MAHLER’S SYMPHONIES are a vast world of poetics and suffering, timeless contemplation and rageful laments, sublime climaxes and cataclysmic precipices, prayerful silences and a terrifying, choking avalanche of tragic sound. Music that has reached the limits of all possible expansion in time and space, that has brought together the deepest philosophy and everyday danceability, painful expression and pantheistic jubilation, exacerbated grotesque and ecstatic drive towards the Divine. Created between two centuries, it would be difficult to fix to which of them Mahler belongs more, the age of romantic illusions or the age of their collapse, with its prophetic foreboding of the cruel destruction of humanity. It is also difficult to categorically define his stylistics, with its unusual forms and genre combinations, accumulated influences and innovations, projections that stretch forward in time.
This universal versatility and the enormous scale may have made Mahler’s symphonies difficult for the general public to grasp at the time, and even later, but they were immensely attractive to the great conductors – from his contemporaries Bruno Walter, Klemperer and Stokowski to the famous interpreters of the 20th and 21st centuries. Perhaps today every connoisseur of the brilliant symphonic opuses has their own favourites as the most faithful interpretations. One could, however, hardly speak unequivocally of a stylish performance of Mahler – there are no standards, no limits to the interpretations, to the discoveries that each talented conductor finds for himself, for his time, for his audience. Mahler is always very different and always captivating, opening the mind with his reflections on eternal themes, bringing answers or provoking questions.
The NINTH, nicknamed the “farewell symphony”, is Mahler’s last completed one. After the Symphony No. 8 he wrote the tone symphonic “Song of the Earth”, but didn’t call it a symphony in a superstitious effort to avoid the “curse of the Ninth” (the last symphonies in the lives of Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner) and only after it did he already designated his next D major symphony with the number 9. It was born at a complicated, difficult time for him. In 1907 he was forced to leave his post at the Wiener Staatsoper after more than 10 years of intensive conducting work, signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera, and went to New York, where he continued to conduct the Opera as well as the New York Symphony Orchestra until the final months of his life. That summer, his elder daughter Marie-Anne died at the age of four, his marriage to Alma was in crisis, and doctors discovered he had a serious heart condition.
The thought of the approaching end overwhelmed his consciousness, and his last creative triad – Song for the Earth, the 9th and the unfinished 10th (reconstructed by the English musicologist Derrick Cook in 1964) is full of resignation and a kind of farewell to life. All three works were written during the summer vacation months Mahler spent with his family in Altschulderbach, not far from Toblach in South Tyrol. There he composed the Symphony No. 9 in 1909, then, already in New York in the autumn and early the following 1910, he wrote the final score but did not live to hear it performed. The premiere performance took place a year after his death, on 26 June 1912 in Vienna, conducted by his close friend Bruno Walter with the Vienna Philharmonic. The score was published in 1912 by Universal Edition, and Bruno Walter made its first recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1938.
Unlike his other opuses, in which the classical symphonic structure is fragmented into five, six or even two movements, Mahler here returns to the traditional four-movement cycle, but interpreted in a completely different way – the slow first and last movements frame the genre’s second and third, which actually becomes the dramatic centre of the symphony.
The first movement, the expansively deployed expressive Andante, makes it difficult for Mahler scholars to find a precise definition of the unique polyphonic form, a kind of new synthesis of familiar structural principles. “The first movement is the greatest work Mahler ever composed,” wrote Alban Berg to his wife in 1912. “It is an expression of immense love for this land, a longing to live on it in peace and to enjoy nature to its innermost depths – before death comes. For death is inevitable. This whole section is subject to the foreboding of death that manifests itself again and again in the course of development. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense outbursts followed by the most tender passages, and this intensity is strongest at the terrible moment when death is already certain, when, amid the deepest, most damnable longing for life, death manifests itself “with the greatest violence.” There is no resistance against it.”
In the second movement, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (At the pace of a languid ländler. A little clumsy and rather rough) Mahler returns to one of his favourite genres, the Austrian ländler, not disguising but emphasising its nature as a rustic dance with its invariable three-beat rhythm and emphasis on the first beat, the heavy opening step. Flashing humorous notes flow into a grotesque waltz, rising to a swirling movement, after which elements of the ländler reappear in the individual instruments and gradually fade away, like a distant passage.
The third movement – Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (Rondo-Burleske. Fast enough. Very challenging) – rushes along with extremely tense dynamics, suggesting unstoppable disruptive force with its invariable rhythmic pulsation. The short inserted contrasting episode of repose, with the authorial remark Etwas gehalten. Mit grosser Empfindung (Restrained. With much feeling), foreshadows the atmosphere of the last movement.
The final Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (Very Slow and Restrained) is Mahler’s supremely sublime, beautiful farewell, with a wise, philosophical acceptance of death, much like the last movement “Farewell” in the Song of the Earth. Also with a luminous look to the afterlife – the movement ends with the violins gently hushed in a transparent melody, a quotation from the end of the fourth song in his Songs of the Dead Children: ‘…in sunlight, the day is fair on the heights beyond’, and over the last, long-held note, as if dissolving into air, he writes ersterbend (‘dying’). Bruno Walter described this Adagio as “a peaceful farewell; at the end the clouds dissolve into the blue of the sky.”