Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony No. 9 in D Major’: The Fourth Movement

Dearest readers, it has been far too long since the last blog in this Mahler set, but I was finishing off a large part of my Masters degree, so sadly this had to take a backseat. With only my dissertation left to go, I am happy to say I am back and looking forward to writing a lot more on classicalexburns! To round off this wonderful Mahler symphony, this blog will focus on the fourth and final movement of this breathtaking symphony. You are in for such a treat with this movement, so let’s get right down to it and finish this quartet of blogs off in style!

Referring back to Bernstein’s theory that every movement represents a farewell to an aspect of life (read more in the previous blog), this movement is a farewell to life itself. The form of the finale can be read in two different ways, either as a five-part rondo, or a set of strophic variations. The movement is slow-moving both in regards to tempo and the development of themes. With the movement mostly based around the strings, some sections adopt a four-part style of writing, which emphasizes Mahler’s deceptively complex and rich orchestrations. Beginning with the first complex theme, which is richly harmonized around Db major (although Mahler does go astray from this a lot throughout the movement), the theme resonates back to the Rondo-Burlesque third movement. For the first ten bars only the strings are playing, which builds up to the two bar bassoon solo at b.11. With this in mind, there is certainly an argument that there are two main themes in the fourth movement, which act as the foundation for the rest of music. The first, a ‘Lebewohl’ (‘Farewell’) theme based on a descending scale: F-Eb-Db and secondly the ‘Tragic Fanfare’, which is based around the sequence C-Cb-Bb. Throughout the rest of the symphony the tragic fanfare has protested somewhat against the finality of death itself until the finale, as David B. Greene argues, the Lebewohl theme accepts the struggles of death and becomes at peace with the idea of the final separation from life.

Before moving on, I’d like to draw attention to the first two bars of the movement, played by just the violins. With a definitive unison Ab to begin, this could represent the dominant chord, however, Mahler’s use of a Cb in the next bar is off-putting as this sounds a minor third above an Ab: i.e not the dominant. However, I see the Cb as an embellishment to set up the very slow-moving downward sequence that leads into b. 3 which is where the rest of the strings enter. This downward scale comprises of Bbb, Ab, Gb, then leading to an F in the next bar. A unique choice of notes that can be harmonised in a plethora of different ways, which is only the beginning of Mahler’s rich harmonic writing throughout this movement. With the many interpretations of just these five notes (including the Cb), it is possible that they foreshadow the use of modes later in the movement (Db minor vs Db major). So to support an earlier notion, the first two bars really set up a whole lot of meanings and interpretations for the rest of the work. The possibilities really are endless with Symphony No. 9.

From b. 3 the rest of the strings enter, and this warm sound reminds me of a sigh, like a sigh of relief that the acceptance of death has finally been digested and acknowledged.  Mahler’s string writing embodies beauty and his extraordinary sense of harmony is also celebrated throughout the movement. Many have said, and still do say that this movement exudes mournfulness and sadness, however, I disagree with this and believe that the movement is hopeful for what comes after death, and the acceptance of this alone is enough for the music to keep developing. The ‘turn’ theme is repeated in different parts, with each string section playing it as an embellishment to the rest of the parts. The bassoon solo at b. 11 sets up the winds to enter in b. 13 with the ‘turn’ theme once more. The dynamic moves from pp to after the solo heightens the emotive drive behind this dazzling display of Mahler’s austere string writing. Although the bassoon, contra bassoon, horns and flute come in for various bars (up until b. 27), it is very sparse, and the main attraction is within the strings, which is ever-developing the ‘Lebewohl’ motif. A lot has changed by b. 28 where most parts have been filtered out to leave just the contra bassoon, violin I, celli and basses. The dense counterpoint that has been seen in the previous 27 bars gave a certain character to the piece, and this is changed when the instruments left sound at very different ranges, making it sparse and vulnerable. The change of key to four sharps here points towards the parallel minor of C#. However, this becomes problematic the deeper we go into the movement. The contra bassoon and celli, naturally sounding lower, really indicate the dichotomy between the parts, especially with the violins playing in a particularly high octave here.

B. 34 sees the flute and bassoon enter the mix, and some simple counterpoint is structured around the ‘turn’ motif once more. A violin solo leads us into the next key change of the movement at b. 49, which heralds a previous motif. Dynamics are interesting here as the horn is marked as whereas the strings p. This is to perhaps accentuate the ‘solo’ lines of the thick textures Mahler has created. This section moves around a range of different keys from F major, to E major and usually coming back to D major. There is a real emphasis of Mahler recycling previous themes and re-harmonising them, and his use of extravagant chords such as a dominant German augmented-sixth plays with the duality of D and Db that returns throughout the movement. Building up a dense texture once more, Mahler incorporates the whole orchestra, with the exception of flute, trumpet and percussion. Call and response is utilised slightly further on in b. 77 – 83, with the winds shadowing the strings. At b. 88 there is another change back to four sharps in the key signature, which reflects the same change that was made in b. 28. As a five-part Rondo this makes sense as a later section will usually reflect that of a previous change in the rondo form. This section is led in by the clarinet with the english horn and flute interjecting. In general, this section is much more emphatic to D major, although there is a somewhat juxtaposition of C# minor and D major in some bars – again playing with the idea of tonal duality.

By b. 99, the winds have taken over and only the celli and basses remain in the string section. Led by the clarinet, this section is much less dense in texture and the decrescendos from to pp are incredibly effective when the strings come back again in b. 107 marked as ff. A sense of momentum is only ever felt in small bursts and this is certainly one of theme, with the building up of texture. By b. 121 Mahler has modulated back to Db for the final few pages of the movement. From b. 122-125, there is a suspended Cb held by both violin parts which then begins to slowly descend through Bbb-Ab-Gb and then landing on F in b. 126 (does this seem familiar?). Another example of Mahler recycling previous themes and compositional techniques, this descending sequence marks the beginning of the next section of the movement (Tempo I). With embellished phrases from the horns and celli, this section vividly reflects the ‘turn’ motif previously heard. The texture here is incredibly dense and all parts are now involved. The dichotomy between D and Db is also developed here and the use of Neapolitan chords really accentuates this duality idea. The horns are very much at the forefront, until the orchestration dilutes to just a string orchestra for four bars, before bringing the winds back into the music. The small change between 4/4 and 6/4 time is accentuated in b. 137, although this is not taken much further.

The tempo has become slower somewhat, and this is where the end is beginning to draw closer and closer. This section is the last where there is a full orchestra playing. From b. 146 there are some incredibly high chords led by the violins, which has been referred to as ‘crisis chords’ and they provide us with the beginning of the Coda section. From here the harmony and instrumentation become fragmented and the tempo is beginning to get even slower than before. These suspended ‘crisis chords’ are accentuated around this fragmented instrumentation, which builds emotion and drama into the narrative (if you should so choose to follow it). The coda is comprised of only strings, which could signify the orchestra dying away like life. The use of chromaticism here is also interesting as the Coda moves quite simply between the tonic, dominant and sub dominant. If I am quite honest, the last 24 bars or so are genuinely the most perfectly put together and for me nothing can surpass it – it is truly beautiful. Mahler quotes one of his own songs from Kindertotenliefer where he used the music setting of the words:

“The day is beautiful from those heights”

The ultimate consolation is found at the end of this symphony and the as the music slowly unfolds with its last breaths the silence and stillness waits for those last notes. Perhaps one of the emptiest moving passages written, the music gradually and very peacefully slips away after one final farewell. Death has come, but it came after being accepted and embraced.

The fourth movement is incredibly spacious and hymn-like in many places, making it incredibly effective in a number of ways which I hope I have highlighted in the above blog. One thing that is incredibly sad is that Mahler died in May 1911 without actually hearing the Ninth Symphony performed. Due to this, a lot of people have assumed that this ending was his conscious farewell to the world, as he knew that his own death was soon approaching. Therefore, the premiere was in 1912, conducted by Bruno Walter. The work is extraordinary and has received much attention from scholars and fans alike:

“It expresses an extraordinary love of the earth, for Nature.” – Alban Berg

“It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate … in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.” – Leonard Bernstein

Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is my all-time favourite work as, for me, it has everything I want in a symphony: complexity, drama, emotion and rich orchestral writing. I genuinely find it so moving, and I recall seeing it live at the BBC Proms a few years ago and it gave it another dimension from me that nobody can take away. I hope you have enjoyed this four-part mini series on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, it has certainly been very fruitful for me to reignite my love for this work and delve deeper into the context and music of the work. Keep your eyes peeled for more blogs coming very soon!

Thank you to everybody who has supported me this far – this quartet of blogs are dedicated to you all.

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Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony No.9 in D Major’: The Third Movement

Dearest readers, welcome back! Thank you so much for joining me on this Mahler-led endeavor into his wonderful Ninth Symphony. Leading on from the last blog which was based on the second movement, this blog will be on the fiery third movement of the symphony. This quartet of blogs is in aid of celebrating reaching 100 blogs on classicalexburns, so do take a look around on the site and see what takes your fancy, there is plenty on here now to suit all tastes. Anyway, on with the third movement!

In his introduction to the symphonic works of Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein claims that each movement of the Ninth Symphony is a farewell in itself, which then feeds into the overriding themes of farewell and death. The first movement is a farewell to passion and human love; the second represents a farewell to country life; the third a farewell to urban society; and the finale representing a farewell to life itself. Subtitled ‘Rondo-Burlesque’ the third movement is acts a second scherzo to the symphony, with its rondo form being pronounced quite obviously throughout. There is certainly a feeling of bitter irony in this movement, and considering Mahler had recently lost his job in Vienna, it is no surprise that he was probably feeling angry at society. After what the second movement had built up aesthetically, the third movement tears down and destroys. The movement marks a loss of innocence that the second movement had, and the burlesque side of the movement reflects Mahler’s use of parody and the grotesque. Throughout it seems that Mahler is highlighting the hypocrisies in the bourgeois society around him, with darkness and wild spontaneity being at the forefront of this. As you will experience soon, this movement portrays an inner turmoil that must have affected Mahler to a great extent.

Interestingly, a rondo would usually be used in a finale to end a symphony, but of course this is Mahler we are talking about, so he’s used a rondo in the penultimate movement. Used as a way to resolve what has come before it, Mahler’s does quite the opposite in this case by appearing as a somewhat setback to the whole farewell theme that was unfolding. In previous movements, Mahler seemed much more concerned with the destiny of humankind, whereas the third seems to represent inner emotions that Mahler was dealing with. This rondo presents no kind of heroic triumph like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but instead it shows us a hellish world that the composer is trying to escape from, a cynical and grotesque place that is unrelenting, until it is stopped in its track in the fourth and final movement of the symphony. Perhaps Mahler was thinking of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony when he composed his Ninth, due to the vast changes in character throughout the movements, and ending with a reflective and heart-wrenching slow movement. Some have said that this movement represents Mahler’s disdain towards banality, whereas others fear he has crossed the line and has simply been banal in this movement. I find it hard to come to terms with Mahler not representing originality, as that is what he is often known for. This movement was perhaps one of the most ‘modern’ in Mahler’s career as a composer, and certainly began a trend for up and coming composers such as Shostakovich. Here is a basic outline of how this movement is panned out:

b. 1-78: Opening section based around A minor

b. 79-108: Fugato I (in the style of a fugue, but not strictly a fugue) based around D minor

b. 109-179: Secondary section based around F major

b. 180-208: Short section moving between Ab minor and A minor

b. 209-261: Fugato II

b. 262-310: Secondary section based around A major

b. 311-346: Fugato III circulating aroun Db, Ab, Eb and Bb major

b. 347-521: This longer section acts as a development from Fugato III and is based around D major

b. 522-616: An amalgamation of the main themes and a recapitulation of the first section

b. 617-667: Coda section

The beginning of the movement is led in by the trumpets and the urgency of this quaver motif is taken further by the strings and horns, before the winds enter with the first motif of the movement. The tempo is fast and the texture is quite dense as the contrasting themes are blasted out by different parts of the orchestra. The mood in the movement changes very quickly and can go from boisterous and angry, to tranquil, soft and much more reflective. The secondary theme in this movement has been said to be quite ironic, given the mood of the rest of the movement. Mahler’s use of voice leading throughout this movement is very impressive as he managed to create a very complex piece of counterpoint, whilst slowly introducing each Fugato to the mix. The more reflective section is a welcome relief after the previous turmoil heard, and Mahler’s writing here is definitely inspired by Romanticism. The repeat of a four-note motif becomes clear and this is then the foundation for both this section of this movement, but also the finale movement. All good things must move on however, as a more frantic section enters and the feeling of frenzy returns. The addition of percussion in this section makes it even more exciting and uptempo.

From b.522 we begin to hear another piece of counterpoint by Mahler, where he creates a very colorful contrast between the different themes from this movement which come together for the fiery coda ending where everything is generally louder, faster and more driven to reach this climactic end, which is ‘egged on’ by the percussion. The movement ends with a fast quaver motif which reflects that of the opening statement of the movement.

The third movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is jam-packed with musical goodies as well as some incredibly intricate writing by Mahler. I do hope you have enjoyed this movement, it fits rather well into this symphony and brings the fire and excitement before we wind down for the very intense Adagio fourth movement. Thank you for joining me in this Mahler expedition to celebrate the 100th blog on classicalexburns! Keep your eyes peeled for the next and last installment!

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Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony No.9 in D Major’: The Second Movement

Welcome back, classical music fan to the 101st blog on classicalexburns! As promised, this blog is based around the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, so if you would like to know about the genesis and the movement that comes before this one, just click on the post before this to read up on that! Without further ado, let us begin with the incredibly catchy second movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

The second movement has been said to be a ‘dance of death’ or Todtentanz for the original German translation. Adorno was one of the first to publicly characterize this movement, alongside critic Paul Bekker. This movement resonates a previous symphony by Mahler, the Fourth, which uses some of the same techniques as this movement of the Ninth, namely the use of the performance direction Schwerfallig wie Fiedeln (play like a fiddle) in the top violins. What makes this movement so important in Mahler research is the amalgamation of dance styles used, making this an exciting style concoction of cultures and their dances. You can hear the subtle changes in style throughout this movement due to tempo and mood changes. With both waltzes and Ländler’s being integrated into this movement it creates a new dimension of composition that is an incredibly rewarding for both the listeners and the players. The first style we hear is an Austrian ländler (a peasant dance in 3/4) that has the performance direction: Tempo I, etwas täppisch und sehr derb (Tempo I, somewhat clumsy and very crude). Within this first section we are introduced to the main theme, which is played in unison by the bassoon and violas. This is then answered by all of the clarinets. The first run is then heard again by the bassoons and violas, but this time its reply comes from the horns. This quite strange mix of instruments to begin a movement with makes the harshness of the violin entry in b.9 much more prevalent. The key is fairly straightforward here, beginning in C major, and surprisingly staying in that diatonic key quite strictly (bar the odd passing modulation to F major). The texture starts off being incredibly simple, with parts playing in unison, until the violins enter with their, albeit simple, theme. However, Mahler then begins to layer the voices to create a much more contrapuntal texture which is a lot more complex. The shrill trills from the upper winds create a sharpness around this section, with the strings playing a fairly unrelenting line of quavers. The main theme returns and this whole section is a development of that initial semiquaver run that will not leave your head all day!

The second style we hear is a type of waltz marked Tempo II on the score (b.90). It is very obvious where this starts as the tempo speeds up and very forcefully establishes the new style. The change in key here is also worth noting as we’ve gone from a fairly straightforward diatonic key to a mode shared between E major/E minor. Beginning with a strong triple stop by all the strings, the harmony is relatively simple, starting on I then progressing to V-VI-III-IV and then back to I again. However, throughout this section this gets developed so much that the original is unrecognizable by the end. The main theme of this section is played first (quite unusually) by the trombones and tuba. This is then passed around the orchestra and developed both rhythmically and harmonically. I find this waltz very persistent and certainly driving towards the next bar every time. Again the texture within this section starts off simple, with parts in unison, but then gradually becomes much more complicated as Mahler brings in more voices from the orchestra. A swift key change to Eb major in this section creates a different mood for this theme, which soon leads us to a recap of the ländler theme from the beginning of the movement. This recap shows how Mahler has developed his material to this point, and that we still have time to go before returning back to the original key/theme (if we will ever go back!).

Modulating to F major at b.218, we have entered the third section of this movement and we’ve gone back to a ländler, even though it is much slower than the first one we heard at the beginning of the movement. Commonly, the ländler was generally at a moderately fast tempo in the West (i.e. Switzerland) and slower in the East (i.e. Austria). In true Mahlerian style, Mahler uses both fast and slow ländler’s within this movement, giving stylistic light and shade. This slower ländler relies heavily on the material heard in the first section of the movement, and kind of acts as a developmental section. This section is much more gentle in its approach and heavily contrasts the crude and brash ländler that came before it, and this in itself makes this multifaceted composition incredibly unique and exciting to be a part of. This is perhaps my favourite section of this movement as the change from a hurried waltz to this much calmer ländler is incredibly exciting and welcome after the whirlwind of dances that has come before it. As it is based on previous material you can hear where Mahler has taken past themes and developed them harmonically and rhythmically to fit this style of dance. There is a gentle bassoon solo, with a smooth horn and string accompaniment at the start of this section. There is a ritonello soon in, and the slow tempo comes back again, with the triangle accompanying the slightly more lively wind section who begin to play their melodic lines which create a contrapuntal mix of voices. This section continues until b.261 where Tempo II (the first waltz) returns aber etwas schneller als das erstemal (‘but a little faster than the first time’). Again, this is very obvious where this happens as the whole mood changes again, as well as the tempo speeding up very quickly. This section is loosely based around D major. With the help of the percussion section, this waltz becomes more culturally shaped, as in the crash cymbals and other tuned percussion reminisce the popular Jewish Klezmer band sound. By b.313 Mahler instructs the waltz to continue but Noch etwas lebhafter (‘Still a little more lively’) and this then continues until b.333.

B.333 we have entered Tempo III again and the second ländler returns in F major. This is shadows a lot of the material from previous sections, and the main themes are brought back either put on the same instruments or they have been orchestrated around the ensemble. The horn and bassoon play integral parts in this section as their woody sounds fly above the orchestra, creating a point of interest for the listener. This section is short-lived, and by b.369 we have made it back to Tempo I and whilst still in the style of a ländler, the tempo has picked up somewhat. This part begins how the start of the movement began with the semiquaver runs and the responses from the winds and horns. The material used within this section comes from all the previous sections, so by this point we have reached perhaps the most developed and climactic portion of the movement. Solos from instruments such as the viola are heard, which give a real sense of development within material, as well as Mahler creating a wonderful concoction of textures. By b.404 we have moved into Tempo II (waltz) again, and the quick change in tempo signals this change (as well as the key change to Eb major). Mahler’s use of extremities in range and texture make this a very exciting section of the movement. You can hear lots of past material being passed around the orchestra, with a fair amount of development rhythmically in different parts. The texture is much more dense here, with the upper strings taking the melodic lead for a large portion of this section.

B.516 there is another change in tempo which is reminiscent of the first ländler. The opening theme returns and for the rest of the movement we stay in this ländler style. This last section of the movement is a culmination of all the styles in the basic ländler structure. The tempo is slower and the movement ends with single part playing the opening theme very quietly, with the flute and pizzicato strings only playing in the last bar of the movement signalling that the dance is now over. When premiered, this movement was not understood in the way that Mahler had intended. The devil is really in the detail with this movement, the subtle changes between styles is something that was not the status quo at the time, so some critics labelled it ‘vulgar’ and ‘crude’ – which is what Mahler intended, but it is purposeful and culturally sound, whereas upon first hearing critics were not pleased with these changes. Adorno described this movement as a ‘musical montage’ which is exactly what it is, Mahler is showing us parts of the world with this movement and with the metaphorical use of smoke and mirrors he does this very creatively.

There we have it – the second movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony! A fantastic movement full of catchy motifs, intriguing stylistic choices and very effective uses of harmony (like beginning the movement in C major and ending it in C minor), to create a lively mixture of sounds which develop subtly over the whole movement. I do hope you have enjoyed this movement, dearest readers, I absolutely cannot wait to share with you the next two movements so keep your eyes peeled for those blogs being published very soon! Happy Easter to those who celebrate it – kick back and relax and enjoy some Mahler!

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Gustav Mahler ‘Symphony 9 in D Major’: Genesis and The First Movement

Dearest readers the time has finally come to begin the very exciting celebrations because this blog is the 100th (yes, 100th!) blog on my site! This blogging bonanza will be taking the form of four blogs on my favourite composer, Gustav Mahler and his incredibly moving Ninth Symphony. This first blog will set the scene for this symphony, as well as discuss the first movement of this work. From then the next three blogs will each be focused on the following three movements of the symphony. I do hope you will join me for this blogging bonanza celebration, I can assure you Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is well worth the listen! Without further ado, let’s see what Mahler has in store for us…

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), composed his Ninth Symphony in the last few years of his life between 1909 and 1910. This Ninth Symphony was the last work that Mahler completed before his death in 1911 (whilst he was part-way through the Tenth Symphony). The Ninth, therefore, is within the group of works he wrote towards the end of his life – the ‘late symphonies’ as they’re known (from the Eighth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde through to the unfinished Tenth Symphony). Many scholars and Mahlerites believe that Mahler’s last few large-scale works are prime examples of ‘New Music’ from that time. 20th Century German critical theorist and philosopher, Theodor Adorno claimed that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony was the first major work of New Music, and that it began pushing the boundaries to a more unknown territory within instrumental music. I, among many others, have found it increasingly difficult to explain why Mahler’s later works pushed the boundaries more so than his earlier works, because it is evident that the earlier symphonies also incorporate many of these so-called ‘New Music’ attributes. There are, however, some phenomena that could be seen as trends that run through Mahler’s later works such as free form structures that abolish the idea of repetition and instead creating an extreme variation form where ideas return, but in a very different way  (notably the first movements of the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies). Some scholars have labelled Mahler’s later music as free atonality with linear polyphony whilst also being regarded as ‘dissolution’ or as ‘decay’. Mahler scholar Constantin Floros disagrees with these terms, and I am also inclined this way because they are far too vague and inappropriate for what is at hand here. If any of you are more interested in this line of enquiry I would highly recommend reading Floros’ book Gustav Mahler: The Symphonies for a much more in-depth look at this argument of Mahler’s late style. However, for this blog, it was important to touch upon it, but for now we shall move on to some more context for the Ninth Symphony.

The Ninth Symphony was composed in the last few years of Mahler’s life, and these few years were perhaps the toughest he had been through. For some context in the lead up to composing the Ninth, Mahler had composed Das Lied von der Erde (‘The Song of the Earth’) between 1907-1908, and in 1907 he was offered a new job in New York, which brought him much grief as he was unsure whether to leave his top-class job as the Vienna Court Opera Director. However, it has also been documented extensively that Mahler was a victim of serious anti-Semitic behaviour whilst in Vienna, so this certainly played a part in his decision to resign. Mahler met with the Metropolitan Opera’s director, Heinrich Confried to negotiate, and he then promptly asked for his release from the Vienna Opera House. As the Mahler family always did, they took their annual trip to Maiernigg in June 1907, however, Mahler and Alma’s eldest daughter, Maria Anna fell critically ill with scarlet-fever diphtheria and she passed away 12th July 1907. A true sense of how traumatic this was for the Mahler family can be felt whilst reading the memoirs of Alma Mahler, and the news was incredibly hard-hitting for an already ill Mahler. Only a few days on from this, Mahler visited the district physician in Maiernigg and was diagnosed with a soon-to-be fatal heart condition. This was the third hammer blow, a trio of misfortunes took their toll on Mahler mentally and it is heavily documented that Das Lied von der Erde is essentially an out-pour of emotion that he was feeling after the death of his daughter, and also the prospect of dying himself. Strangely, he did not call Das Lied a symphony because of the infamous ‘curse of the ninth symphony’ (where past composers happened to die after writing their Ninth Symphonies, for instance Beethoven) to ‘stall’ time on his inevitable death and having to say that final goodbye. It has been documented from both Alma and Richard Specht that Mahler was so against numerically naming his ‘ninth’ work that he thought he has warded off the danger he believed he was in by not naming Das Lied. Floros quotes Schoenberg’s memorial speech of 1912 to commemorate Mahler, and I find it poignant to share one particular part of it so that we can gauge an understanding of how prevalent this ‘curse of the ninth’ was for composers:

“It seems that the Ninth is the limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not yet ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too near to the hereafter.”

By 1909, Mahler had taken on a new job in New York as a conductor, which meant that for half a year he would live overseas and conduct, and the other half he would live in Europe and resume is usual Viennese lifestyle of composing in his composing shed in the summer months. It is still unsure as to whether Mahler began composing the Ninth Symphony in 1908 or 1909 because of the confusion with sketches, Alma’s diaries and letters that Mahler sent to his friend, Bruno Walter. I would suggest it was perhaps 1908 that Mahler began sketching this symphony as it is documented he finished 3/4 movements in a quick haste over the summer months of 1908, to which he then told Bruno Walter about his new symphony. However, some have commented that this wasn’t Mahler ‘officially’ composing his Ninth, as they are very rough sketches and it was until Mahler was back in New York at the end of 1908 that he began to make clean copies of this new work. It wasn’t then until around April 1910 that Mahler told Bruno Walter that he had completed his Ninth Symphony. Even though the work was completed in 1910, the premiere wasn’t until June 26th 1912, which for those of you with keen eyes will realise that this was over a year after Mahler’s death in May 1911 (more on this will follow in later blogs).

When researching into Mahler’s Ninth, it is pertinent to realise the central topics that rest within the core of this work. Death, ‘the farewell’ and transfiguration are the three main areas of interest I, and many others, believe are resonant in this work. Due to these themes being so personal and so dark, when the work was premiered it received many reviews, some positive, some negative and some neutral. The discussion of these topics usually drives the conversations about this work, even today when new research is being conducted, these themes are usually an integral part of our understanding. Richard Specht, a close friend of Mahler published this in the Illustrites Wiener Extrablatt after the premiere:

“Of these four movements, the first is surely the most captivating, with its evening sun and farewell mood reminiscent of Das Lied von der Erde, indulging in feelings of death, of anxious and sweet rapture. We shall discuss it in more detail after the excitement has died down.”

Guido Adlter also commented on the Ninth in 1913 saying that Mahler “after changing images of life, said farewell to it”, implying that Mahler composed this with the motive and knowledge of his imminent death. Interestingly, Willem Mengelberg created an interpretation of all four movements of the Ninth, to highlight the development between death and transfiguration. He made a ‘programme’ which outlines these themes:

Movement 1: Farewell from his ‘loved ones’ (his wife and child)

Movement 2: ‘Dance of the Dead’ (‘You must go down into the grave!’): Since you live – you perish!

Movement 3: Gallows Humour – Working, striving are all futile attempts to escape death from the art, life and the world

Movement 4: Mahler’s song of life – His soul sings farewell! He sings from his innermost being. His soul sings its final farewell “Goodbye!” His life, so full and rich will soon be over! He feels and sings: “Farewell, my music”

Many contemporary interpretations are very similar to Mengelberg’s, with death and the farewell being at the core of these ideas. One of the most illuminating for me is Alban Berg’s interpretation of the first movement of the Ninth Symphony which he wrote in an undated letter to his wife:

“The first movement is the most wonderful music Mahler wrote. It is the expression of remarkable love for this earth, the longing to live upon it in peace, to enjoy nature to its greatest depths before death enters. Because death does come, inexorably. This whole movement is based on a foreboding of death. It appears over and over. All earthly enchantment reaches a peak; therefore we continually have these rising outbursts, always after the tenderest passages. This foreboding is strongest at the tremendous moment when in this profound, yet painful joy of life, death forcefully announces its arrival. Then there are these eerie viola and violin solos and knightly sounds: Death in armour! There is no rebellion against him! What comes after this seems to me like resignation. The thoughts about the hereafter, which appear on pages 44-45 are always misterioso, like very think air – even above the mountains – in a rarefied sphere. And once again, for the last time, Mahler turns towards earth – not to battles and deeds, which he brushes off, but rather totally and only to nature. He wants to enjoy whatever treasures earth still offers him for as long as he can. He wants to create for himself a home, far away from all troubles, in the free and thin air of the Semmering Mountain, to drink this air, this purest earthly air with deeper and deeper breaths – deeper and deeper breaths, so that the heart, this most wonderful heart ever to have beaten among men, widens – widens more and more – before it must stop beating.” (Taken from Alban Berg, Briefe an seine Frau, p.238).

With all of this we must remember the strength in the music that is portrayed by Mahler, which is why it is deemed as one of, if not the first gateway piece into New Music. His free form in the first movement is especially prevalent, alongside the disposition of keys makes this work certainly out of the ordinary and progressive for that time. The unusual sequence of movements is also prevalent in this work as two slower movement frame the two dance-like movements, which is certainly out of the ordinary in regards to common symphonic conventions. Mahler believed that the Adagio is of a ‘higher form’ than the Allegro, so thus applied this to some of his symphonic works. Researchers such as Paul Bekker argue that each movement of the Ninth Symphony ha sits own reason to be there, and symphonic unity can only be found in the ‘overall picture’ of the work. Each movement is its stand-alone piece of art, and I believe this should be considered when carrying out analysis on this work. The disposition of keys is also a hot topic of the symphony as Mahler’s unconventional harmonic language is at its prime in this work. The Ninth is one of the symphonies that closes in a different key to which it started (like the Fifth and Seventh). Usually this means going from minor to major, like in the Fifth Symphony where Mahler begins in C# minor, and ends in D major, however the Ninth does the opposite and begins in a major key and ends in a minor key. The first movement is in D major, also known as a key that represents life fulfilment, and then ends the fourth movement in Db major, a subtle semitone difference that resonates solemnity. This one small detail changes this whole work and makes it a completely different experience for the audience. Throughout these four blogs I will be going through each movement, and alongside this long genesis of the symphony, we shall now move on to the first movement (finally!).

The first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony has often been deemed as his most original and outstanding composition (alongside the fourth movement Adagio). This movement’s form is a hot topic of discussion, with analysts believing it could be seen as a double variation structure or even a very drawn-out sonata form. I would say that this movement is a mixture of both of these options, as you can certainly find exposition, development, recapitulation and coda sections. If we look more closely into the sections we find very unbalanced measures, and the development section is over double the length of the initial exposition section. Within each of these sections you can find various sub-sections of ‘themes’, so for the exposition there are three identifiable themes: a lyrical theme in D major, a darker theme in D minor and a livelier section in Bb major. These compositional decisions coupled with the extremities in emotions portrayed in these different sections paints a vivid picture of the state of Mahler’s mind at the time of composition. Without further ado, let us commence with the music!


The first movement begins quietly with a syncopated conversation between the cellos and horn, which have become famous for supposedly resonating Mahler’s heart palpitations. First said by Leonard Bernstein, this idea of Mahler literally writing himself into this symphony has carried through to the modern-day and many researchers believe this to be true. I am unsure of this theory, the idealist inside of me likes this, but the realist (and overall more dominant) side of me believes otherwise. The harp enters in b.3 with a broken D major triad, which leads into a distant call from the horn which sets up a theme that recurs throughout the movement. B.6 we move straight into the lyrical first section of the exposition which is greeted by a hopeful D major chord glissando from the harps. This theme is also very prevalent because it has been dubbed as the ‘farewell motif’ or ‘lebwohl’ and it represents literally the word ‘farewell’ if you hear it and say the word at the same time you will understand what I mean here. The constant repetition of this theme has been at the forefront of much research on this movement, and I believe it is incredibly subtle, but once you know it’s there you will not forget about it. The conversation between the horn and strings is what builds the foundation of this first theme, and Mahler subtly changes elements of it to create different effects. For example in b.17 he changes the meter from 4/4 to 6/4 for one single bar to create a lilting effect, which leads back into another ‘lebwohl’ moment. The music continues into a secondary contrasting theme in D minor, which you can hear just after another 6/4 bar. There is a feeling of urgency as Mahler’s polyphonic writing comes to play in this section. There are many ideas, and they haven’t quite unified until the music climaxes (with the use of extremities in range) and they unify in a very unique way. The exposition section carries on until b.107, where the closing section in Bb lead us into the development section.


The development section begins with a syncopated horn motif that leads into a three-tone motif which is passed around the muted brass creating a very eerie aura around the themes. For Mahler, all instruments were of great importance (hence the colossal orchestras he worked with!), so the parts are all important in their own way. He usually favoured brass and this development highlights that, as well as his daring melodic lines for the winds, including a jaunty motif for bass clarinet which rings out in this section. The lebwohl theme returns again in this new version of the theme. This part is extensive and Mahler properly earths out the original theme and the climactic ending to the exposition in this section, creating a new and illuminating recollection of the past material. You’ll find whilst listening to this work that there are many climaxes, which usually come after a sombre moment, and these come in the forms of fanfares, cacophony of noises and polyphony or even just in manic dynamic changes. You can always hear Mahler’s farewell ring above any motif that is playing, which what I find most prevalent about this movement, however frantic or solemn the music is, the overarching theme of farewell can always be heard in some form. After this longer section comes a shorter one that develops the theme from the secondary contrasting theme that was initially in D minor. This passionate section pushes boundaries harmonically and Mahler develops this with the use of tempo changes and dynamics. The development continues and revisits the initial theme and develops it even further. There is great force, but also great tranquility throughout the whole of this movement, and it is a testament to Mahler’s compositional practice that allowed such skillful writing. The idea of the farewell motif returning is an obvious one when only listening to the music (rather than reading a score etc), and this can create a very special bond between listener and composer. Mahler has this incredible way of being able to move a motif further and further away from its original form, which gives us an insight into the ‘micro-structure of music’.


This penultimate section begins at b.347 with the main theme returning once more. As a typical recap works, the past themes are brought back (usually in their initial form) and played once more with some, but usually little development. My favourite part of this whole movement is within the recapitulation section where Mahler writes this incredible duet between the flute and horn, essentially developing the main theme. It’s out of the ordinary, but it works so well here. This is also a prime example of Mahler’s chamber music style and his use of linear polyphony. This section is very short and sets us up for the coda in b.406.


The coda is an effective example of Mahler’s use of morendo (trans- dying away), which is another trend you can see within his later works. The coda reminisces two previous motifs and there are calls of farewells from the winds which is incredibly poignant as they slowly fade away. There is a flute motif marked schwebend (floating) which carries the melody as a solo line, leading into a response from a solo violin to the farewell calls. The harmonic rhythm in this section is very slow-moving, unlike the rest of the movement. The coda ends with a fading motif from the solo violin, oboe and harp, with the harp reflecting the broken D major triad they played at the start of the movement. The final D major chord is pizzicato for all strings except the cello who holds a D in their top octave and the flute who holds a D in their middle octave which creates a very open D chord that fades away into a solemn end.

Although this blog is very long, it is also jam-packed full of information on the genesis of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as well as a walk-through of the first movement of this incredible symphony. This blog has taken much research and effort as I wanted to get it right, so I do hope you can all gain something from it. This is my 100th blog on so this is dedicated to all of my followers and readers – you’re all wonderful and thank you for your continued support! Soon I will be publishing my next blog in this quartet on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Happy Reading!

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