Gustav Mahler in New York. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives
For much of the summer of 1909, Alma Mahler was safely stowed away at a spa near Toblach, where she took the waters and whined via letters how miserable she was. During that summer, between late June and late September, Mahler wrote his Ninth Symphony. Despite longing, caring letters to Almschi, he couldn’t have suffered too much from his solitary state (in any case often punctuated by friendly visitors), seeing that summer was his most productive period ever, finishing the whole work with unprecedented speed.
The Ninth Symphony was premiered in Vienna, 13 months after Mahler’s death, on June 26th, 1912. With Mahler protégé Bruno Walter conducting, the atmosphere of tragedy and loss very much hung in the air, coloring the perception of the Ninth and even Mahler’s last years—probably to this day. Because the Ninth was his last published symphony, it was interpreted at his swansong, his farewell to the world. The finale of the Ninth, the first (maybe second) time in all of Mahler that he composed in straight exclamation marks, not warped question marks, was thought of a sign of resignation. To me that singular moment where Mahler comes close to Brucknerian calm in the final Adagio is not so much a “farewell” but an “I have arrived”. He hadn’t, of course, but he might have thought he did.
Had Mahler quit writing music after the Ninth Symphony, but lived happily for a few more years, we might say that he had made peace with the world. The Tenth Symphony tells us otherwise: it was merely a phase of calm before the culmination of despair. But the ghosts that had haunted him and that had begun to take their leave in the Eighth and Das Lied do seem to sneak back into the inner movements, making the Ninth’s first three movements sound more conventionally Mahlerian (if there is such a thing) than anything in its two predecessors.
When I think of the Ninth, I find myself really only thinking of the last movement these days, not the disjointed batch of all four. I acknowledge the first movement (difficult to ignore, at its size and the distinct ‘rowing boat’ rhythm), but every time the middle movements pop up, their existence surprises me. The way we hear works constantly evolves; for now I tend to hear these two shorter movements almost as frivolous filler material, irrelevant to the substance of the symphony. Who remembers the caustic Scherzo or the contrapuntal density of the Rondo after the grand journey that the finale presents? It’s like a Mahler — new yet conventional, a mini-universe of Mahler symphonies unto itself — one no longer wishes to return to after hearing promises of the finale in the first movement.
The fountains mingle with the rivers
And the rivers with the oceans,
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle
Why not I with thine?
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother,
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;
What are all these kissings worth
If thou kiss not me?
P.B.Shelley, “Love’s Philosophy”
Henri-Louis de La Grange notices this and writes: “[T]hose who have written about the Ninth have generally tended to focus most of their attention on the supremely beautiful first and last movements, neglecting to ask themselves why the two central ones in rapid tempo are so replete with anger and negativity, why Mahler goes much further down this unsettling path of provocative irony than ever before.”
La Grange then sets out to remedy that perceived injustice. But his characterization of the inner movements doesn’t strike me as wholly convincing. The Rondo has moments of intense beauty and calm, too (about half way through) that are not at all sardonic but rather prepare one for the mood of the finale. What I hear, in Boulez’ recording for example, is rather a heavy comfort… no negativity but instead a grave sense of drift. And the Scherzo isn’t necessarily demonic; though the reckless gaiety does drive out any sense of calm in as spectacular and harried a performance of it as Simon Rattle’s with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Mahler himself compared his Ninth, which he thought otherwise standing apart from all previous symphonies, to his Fourth. The lightest Mahler next to the most profound? The comparison elicits a quizzical look not just from La Grange… but are the last movements not obviously related? In both cases we are dealing with aberrations, a wholly positive, calmly content final movement. One with voice and one purely orchestral… but as in “Das himmlische Leben”, the finale of the Ninth is beaming with contentment, not whinging of twisted guts.