Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.9

Movement III

In his introduction to the symphonic works of Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein claims that each movement of the Ninth Symphony is a farewell in itself, which then feeds into the overriding themes of farewell and death. The first movement is a farewell to passion and human love; the second represents a farewell to country life; the third a farewell to urban society; and the finale representing a farewell to life itself. Subtitled ‘Rondo-Burlesque’ the third movement is acts a second scherzo to the symphony, with its rondo form being pronounced quite obviously throughout.

There is certainly a feeling of bitter irony in this movement, and considering Mahler had recently lost his job in Vienna, it is no surprise that he was probably feeling angry at society. After what the second movement had built up aesthetically, the third movement tears down and destroys. The movement marks a loss of innocence that the second movement had, and the burlesque side of the movement reflects Mahler’s use of parody and the grotesque.

Throughout it seems that Mahler is highlighting the hypocrisies in the bourgeois society around him, with darkness and wild spontaneity being at the forefront of this. As you will experience soon, this movement portrays an inner turmoil that must have affected Mahler to a great extent.

Interestingly, a rondo would usually be used in a finale to end a symphony, but of course this is Mahler we are talking about, so he’s used a rondo in the penultimate movement. Used as a way to resolve what has come before it, Mahler’s does quite the opposite in this case by appearing as a somewhat setback to the whole farewell theme that was unfolding. In previous movements, Mahler seemed much more concerned with the destiny of humankind, whereas the third seems to represent inner emotions that Mahler was dealing with. This rondo presents no kind of heroic triumph like Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but instead it shows us a hellish world that the composer is trying to escape from, a cynical and grotesque place that is unrelenting, until it is stopped in its track in the fourth and final movement of the symphony.

Perhaps Mahler was thinking of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony when he composed his Ninth, due to the vast changes in character throughout the movements, and ending with a reflective and heart-wrenching slow movement. Some have said that this movement represents Mahler’s disdain towards banality, whereas others fear he has crossed the line and has simply been banal in this movement.

I find it hard to come to terms with Mahler not representing originality, as that is what he is often known for. This movement was perhaps one of the most ‘modern’ in Mahler’s career as a composer, and certainly began a trend for up and coming composers such as Shostakovich. Here is a basic outline of how this movement is panned out:


b. 1-78: Opening section based around A minor

b. 79-108: Fugato I (in the style of a fugue, but not strictly a fugue) based around D minor

b. 109-179: Secondary section based around F major

b. 180-208: Short section moving between Ab minor and A minor

b. 209-261: Fugato II

b. 262-310: Secondary section based around A major

b. 311-346: Fugato III circulating aroun Db, Ab, Eb and Bb major

b. 347-521: This longer section acts as a development from Fugato III and is based around D major

b. 522-616: An amalgamation of the main themes and a recapitulation of the first section

b. 617-667: Coda section


The beginning of the movement is led in by the trumpets and the urgency of this quaver motif is taken further by the strings and horns, before the winds enter with the first motif of the movement. The tempo is fast and the texture is quite dense as the contrasting themes are blasted out by different parts of the orchestra. The mood in the movement changes very quickly and can go from boisterous and angry, to tranquil, soft and much more reflective.

The secondary theme in this movement has been said to be quite ironic, given the mood of the rest of the movement. Mahler’s use of voice leading throughout this movement is very impressive as he managed to create a very complex piece of counterpoint, whilst slowly introducing each Fugato to the mix. The more reflective section is a welcome relief after the previous turmoil heard, and Mahler’s writing here is definitely inspired by Romanticism.

The repeat of a four-note motif becomes clear and this is then the foundation for both this section of this movement, but also the finale movement. All good things must move on however, as a more frantic section enters and the feeling of frenzy returns. The addition of percussion in this section makes it even more exciting and uptempo.

From b.522 we begin to hear another piece of counterpoint by Mahler, where he creates a very colorful contrast between the different themes from this movement which come together for the fiery coda ending where everything is generally louder, faster and more driven to reach this climactic end, which is ‘egged on’ by the percussion. The movement ends with a fast quaver motif which reflects that of the opening statement of the movement.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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