Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.9
Referring back to Bernstein’s theory that every movement represents a farewell to an aspect of life (read more in the previous blog), this movement is a farewell to life itself. The form of the finale can be read in two different ways, either as a five-part rondo, or a set of strophic variations. The movement is slow-moving both in regards to tempo and the development of themes.
With the movement mostly based around the strings, some sections adopt a four-part style of writing, which emphasizes Mahler’s deceptively complex and rich orchestrations. Beginning with the first complex theme, which is richly harmonized around Db major (although Mahler does go astray from this a lot throughout the movement), the theme resonates back to the Rondo-Burlesque third movement. For the first ten bars only the strings are playing, which builds up to the two bar bassoon solo at b.11.
With this in mind, there is certainly an argument that there are two main themes in the fourth movement, which act as the foundation for the rest of music. The first, a ‘Lebewohl’ (‘Farewell’) theme based on a descending scale: F-Eb-Db and secondly the ‘Tragic Fanfare’, which is based around the sequence C-Cb-Bb. T
hroughout the rest of the symphony the tragic fanfare has protested somewhat against the finality of death itself until the finale, as David B. Greene argues, the Lebewohl theme accepts the struggles of death and becomes at peace with the idea of the final separation from life.
Before moving on, I’d like to draw attention to the first two bars of the movement, played by just the violins. With a definitive unison Ab to begin, this could represent the dominant chord, however, Mahler’s use of a Cb in the next bar is off-putting as this sounds a minor third above an Ab: i.e not the dominant. However, I see the Cb as an embellishment to set up the very slow-moving downward sequence that leads into b. 3 which is where the rest of the strings enter.
This downward scale comprises of Bbb, Ab, Gb, then leading to an F in the next bar. A unique choice of notes that can be harmonised in a plethora of different ways, which is only the beginning of Mahler’s rich harmonic writing throughout this movement. With the many interpretations of just these five notes (including the Cb), it is possible that they foreshadow the use of modes later in the movement (Db minor vs Db major).
So to support an earlier notion, the first two bars really set up a whole lot of meanings and interpretations for the rest of the work. The possibilities really are endless with Symphony No. 9.
From b. 3 the rest of the strings enter, and this warm sound reminds me of a sigh, like a sigh of relief that the acceptance of death has finally been digested and acknowledged. Mahler’s string writing embodies beauty and his extraordinary sense of harmony is also celebrated throughout the movement. Many have said, and still do say that this movement exudes mournfulness and sadness, however, I disagree with this and believe that the movement is hopeful for what comes after death, and the acceptance of this alone is enough for the music to keep developing.
The ‘turn’ theme is repeated in different parts, with each string section playing it as an embellishment to the rest of the parts. The bassoon solo at b. 11 sets up the winds to enter in b. 13 with the ‘turn’ theme once more. The dynamic moves from pp to f after the solo heightens the emotive drive behind this dazzling display of Mahler’s austere string writing. Although the bassoon, contra bassoon, horns and flute come in for various bars (up until b. 27), it is very sparse, and the main attraction is within the strings, which is ever-developing the ‘Lebewohl’ motif.
A lot has changed by b. 28 where most parts have been filtered out to leave just the contra bassoon, violin I, celli and basses. The dense counterpoint that has been seen in the previous 27 bars gave a certain character to the piece, and this is changed when the instruments left sound at very different ranges, making it sparse and vulnerable. The change of key to four sharps here points towards the parallel minor of C#. However, this becomes problematic the deeper we go into the movement. The contra bassoon and celli, naturally sounding lower, really indicate the dichotomy between the parts, especially with the violins playing in a particularly high octave here.
B. 34 sees the flute and bassoon enter the mix, and some simple counterpoint is structured around the ‘turn’ motif once more. A violin solo leads us into the next key change of the movement at b. 49, which heralds a previous motif. Dynamics are interesting here as the horn is marked as f whereas the strings p. This is to perhaps accentuate the ‘solo’ lines of the thick textures Mahler has created. This section moves around a range of different keys from F major, to E major and usually coming back to D major.
There is a real emphasis of Mahler recycling previous themes and re-harmonising them, and his use of extravagant chords such as a dominant German augmented-sixth plays with the duality of D and Db that returns throughout the movement. Building up a dense texture once more, Mahler incorporates the whole orchestra, with the exception of flute, trumpet and percussion.
Call and response is utilised slightly further on in b. 77 – 83, with the winds shadowing the strings. At b. 88 there is another change back to four sharps in the key signature, which reflects the same change that was made in b. 28. As a five-part Rondo this makes sense as a later section will usually reflect that of a previous change in the rondo form.
This section is led in by the clarinet with the English horn and flute interjecting. In general, this section is much more emphatic to D major, although there is a somewhat juxtaposition of C# minor and D major in some bars – again playing with the idea of tonal duality.
By b. 99, the winds have taken over and only the celli and basses remain in the string section. Led by the clarinet, this section is much less dense in texture and the decrescendos from p to pp are incredibly effective when the strings come back again in b. 107 marked as ff. A sense of momentum is only ever felt in small bursts and this is certainly one of theme, with the building up of texture. By b. 121 Mahler has modulated back to Db for the final few pages of the movement. From b. 122-125, there is a suspended Cb held by both violin parts which then begins to slowly descend through Bbb-Ab-Gb and then landing on F in b. 126 .
Another example of Mahler recycling previous themes and compositional techniques, this descending sequence marks the beginning of the next section of the movement (Tempo I). With embellished phrases from the horns and celli, this section vividly reflects the ‘turn’ motif previously heard. The texture here is incredibly dense and all parts are now involved. The dichotomy between D and Db is also developed here and the use of Neapolitan chords really accentuates this duality idea.
The horns are very much at the forefront, until the orchestration dilutes to just a string orchestra for four bars, before bringing the winds back into the music. The small change between 4/4 and 6/4 time is accentuated in b. 137, although this is not taken much further.
The tempo has become slower somewhat, and this is where the end is beginning to draw closer and closer. This section is the last where there is a full orchestra playing. From b. 146 there are some incredibly high chords led by the violins, which has been referred to as ‘crisis chords’ and they provide us with the beginning of the Coda section.
From here the harmony and instrumentation become fragmented and the tempo is beginning to get even slower than before. These suspended ‘crisis chords’ are accentuated around this fragmented instrumentation, which builds emotion and drama into the narrative (if you should so choose to follow it).
The coda is comprised of only strings, which could signify the orchestra dying away like life. The use of chromaticism here is also interesting as the Coda moves quite simply between the tonic, dominant and sub dominant. If I am quite honest, the last 24 bars or so are genuinely the most perfectly put together and for me nothing can surpass it – it is truly beautiful. Mahler quotes one of his own songs from Kindertotenliefer where he used the music setting of the words:
“The day is beautiful from those heights”
The ultimate consolation is found at the end of this symphony and the as the music slowly unfolds with its last breaths the silence and stillness waits for those last notes. Perhaps one of the emptiest moving passages written, the music gradually and very peacefully slips away after one final farewell. Death has come, but it came after being accepted and embraced.
The fourth movement is incredibly spacious and hymn-like in many places, making it incredibly effective in a number of ways which I hope I have highlighted in the above blog. One thing that is incredibly sad is that Mahler died in May 1911 without actually hearing the Ninth Symphony performed. Due to this, a lot of people have assumed that this ending was his conscious farewell to the world, as he knew that his own death was soon approaching. Therefore, the premiere was in 1912, conducted by Bruno Walter. The work is extraordinary and has received much attention from scholars and fans alike:
“It is terrifying, and paralysing, as the strands of sound disintegrate … in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.” – Leonard Bernstein
Ⓒ Alex Burns