Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.9

Genesis & Movement I

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.


The Music

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.



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.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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