Gustav Mahler (1860 — 1911): Symphony No. 9 in D major
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, piccolo, 4 oboes, 4th doubling English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, 4th doubling contrabassoon; 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba; timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, deep bells, glockenspiel, small drum, tam tam, triangle, harpsichord; strings
Performance time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Is there a "curse of the ninth?" From the midpoint of the 20th century onward, after two world wars and in an age of jet travel and the atomic energy, this phrase was still familiar but was dismissed as quaint superstition. To Gustav Mahler, who was born only a decade after the midpoint of the 19th century and 33 years after Beethoven's death, it was something more complex. It represented the dreaded possibility of nine symphonies marking the limit of human artistic inquiry, and a signpost toward inevitable death. Though he was probingly intellectual, this idea — half logic, half superstition — dogged him. While all of the symphonists who followed Beethoven composed in his shadow, it was Mahler who most determinedly carried forward the burden of the monumentality of Beethoven's symphonies. But while Beethoven's revelatory Ninth seemed like an ultimate meditation on human freedom and brotherhood, it was not the end of his profound metaphysical speculations; they continued for years as he composed the great string quartets and piano sonatas of his late period. For Mahler, the symphony was the form for the exploration and utterance of great ideas.
History and philosophy notwithstanding, the idea of the "curse of the ninth" is pretty uncomplicated — simply the notion that composers are destined to die before completing a tenth symphony. Arnold Schoenberg, the great modernist and father of the Second Viennese School, asserted that the idea of a ninth-symphony jinx originated with Mahler, whose thoughts never seemed to be far from the meaning of human life, mortality, and the possibility of an afterlife. "It seems that the Ninth is a limit," Schoenberg wrote in an essay on Mahler's art and ideas. "He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth [that] we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter."
After completing his Eighth Symphony — which, with its large chorus, became known as "The Symphony of a Thousand" — the number nine loomed large in Mahler's creative path. He evaded it by disguising his next major work as a song cycle and titling it Das Lied von der Erde even though it is symphonic in spirit and structure. But what would come after that? Mahler's Symphony No. 9 in D major, composed in 1908 and 1909. Though it was the last symphony he completed, seemingly in fulfillment of the curse of the ninth, it was actually his tenth symphonic work. And by the time of his death in 1911, he had completed enough work on a Symphony No. 10 to serve as the basis for recent performing editions. Perhaps, in the 21st century, we can best hear the Symphony No. 9 as a valediction without the curse of the ninth interfering in the background.
Music historians and Mahler's biographers tend to view 1907, the year before he began work on the Ninth, as signaling the final chapter of Mahler's life. It was full of portentous and even tragic events for the composer, beginning with his resignation from the Vienna Court Opera. Though we know him for his symphonies and his conducting, Mahler proved his talents as a man of the theater at the Vienna Court Opera, and his abilities in this area — and his love of opera, especially Beethoven's Fidelio — showed themselves in his symphonies. His separation from the Opera put an end to a tenure of dazzling distinction that encompassed both musical and dramatic direction, but was marred by anti-Semitism against him and his protégé, Bruno Walter. But four months later, in July, he and his wife Alma endured a far more painful separation: the death of their four-year-old daughter, Maria, after a brief and nightmarishly intense siege of diphtheria and scarlet fever. Still overwhelmed by sudden grief, just days after Maria's funeral, Mahler — a man of vibrant physical activity — learned of the heart condition that would be the main cause of his own death four years later. Thus his artistic speculations on life and death became far more immediate than ever before.
What to Listen For
In his Ninth Symphony, many listeners believe they hear the lessons of loss and transcendence borne of Mahler's experiences in 1907. The template for the symphony encompasses four movements for the first time since his Sixth, which he completed in 1905; but his inclusion of the traditional four movements rather than five or six hardly signaled a backward glance or an abridgment of scope. The symphony is expansive and, as always with Mahler, patient, lingering and contemplative in its development.
Relating Mahler's inspiration for the symphony's first movement to Wagner's correspondence with Mathilde Wesendonck, the late musicologist Michael Steinberg — writing for the Boston Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony — calls this movement "surely Mahler's greatest achievement in symphonic composition." He cites Wagner's description of "the art of transition," which Wagner described as the basis of his art. Steinberg calls the Ninth's first movement "the high point of Mahler's own practice in the deep and subtle art of transition, of organic expansion, of continuous variation." Every note of this symphony explores the boundary between life and death, connecting life's continual endings and separations to our ultimate separation from life; and we hear it expressively this expansive movement, from the hushed sound of the cellos as it opens to muted, trailing coda that leaves us in enervated silence. Comprising about a third of the symphony, this movement forms an arch that seems to frame a full lifetime's eventfulness. Interestingly, Leonard Bernstein — a lover and influential interpreter of Mahler's music — heard in this movement's hesitant cellos the beating of Mahler's failing heart. Whether or not we agree as we listen, Bernstein's observation reminds us of Mahler's own lifelong struggle to bring the depths of unconscious experience into the light of art, especially in movements such as this one.
Another constant in Mahler's music is the contrast and the resulting tension between Parnassian contemplation, as in the first movement, and earthbound sensuality, exemplified in the second movement by earthy country dances called Ländlers. Like Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler loved these dances. Though he seemed to describe them in disparaging terms, they were touchstones of fond recollections of the street music of his childhood, and here, as elsewhere in his symphonies, they create a tension between the vulgar and the sublime — each necessary to give meaning and context to the other. And in this movement, as in the first, the absorbing sensuality of Mahler's music seems to devolve and withdraw like an ebbing tide — or like the sound of carnival music dying away.
In the third movement, we are suddenly engulfed. An emphatically stated sense of tension takes hold, all the more powerful for its contrast with the gentle close of the second. The movement's almost explosive energy provides a dramatic foil for the fourth movement, the famously poignant adagio. Few passages in music are so transcendently powerful. In the adagio's agonized final journey, we seem to encounter every joy and sorrow of our own lives until, in its gentle resolution, a meaning beyond words is revealed.