Mahler Symphony no. 9

performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Carl Maria Giulini

(cover image by Tao Wen)


Well, here we are, my 600th music post. For my long-time readers, I’m sure you’re both tired of hearing me explain how not ALL of my posts count in this tally, only the ones about specific pieces of music, but here we are, after close to a thousand posts, with a somber, powerful, truly timeless, otherworldly symphony. It’s also been more than a year since we’ve seen a Mahler symphony on the blog…

Mahler’s ninth symphony is a work that, as I’ve discussed multiple times before, I had somewhat romanticized in my mind. I had planned on trying to digest and warm up to the seventh, eighth, and Das Lied before giving the ninth a single listen. This was the result of having read a description of a reviewer’s ‘perfect’ surroundings for enjoying the work, involving (if my memory serves, which may now very well be embellished) a cold evening, crackling fireplace, blanket, favorite warm beverage, and just letting the enormous scope and power of the work overtake you.

It’s been years in the making that I’ve finally written about the composer’s ninth, and after that first time, sitting on my bed with the score on my iPad and listening to Abbado, I’d already heard it more times than the composer had. Mahler died in May of 1911 without ever having heard it performed, but before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s talk a bit about Mahler’s life at the time, and what had been going on after Das Lied and around the time of this work’s composition.

Mahler was not as compulsive a reviser as Bruckner; rather, I’d say he was pragmatic. As an outstanding conductor, he would revise and adjust things as he heard them in rehearsals, perfecting and refining rather than making wholesale revisions of movements, or excising entire sections of works (multiple times) like Bruckner did. Mahler still wanted to make some of these revisions and refinements to his fifth symphony at the time of his death, so this wasn’t a quick process.

Das Lied had also then, obviously, not had its chance for any revisions. It was published and performed only after the composer’s death. We discussed that in the article on that piece, but it is also true of the ninth symphony. A listener might not think of anything specific that needs changing, and I feel grateful he never got around to revising the fifth, because it’s already a wonderful work as it is. That being said, Mahler’s changes were again usually more subtle than Bruckner’s.


So the ninth, the final ‘canonical’ Mahler symphony. We’ll eventually do the tenth, but lots of conductors won’t, or only conduct the adagio. So this, then, is his final completed work before his death.

The work was written between 1908 and 1909, before the premiere of even the eighth symphony. That’s a confusing aspect of Mahler’s output. The gestation period of his works was so long that the premiere of one often overlapped with the composition of the next work, or more. The juxtaposition between the eighth and ninth symphonies is nothing short of jarring until you put Das Lied in between them. It bridges the gap between such a positive, warm eighth and the solemn darkness of the ninth, between what is essentially an enormous cantata and a strictly symphonic work.

The work was composed in the shadow of the eighth symphony, around which time Mahler learned of Alma’s affair with Gropius. Mahler spent part of the 1908-09 season in New York sharing conducting duties with Toscanini, but returned to Europe over the summer where he worked on the ninth symphony. Here is as good a place as any to mention the ‘Curse of the Ninth‘ that prompted Mahler to use the Das Lied title for that work rather than giving it an ordinal number. He was apparently not as superstitious as Schoenberg, but superstitious enough. Here, finally, he faces number nine.

The work is in four movements, as usual, with the interesting feature that the work is sort of… inside out. The towering outer movements (first and last) are both very long, and are slow, while the two inner, shorter movements are the upbeat, faster ones, reaching levels of grotesqueness and violence that echo through even the most placid passages of the other movements. The work, as with all Mahler symphonies, is long, lasting in some recordings as long as 90 minutes. The four movements are as follows:

  1. Andante comodo (D major)
  2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (C major)
  3. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (A minor)
  4. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (D major)

While I’m sure a keen, willing listener would be able to appreciate this symphony without the kind of primer I’d suggest, there is a lot in this work that’s so typically Mahler’s style, that someone who’d been following the trajectory of his work would see and appreciate as uniquely Mahler. For one, before even listening, we have the Ländler, one of Mahler’s favorite forms for a central movement, pastoral, Austrian, all of that. Most of his symphonies also contain beautiful slow movements, but if we look at the third movement, we see ‘rondo-burleske,’ which is certainly not a slow movement. As mentioned earlier, we have to look to the adagio finale for our slow movement, and it is one of the most timeless, breath-stoppingly beautiful, and perhaps terrifying things we could hear, but we’ll talk about the emotional interpretation of the work a bit later.

The Music

The first movement is long. Depending on the recording, it’s about as long as the finale, sometimes a few minutes longer, sometimes a bit shorter, but that’s another detail we’ll talk about later.

If you’re interested in this work, though, and can’t quite yet bear the 90-minute commitment, or are new to Mahler or whatever, just cozy up and get familiar with the first movement. It itself is a stunning accomplishment of expression. If you know Mahler and his story, are familiar with his language, your mind may drift to the myriad tragedies and successes throughout his life, like the composer, the man, standing at a precipice, having climbed to a high point in life, like his own journey to Mordor, looking back over each chapter of the journey, remembering things both gratifying and sorrowful. This half-hour first movement draws the listener into this kind of meditative, personal space to experience, almost spiritually, Mahler’s mindset as he prepares, it seems, to close one door and open another.

Wikipedia says that “The first movement embraces a loose sonata form.” I’m not going to go into it here, because this article is already more than long enough, but in the Movements section, you’ll get a nice little rundown of a few of the motifs that we hear in the work, but the greatest ones, to me, are in the stunning first movement, from the horns and cellos at the very beginning, followed by harp, a glorious fanfare from horns that appears later, all of this is used and reused and underlines Mahler’s genius and the power of this first movement, driving home what we’ll be experiencing here. It may be… dare I say, the greatest movement of a symphony ever written, and I’d stand pretty strongly by that statement.

And with the first movement, its climaxes of color and turbulence and melody and all that this first chapter conveys, behind us, we land at what appears to be a cheerful, carefree second movement, the upward-moving phrase from bassoons a buoyant contrast to the long first movement. We hear in this movement a classically pastoral, Mahlerian Ländler, but as you should expect, it’s not blissful and bucolic for long. As the movement progresses, there’s an overall distortion and decay to a place far away from the clear, crisp C major in which we began. Everything is poisoned here: the tonality moves into a whole-tone, very chromatic palette; rhythms become more complex and frenetic, the wheels seem about to come off.

However, this ominous shadow that is falling over the work becomes a full-on storm only in the third movement, the shortest of the piece. We heard some cacophonous climaxes and roars in the first movement, and a general unraveling in the second, but it’s in this third movement that things really kind of… go to hell.

Also, have you ever seen a burlesque in a symphony?! Bach has one in his third partita for keyboard, and Shostakovich has one in the finale of his first violin concerto, but to my knowledge, this is the first burlesque in a symphony. What is a burlesque, though? Wiki, please?

burlesque is a literary, dramatic or musical work intended to cause laughter by caricaturing the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects. The word derives from the Italian burlesco, which, in turn, is derived from the Italian burla – a joke, ridicule or mockery.

How superb is that?! At this time, when Shostakovich was maybe just on his way to Kindergarten, here’s Mahler using a form for which the actual definition includes words like ‘ridicule’ and ‘mockery.’ Granted, he doesn’t have the same biting sarcasm that Shostakovich did, but then again, who does?

That definition is explanation enough for this third movement, a through-the-looking-glass sort of movement that, maybe a decade or more earlier, without thickly caked layers of tragedy and turmoil on Mahler’s lens, would have been tongue-in-cheek, maybe…? Compare it to the scherzo of the second symphony, which has its own silly sort of atmosphere, but nothing like the darkness in this third movement.

But then…. the finale, not only of this symphony, but really…. as some would have it, of Mahler’s career. This finale may have more interpretive donkey tails pinned on it than anything else in music, and we owe some of that to Leonard Bernstein and his enthusiastic yet perhaps in some cases over-Romanticized stories or interpretations (with words or a baton) of Mahler’s music. But more on that in a moment.

We have yet another towering finale, coming in at an average of about 25 minutes, with Boulez’s (otherwise fantastic recording) blowing through the movement in only 21 minutes, and Abbado leading the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in a legendary live performance where he reaches the 30-minute mark…

And you know what, it’s somehow perfect. If you follow along in the score, you’ll realize that the last two pages, one page, half page… lasts for minutes. This entire movement, as much as everyone has tried for more than a century to describe it in words, really must be experienced. The wildness and serenity and sorrow and delicacy and explosive violence of the preceding three movements are all processed here, sorted out on this emotional threshing floor. After a career of gargantuan, grandiose gestures like the finale of the second, third, sixth, eighth symphonies… how does one outdo himself yet again?

Well, recall the ewig, ewig… of Das Lied, and you’ll get something close to what happens with this final movement. The continuing quiet of the music has been associated with Mahler’s own (somewhat imminent) death from his heart condition, the slowing wheezes as he leaves the earth, or figuratively with the death of tonality, or many other interesting programmatic ideas that may be more imaginative than factual.


However, hearing this piece live, I can tell you what happens. As the music slowly fades, ebbing away like a tide that will never return, it’s as if the air is sucked out of the room, slowly closing in on all sides until we’re unable to move. In some sense, we die with Mahler, and the subtlety of this approach, the purity of those few gestures hanging in silence, is one of the most powerful, mature things Mahler could have done. Of course, we are all left with our own impressions and thoughts and takeaways, but when a piece like this finishes, I can’t help but be paralyzed, at least momentarily, a little bit in awe of the experience, not sure if standing up and walking away is prudent or possible, but life does go on.

And it did for Mahler, too. All those very interesting ideas about Mahler’s ninth being about death, the opening ‘unstable’ figure representing his failing heart and all the rest, it sounds so great, but really, Mahler was already working on his tenth symphony, had a busy conducting schedule… I wouldn’t necessarily say he was in great spirits, but he wasn’t clinging to life by the skin of his teeth, at least not during the piece’s composition.

Others will also call into question the deathly aspects of this piece and say that instead of loss and passing and resignation, they hear hope, positivity, resilience, a future. I’ll say I’m not one of those people, but hardly am I ever one of those people, not just as this symphony is concerned. Mahler was already beyond the stage where he even tried to attribute program notes to his pieces, only to retract them later. That is, wonderfully, for us to decide ourselves.

Finally, a Matter of Recordings

I just really like Boulez. He leads the Chicago Symphony on the recording in his box set, and the first movement is one of the greatest readings ever laid down, to me. The central movements are also pretty wonderful, but the biggest mark against him, and the reason he isn’t featured, is because he really does blow coldly through the finale. I’ve never really 100% agreed with people’s accusations that Boulez’s Mahler is lifeless and cold, but I really do feel like there’s something a bit lacking here.

That aside, there are plenty of wonderful and/or famous other recordings. I don’t do Karajan, sorry, so he’s out, or Bernstein, really, so ditto. I decided to stick with Giulini and the Chicago Symphony because it’s just…. a superb recording, but aside from that ballsy, epic, drawn out end from Abbado with Lucerne when his own health was failing, I’d like to mention a few other less conventional recordings.

This article is long enough, so I won’t go into detail, but if you’re a collector of Mahler cycles, you may already have Michael Gielen’s box set. He’s a far more famous Mahler conductor than the next guy I’ll mention, and his Mahler cycle gets low key praise from plenty of people, even if it wouldn’t be my single choice. He does a fantastic reading of this work, though, and well worth a listen.

The other, more oddball choice, is Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Philharmonia, who almost got the pick for featured recording. He’s always a bit condescending in talking about Mahler, though, to the point that I feel it’s… a bit sacrilegious, but he does lead a very nice Mahler 9. Both Gielen and Salonen are on the far more modern end of the spectrum, towards Boulez’s side of things, accentuating the darker, more hard-edged aspects of the work. If you’ve got four and a half hours, go listen to those two and compare them with Giulini. I’d love to hear opinions.

And that’s it for Mahler’s ninth, and the completion of what is by some accounts all that belongs in his symphonic canon. I, however, am incredibly grateful that we have some wonderful completions of the tenth, which was actually already far more complete than many people realize, but I’m sure it will be some time before we get around to that work.

Please, please, please pick a recording of this symphony (that isn’t Karajan, Bernstein, or Boulez), listen to it, and just think about life, yours, Mahler’s, all of them. Thank you so much for reading.


3 thoughts on “Mahler Symphony no. 9

  1. “He’s always a bit condescending in talking about Mahler, though, to the point that I feel it’s… a bit sacrilegious, but he does lead a very nice Mahler 9.”

    I guess they goes without saying, but how ironic.

    Also, why don’t you like Bernstein? Feel free to link me if you’ve already said why somewhere.

    1. Some would consider it sacrilege that I say I don’t like Bernstein’s Mahler because it’s undeniable that he had a huge role in generating interest in Mahler, but there’s already so much emotion and extravagance in Mahler’s music that Lenny’s gilding of the lilies is just… too much for me.

  2. I’d say you’re doing yourself a disservice by not listening to Karajan’s last (live) recording of the 9th with the Berliner Philharmoniker. In my opinion, he has the measure of the first movement better than anyone. So much passion and longing. Such a concentrated sound. Such natural transitions. I’d urge you to try it, at least once.

    And I must say that usually I find Chailly’s Mahler too slow, but once I was fully acquainted with Mahler 9, his interpretation really hit home with a sort of majestic grandeur, all tone and colour and inevitability.

    Just my 2 cents. Great blog by the way!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s