Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 9

Program from 1931 Carnegie Hall premiere of Mahler's Symphony No. 9

The Carnegie Hall and NY premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony took place on November 19, 1931 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.

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The Symphony at a Glance

Farewell. Farewell. Farewell. Mahler’s last three symphonies all say the same thing, but so differently. The Ninth, like the unnumbered “song-symphony,” Das Lied von der Erde, which immediately preceded it, ends with a slow movement in which gestures of leave-taking are extended over a half-hour span. Sadness, regret, awareness of death, a sense of lifting off—these things are easy to hear in such music, even without a singer as a guide.

The Symphony In Depth

Mahler wrote his last three works during the time he was serving as a conductor in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera, and with the Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. As had long been his habit, he reserved the summers for composing, and the three final vacations of his life—respites from his stints in New York—he spent in the South Tirol, producing in turn Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth Symphony, and the Tenth. Having begun the Ninth in June 1909, using some ideas from the year before, by early September he had sketched out the entire work. He took the draft with him when he left for New York the following month and worked during the concert season on the orchestration, which he finished shortly before sailing back to Europe at the start of April 1910.

By this time, the enormous Eighth Symphony had still not been performed: that happened in September 1910, leaving Mahler no time to introduce the Ninth. The posthumous premiere, as with Das Lied von der Erde, can only have enhanced the sense of a great adieu, for here was a composer speaking from beyond the grave. However, the tone of farewell is very much written into the music—indeed, the word itself is inscribed there. Mahler took the motif of a falling whole step from Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” sonata, and marked the word Leb’wohl (Farewell) over its appearances late in the first movement. Moreover, this same motif had appeared, with a different rhythm, in the finale of Das Lied von der Erde, setting the word Ewig (Always), which the singer repeats through the long dissolve that brings that work to a close.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 9 (I. Andante comodo)

The farewell motif appears in the opening measures (Audio 1), where the music is brought into being from wisps that sound as if they are hanging in the air from something already disintegrated: a single note reverberating between cellos and horn, the harp like a tolling bell, another horn giving out what seems to be the echo of a fanfare. As the violins enter to carry the music forward, the rhythm becomes established as a slow rowing. The music is singing “farewell” in almost every measure, and yet it is also singing “always,” for, though we are clearly in D major, the melody largely avoids falling onto the keynote. With a darkening of harmony comes a move into the minor, and the rhythm gathers in urgency, accruing tones of a military march: hence the dichotomy, not so much of themes as of atmospheres (drifting away against staying put, endless regret against vigorous engagement in the world), that is developed through the first movement.

Antagonistic, the two kinds of material work against each other, which entails some degree of interpenetration. Whatever the tumult or the pressure of events—the pressure to experience—“farewell” will always intervene and bring us back to the deathly rowboat. But, equally, the “always” of that rowing cannot be accepted for long by a consciousness that is still alive and questing.

Alban Berg, playing this first movement through on the piano, heard as much:

The whole movement is based on a premonition of death, which is constantly recurring. All earthly dreams end here; that is why the tenderest passages are followed by tremendous climaxes like new eruptions of a volcano. This, of course, is most obvious of all in the place where the premonition of death becomes certain knowledge, where, in the most profound and anguished love of life, death appears ‘with greatest force;’ then the ghostly solos of violin and viola, and those sounds of chivalry: death in armor.

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 9 (II. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers)

What follows is a violently grotesque dance medley in absurd C major. A ländler (Audio 2) (one of those country dances that in Mahler seem to represent at once the health and the vacuity of everyday life) is followed by a slightly faster and more emphatic waltz. These two mingle and alternate with a third dance, a slower ländler. All three dances feature the falling whole step that was so momentous in the first movement; here it is not, except in the slower number. Questions of life and death are masked. Still, they show through.

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 9 (III. Rondo-Burleske)

After this frantic dance comes a frantic march (Audio 3), whose main theme drives headlong through crowds of variants in brilliant and dynamic polyphony. The key is A minor, that of the Sixth Symphony, but, in the middle, the snarls and ferociousness clear for an episode in D major that looks back to the first movement—with a new interpenetration of the “farewell” motif as a turning figure—and forward to the finale. The new figure is subjected to ironic distortion leeching from its surroundings, but it survives.

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 9 (IV. Adagio)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

It survives to become the mainstay of the concluding, culminating Adagio (Audio 4), in D flat, which begins as a resolute hymn for strings, but which soon, under warning first from a low bassoon, starts to fray. A tendency to break down—present from the beginning of the work and obviated only by sarcasm in the middle movements—bears the music toward highly attenuated but also intensely beautiful textures. A middle section in the minor (notated as C-sharp minor) offers some final Alpine images. The last page, marked adagissimo, pianissimo and with all but the first violins muted, is the sound of everything ebbing away.

—Paul Griffiths
© The Carnegie Hall Corporation