat, this rhythmic idea which you’ll hear throughout this first movement becomes a kind of “fate motive” just like the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th or the pounding march rhythm that pervades Mahler’s own 6th Symphony which is a kind of direct obverse or negative of a symphony that triumphantly overcomes Fate. But as the 9th opens, this rhythm is very gentle, unassuming, tentative perhaps – only later, as it appears at certain climactic points, does it begin to take on the aspect of a “Fate Rhythm,” a dramatic emphasis appearing at climaxes marked “triple forte” not very different from those hammer-blows in the 6th Symphony – the music collapses and tries to rebuild. The first movement is still all about Fate though nothing so pessimistic in outlook as the earlier symphony, the one he himself described as his “Tragic Symphony.”

With this heart-beat motive are coupled other musical germs – the harp notes that immediately follow, becoming another, perhaps more regular version of this heart-beat; the horn call which, in one form or another, permeates the textures and themes of the movement (though one could argue it does that in most Mahler symphonies). The first real theme is based on a falling motive that fits the word “Lebwohl” – “Farewell”. Some say it is quoted from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major which we usually know in French as the “Les Adieux” Sonata, a work Mahler played, by the way, as part of his final performance examination when he was a student at the conservatory. Sometimes the theme is suggested only by a simple two-note gesture of a falling interval, sometimes in thirds, often in the horns – like taking the word “Farewell” out of the whole sentence, that whole paragraph he builds out of it, but still implying, quite powerfully, everything that complete thought could say.

Throughout the first movement, you hear these three elements – these two heart-beat motives and the Farewell Motive – constantly intertwined. At times, it turns into a march – at one point, he labels it “Like a Procession” (“Wie ein Kondukt”) which is usually translated as Funeral March. But he had written funeral marches in his first movements before – in the 2nd Symphony and again in the 5th. There are moments of intense passion and great tenderness, with all the contrast in this movement. It’s easy to say that everything in this first movement – which is almost a half-hour long by itself – comes from these few opening motives.

Near the very end is a very strange passage featuring a solo flute, a solo horn and the cellos and basses rumbling along with their own solo line. Aside from its rhythmic complexity, the chamber-music-like texture is striking, coming at the conclusion of this often dense movement: the horn-call is like a song of nature, the flute’s trills bring to mind bird-calls, quietly grounded by the basses – something composer Alban Berg described as “a vision of the here-after.”

If this huge first movement is a farewell to love, the second movement is a farewell to the pleasures of country life, as Bernstein describes it. Aside from growing up in the Bohemian countryside, Mahler spent his summers in the Austrian countryside composing and spending much of his leisure time walking, bicycling and mountain-climbing. This might be considered part of his nostalgic search for the innocence of youth.

Outwardly, it is a dance movement, a country ländler (a rustic predecessor of the more stylized Viennese waltz) where Mahler quotes or implies a couple of Bohemian folk-songs which he’d used in some of his earlier songs. But there is an almost kaleidoscopic fracturing of the mood these images set up, usually through extreme contrasts, whether it’s tempos or dynamics or sudden outbursts, an underlying sarcasm and bitterness that makes this scherzo not so much a humorous “joke,” as the word means literally, but a philosophical one.

For all its low-class humor, this movement is one of the most sophisticated Mahler ever wrote and probably the most difficult one in this symphony to perform – and to interpret. Mahler, throughout this symphony, is obsessive with his attention to detail, the markings and the dynamics, how he describes the mood of a section and so on. It’s difficult when a passage is overwhelmingly loud – marked forte or double forte, perhaps with a crescendo – and yet some instruments may have their parts marked soft – piano or pianissimo – and sometimes even with a diminuendo. It’s hard to convince the contrabassoonist, for instance, who usually exists just to rattle the floor-boards with his lowest notes like a deep organ-pipe, that this one passage near the end is really a solo marked forte though it will probably produce something more of a rumble than a tune. Then too, the bitterness and sarcasm doesn’t come across if the dynamics aren’t played correctly – in rehearsal, Stuart was constantly admonishing the players to make the piano sections softer so there’s more contrast when it gets louder.

The third movement, a second scherzo, is another problem. One minute it’s sprightly, and then suddenly it turns hysterical and finally demonic. Here, Stuart was often telling them “it’s too nice.” This movement is subtitled “Burlesque” – in the sense that it becomes a take-off on the expected as well as a perversion of what started out as a lively picture of urban life and its joys and social whirl. But as the movement progresses, it becomes increasingly more manic and vile. Written in 1909, this is Europe teetering on the verge of what would eventually become World War One – political and social tensions that had been fermenting not far below the surface since the end of the 19th Century before it finally broke through five years after Mahler completed the symphony.

If Mahler loved country life, he associated city living with his job at the Vienna Opera where as the Director he was constantly embattled with the administration, the Board, the patrons and critics as well as the singers who often fought him on his reforms, both as conductor and stage director. He fought for the “ideal” but could never attain it and in fact he quit the Opera in 1907 after ten stormy years in the corner office. He was very bitter about this leave-taking and that is very much reflected in this seemingly light-hearted movement that quickly goes awry.

There is a quote from Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” – or rather, an allusion to it - a work that premiered a few years earlier. Alma writes in her memoirs that she and Mahler had gone to hear the operetta and enjoyed it, going home afterwards and dancing to these tunes, especially one they both particularly liked. But they couldn’t remember how the rest of it went. So the next day, rather than buy the music outright, they went to a music store and while the famous conductor discussed how business was going with the shop-manager, Alma riffled through the sheet music until she found the tune they were looking for. When she told Mahler she’d found the spot, he politely broke off the conversation and they left. Out in the street, she then sang the rest of the tune to him so they would remember how it went when they got home. Sort of the early version of illegal downloading, I guess...

It seems odd that a composer like Mahler, composing vast symphonies full of drama and tragedy, should be whistling waltzes from operettas. Generally, he rarely indulged any taste for lighter music, though one thinks of Brahms hanging out in the taverns listening to the authentic gypsy bands from Hungary or considering himself a No. 1 Fan of Johann Strauss. Mahler was not quite so egalitarian. True, his love of folk-music is genuine and life-affirming: urban popular music is something else, again.

So what’s it doing in here? Because Mahler liked the tune? Because Mahler considered it the epitome of Viennese popular taste pitted against his own work, his own music, the way many “serious” musicians and music-lovers today might complain about how many people consider the likes of Andre Rieu or Andrea Bocelli as examples of High Culture? Because it represented the popular culture of a decadent society on the brink of collapse?

Not to be outdone, Mahler takes his Lehar allusion and follows it with an even more vulgar popular-style tune in the horn. Burlesque now becomes Grotesque. He takes this banal material and turns it into one of the most intellectual of all musical procedures – a fugue! Then there’s an interruption, something that sounds like “music from the beyond,” as if in the midst of this maddening whirl, Mahler comes up with a new idea of his own, completely different, as if he tries to impose it on the craziness going on around him. But instead it is immediately distorted – one remark he made about it ironically referring to his “friends” the critics – and brought into the orgiastic swirl of the dance-hall. It is somewhat shocking to realize that, in a few moments, we will hear the idealized version of this tune because it becomes the opening hymn-like theme of the final movement, the last of the farewells in this whole symphony of farewells. In the third movement, it could be a farewell to city life and its grim jollity – but it could also be “good riddance” as well.

If Mahler associated Vienna with its rejection of his ideals at the opera house – if not out-right rejection, the concept that for ten years he had been fighting the good fight and had only then realized why does everything have to be a fight? – at least in the symphonies he composed, he could create his ideal world.

A standard symphony would’ve had four movements – and Mahler’s 9th has four movements – but the standard operating procedure would involve a weighty first movement, a slow contrasting movement, a minuet or a scherzo (something light-hearted by contrast) and then a finale that would usually assert some “happy ending” or at least a conclusive solution as the outcome of the previous movements.

But while Mahler’s first movement might bear the brunt of the formal drama it is technically an “andante” (or moderate tempo). Then he writes TWO scherzos in the middle which seem to be at odds with the outer two movements. He saves the slow movement for last.

It is subtitled “adagio” which means Slow, though Mahler marks the tempo “Molto Adagio” or Very Slow. Depending on how slow the conductor takes it, it could range from 18 to 26 minutes. Bruno Walter’s 1938 recording, a live broadcast from the days before the imminent Nazi take-over of Austria (speaking of farewells) runs 18:07; his recording in 1961 with the Columbia Symphony clocks in at 21:04. Pierre Boulez’s recording with Chicago in 1995 is 21:25 and Claudio Abbado’s 1999 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic runs over four minutes longer than that, at 25:56. It’s interesting to note the third movement, the shortest of the four at about 11 or 12 minutes, takes up 60 pages of full score. This final, slow movement takes up only 17 pages.

It’s unusual to end with a slow movement. Musicians usually joke about ending with something “fast and loud” to get the audience applauding enthusiastically. Mahler had done this in his 3rd Symphony but it still ends with life-affirming strength. Tchaikovsky ended his 6th Symphony, the Pathetique, with a mournful, pessimistic slow movement written in 1893 (he died just days after its premiere).

Mahler’s last movement is not depressed or mournful – if anything, it is consoling, almost “hopeful” about the peace one finds after death, whether there is an after-life or “other world” or not. As many people have written, the main difference between Bruckner and Mahler, two composers who both wrote very long symphonies, was that Mahler was always looking for God but that Bruckner had already found Him. When told that Mahler never seemed to be as close to God as he was at the moment he was so close to death in this 9th Symphony, Bruno Walter, who had been Mahler’s friend and assistant conductor, said “They are the same: on the other side of Death is eternity – Death is the doorway to God.”

If the opening theme sounds like the hymn “Abide with me” (whether Mahler actually knew that hymn is doubtful, though he might have heard it when he was in New York), the next section, after all this intensity, is so spare and suspended in time, it’s as if Mahler was engaging in a Zen kind of transcendental meditation – he had, after all, used Chinese poetry in “Das Lied von der Erde” and had used similar textures in these songs written a year earlier. He then returns to a more European spirituality and finally alternates between them, rallying his strength to another climax - but twice it collapses. The last one tries to rebuild but after a short while, it’s as if the composer has now accepted Fate – not quite the same conclusion as the three blows of fate in his 6th symphony he had written five years earlier – now, at the age of 49 and more through silence than notes, he attains, as Bernstein says, a “blissful serene acceptance of the ending of life.”

In the last 24 bars of the symphony Mahler quotes one of his own songs, from the last of the four “Kindertotenlieder,” the songs on the death of children he wrote when Alma was still pregnant with their second daughter, and for which he blamed himself when their first child died of scarlet fever shortly afterward. He uses the music setting the words “The day is beautiful from those heights,” the ultimate consolation. Just as it had done in the famous “Abschied” or Farewell that concludes “Das Lied von der Erde,” the music then slowly unwinds, breath by peaceful breath, until at the end - there is no more.

Mahler completed this symphony on the 2nd of September, 1909. He resumed his conducting responsibilities in New York – including in December, the 2nd performance of a new piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninoff, his Third (which, incidentally, is on the February program with the Harrisburg Symphony). In the summer of 1910, he began work on his 10th Symphony, He had discovered Alma was having an affair with a young architect named Walter Gropius which sent him into an emotional tailspin – some have felt this was really the third hammerblow which would fell him like a tree – and it was in this frame of mind he began writing his Tenth: he wrote in the sketches passionate notes to Alma accompanying equally passionate music, including more “farewells” – and in August he went for a single consultation with Sigmund Freud, the famous psychiatrist. He became ill – or more ill – in New York the following January, then returned to Vienna in May where he died six days later, just weeks before his 51st birthday.

As Mahler had told Sibelius, a symphony must be like the world, it must embrace everything. As classically-lined and as abstract as it may be for all its drama and its brutality, his 6th Symphony may have had a hero tormented by the hammer-blows of fate and if he was himself that hero, as Alma implied, certainly in the 9th Symphony, he has accepted the world and come face-to-face with the inevitability of Death and in that sense is no longer writing about himself. He has embraced everyone.

-- Dr. Dick


  1. I spent 3 years writing a novel about a young pianist/violinist whose life becomes a nightmare because of a crush one of his students has on him. Mahler is a dominant figure in the novel. Check it out at

  2. I am always surprised to read that the 9th symphony's adagio is "hopeful" or "consoling". To me the only word that comes to mind is "déchirant" (literally tearing or ripping apart). Also, instead of rambling about "finding god", you could have mentioned the most remarkable thing imo : that the whole movement is built on a simple grupetto motive that keeps coming like an obsessive, relentless thought.

  3. very nicely described all about :)