Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.9

Movement II

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.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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