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ClassicsOnline Home » MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 9 (Polish National Radio Symphony, Halasz)
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 9
The great Viennese symphonic tradition found wor1hy successors in two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music, among other things creating a symphonic form that included in it the tradition of song in a varied tapestry of sound par1icularly apt for a twentieth century that has found in Mahler’s work a reflection of its own joys and sorrows.
Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in the world. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child of his parents, and the first of four1een to survive, he was born in Kaliste in Bohemia in 1860. Soon after his birth his family moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectual self-improvement, to the ownership of a tavern and distillery. Mahler’s musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.
It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, then in Prague, Budapest and Hamburg, before moving to a position of the highest distinction of all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary. In Vienna he effected significant reforms in the Court Opera, but made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in an attempt to secure his family’s future before his own imminent death, which took place a week after his return to Vienna, on 18th May, 1911.
Although his career as a conductor involved him most closely with opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composer consists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death, together with his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in Das Lied von der Erde. The greater part of his music was written during summer holidays away from the business of the opera-house, a miraculous achievement in view of his other obligations.
Mahler’s marriage in 1902 to the twenty-year-old Alma Schindler, daughter of the painter Anton Schindler and a composition pupil of Zemlinsky, caused astonishment in Vienna. The marriage brought its pleasures and difficulties, not least with the death of the older of Mahler’s two daughters in the summer of 1907. Alma’s mother suffered a heart-attack, and Alma herself was found to be suffering from nervous strain and was ordered complete rest. The doctor attending Alma Mahler and her mother was asked to examine Mahler, and at once diagnosed serious weakness of the heart, a verdict confirmed shortly afterwards by eminent specialists in Vienna. The same year had brought his resignation from the Court Opera, where he directed his last performance in October, moving thereafter to New York, where he had a contract with the Metropolitan Opera at an uneasy time in its history. At the end of the New York opera season he returned to Austria, spending the summer at Toblach, where he also spent the following summer, after a further Metropolitan season in the winter of 1908–1909. II was at Toblach in the summer of 1908 that Mahler started work on his Ninth Symphony. He had entertained reservations about the composition of a ninth symphony. Beethoven had completed only nine symphonies, and there was something ominous about the number. Das Lied von der Erde, on the composition of which he was also engaged all his time, was originally conceived as a symphony, which it is in all but name. The Ninth Symphony was completed in New York in 1910, a year that brought unpleasant conflict with the ladies who controlled the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with which Mahler had a new contract, after the end of his agreement with the Metropolitan Opera, where Toscanini now presided. In the summer he worked on a Tenth Symphony, a work he never finished. The Ninth Symphony was only performed after the composer’s death, when Bruno Walter introduced the work to Vienna in the spring of 1912.
The Ninth Symphony is scored for an orchestra of piccolo, four flutes, four oboes, with cor anglais, three clarinets, an E flat and bass clarinet, four bassoons, with a double bassoon, four horns, five trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, a percussion section of timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam and glockenspiel, three deeper bells, harp and strings. It opens with a movement of surpassing beauty. A brief introduction, containing the seeds of much that follows, leads to the principal theme, played by the second violins, with a counter-melody entrusted to the French horn. The movement, a farewell to the world, is in broadly sonata-allegro form, with a complex development of the very varied thematic and motivic material followed by a final recapitulation that brings the movement to a gently wistful conclusion after music that has moments of intense conflict.
The second movement, in the speed of a relaxed Ländler, marked somewhat clumsy and very coarse, opens, at least, in accordance with these instructions. The farewell motif, derived perhaps from Beethoven’s Das Lebewohl sonata, is heard from the clarinets in a very different mood, before the fiddles strike up their heavy-footed Ländler. There is a waltz worthy of Baron Ochs and a gentle re-appearance of the Ländler, before the rumbustious return of the waltz. The final section of the Scherzo brings back the Ländler of the opening, a distorted waltz and reminiscences of the beginning of the movement in conclusion.
In the Rondo-Burleske, marked Sehr trotzig, very defiant, idea follows idea. There is a strong call to attention at the start that returns with emphatic force from the horns, leading to a second thematic element and a complexity of contrapuntal suggestion. A passage of intense feeling, implicit with yearning, is rudely interrupted by the E flat clarinet, but continues until the grotesque dance resumes, leading to a final Presto.
Something of the mood of the first movement is restored in the final Adagio, very slow and restrained, a hymn of tranquillity that increases in intensity. This opening theme is transformed in various ways in the music that follows, a poignant summary and farewell to a world of joy and pain, now transfigured. The symphony was written in the shadow of death, but in the last movement these shadows are dispersed, overwhelmed by a spirit of tranquil resignation and a perception of the eternal.
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MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 9 (Polish National Radio ...