Musings on Mahler's Ninth Symphony

by Gerald S. Fox
President, Gustav Mahler Society of New York

This article examines issues apart from the symphony's musical content, but which we hope will enhance your understanding and enjoyment of the music. Peripheral questions will be answered, or at least explored. Little known facts will be divulged, clues to conundrums will be proposed and surprises will be sprung. Discussed herein are:

Fear of the Number 9. It is commonly believed that just as Arnold Schoenberg was very superstitious about the number 13 Mahler feared "9," at least for numbering his symphonies. Schoenberg's fear of 13 manifested itself in at least two interesting ways: For his opera, Moses und Aron, he deliberately wrote the name Aaron as "Aron," so that the opera's title would not have thirteen letters. Also, in numbering the measures of his compositions, he used 12, 12a, 14, to avoid the number 13! Schoenberg also feared number 9. In a memorial speech on October 12, 1912, he declared: "It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if that 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 have stood too near to the hereafter. Perhaps the riddle of the world would be solved if one of those who knew them were to write the Tenth, and that is probably not to take place." (Could Schoenberg have been unaware that Mozart wrote 41 symphonies and Haydn 104, to name but two very prolific composers?)

Whether Mahler actually feared the number 9 is disputed because the primary source of that information is the not always reliable Alma. This alleged superstitious fear is predicated on the "fact" that Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner and Dvorak did not get beyond their Ninths. (In fact, Bruckner did not even complete his Ninth. He left only sketches for the fourth movement.) But in Mahler's day, Schubert's last symphony was known as No. 7, and Dvorak's as number 5. Musicological research, well after Mahler's death, reassigned number 7 to number 9 in Schubert's case, and number 5 to number 9 in Dvorak's. Of the leading 19th Century romantic composers, that leaves only Beethoven and Bruckner with last symphonies numbered 9. Would these two be enough to frighten Mahler out of his wits? Mahler called Das Lied von der Erde a symphony: "The Song of the Earth: a symphony for tenor, alto (or baritone) and orchestra." However, he did not assign number 9 to it, possibly because Das Lied is really a hybrid: a "song-symphony," and fear of number 9 was not a factor. Mahler did number the symphony following Das Lied as number 9, but (Alma explained), "Because the Ninth was really Mahler's Tenth, he reasoned that it was past "the curse." Alma also claimed that Mahler refused to make corrections to the Ninth (and to Das Lied) because to bring these works to perfection would be to bring his life to completion.
Bruno Walter is no help in finding an answer to the Ninth Symphony conundrum. In his biography of Mahler, Walter confirms that Mahler hesitated to call Das Lied his Ninth because "for Beethoven and Bruckner, a Ninth was written finis. (Mahler) hesitated to challenge fate." That seems a clear victory for those who believe that Mahler feared number 9, except that Walter went on to write, "It may be that a superstitious shrinking from a Ninth prevented (Mahler) from talking about it. Yet, in that clear and powerful mind, I have never detected any trace of superstition. Nor could there have been anything of the sort here." A statement and a contradiction from the same writer!
Richard Specht, a well-known Austrian music critic and essayist who wrote many biographies, including one about his friend Mahler, leads us to believe that Mahler may have been superstitious about number 9 after all. Specht gives us to understand that after completing Das Lied, Mahler felt that he had warded off the fateful danger. But, did he get that information from Mahler himself, or from the unreliable Alma?

Was the Shape of Mahler's Ninth Symphony Inspired by the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony? Deryk Cooke pointed out that the shape of Mahler's Ninth is similar to that of Tchaikovsky's Sixth (Pathétique). Both works have large first movements, with slow and fast passages: both begin and end quietly; both have dance-like movements, the Mahler alternating waltzes with ländler, the Tchaikovsky in 5/4 meter, which has been described as a 3/4 waltz with a limp; both third movements feature virtuoso marches; both have powerful adagio finales, which do not end so much as die out. It is implied that Mahler copied the form of Pathétique, which was just 16 years old when Mahler began his Ninth Symphony. However, this becomes questionable when it is realized that Mahler had contempt for the Pathétique Symphony! Sometime, circa 1901, Mahler was discussing the Pathétique with Guido Adler, a well-known musicologist and friend of his. As Natalie Bauer-Lechner notes (Recollections of Gustav Mahler by NBL), Mahler told Adler that he considered Pathétique,"...a shallow, superficial, distressingly homophobic work'7no better than salon music. Tchaikovsky's coloring is fake, sand thrown in someone's eyes! If you look closely, there is precious little there. Those rising and falling arpeggios, those meaningless sequences of chords, can'2t disguise the fundamental lack of invention and the emptiness." (Phew!! Was Mahler talking about the same Pathétique I know and love? But, I digress.)

There are several questions regarding Mahler vis-à-vis the Pathétique Symphony. Why would Mahler copy the shape of a symphony he loathed? Why, after ignoring the symphony for some 16 or 17 years, did Mahler finally conduct it six times within a year (from the first time in January 1910 to the last time in January 1911)? Mrs. George R. Sheldon, the wife of a prominent banker, had established a committee with the aim of engaging Mahler to lead a "Mahler Orchestra" (really a revamping of the floundering New York Philharmonic). This would have guaranteed her heroic status in Mahler annals except that she and her New York Philharmonic Guarantors of well-to-do matrons plagued Mahler by dictating what should be on the programs (and occasionally criticizing his conducting!). Could it be that Mrs. Sheldon loved the Pathétique and insisted that Mahler conduct it'7frequently? All six performances (except one, in Rome, with an Italian orchestra) were with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall and in the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But the question remains, why would Mahler adopt the shape of his hated Pathétique to his Ninth Symphony which (along with Das Lied) was his favorite, which he was working on in the same time frame as when he conducted the symphony six times? Coincidence or conundrum?

Are the Symphonies of Mahler's Third (and Last) Period "Farewell Symphonies? Mahler's symphonies are generally divided into three periods'7early, middle and final. Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth and the unfinished Tenth comprise Mahler's last period. These three symphonies are often called Farewell Symphonies and the period is called the Farewell Period. The triumphant mode of the Eighth Symphony, expressed by Mahler for the last time in that work, gives way to a spirit of resignation and farewell in these last three symphonies. (The Eighth does not fit into that categorization'7it stands alone). Certainly, death and funeral marches play a large role in Mahler's symphonies, even though most of them end in triumph, peaceful resignation or acceptance. The reasons why the symphonies of the last period are particularly death-tainted are probably because in 1907, Mahler's beloved 4-1/2-year old daughter died of diphtheria and scarlet fever, and Mahler was told by his doctor that he had a fatal heart disease. The doctor was wrong about its being fatal, but Mahler believed him. I have deliberately not listed Mahler's "forced resignation" from the Vienna Court Opera as one of the blows of fate of 1907 because Jonathan Carr, in his excellent Mahler biography, proves (to me, at least) that his resignation was not "forced." Mahler resigned because he all but had a contract from the New York Metropolitan Opera, which offered him three times the Viennese salary for one third of the work! Difficulties with the Vienna Court Opera's artists and management and anti-Semitism are given as the principal reasons for Mahler's "forced" resignation. But he had dealt with difficult opera issues off and on and had faced anti-Semitism stoically throughout his life and contended with it. No, the main reason for his resignation from the Vienna Opera was the Metropolitan Opera's contract, which offered Mahler much more money for much less work (allowing him to set aside an inheritance for wife and daughter), and placed him favourably towards his goals of having the funds and the time to cease conducting and to compose exclusively. Sadly, his death prevented him from achieving that goal.

But, again, I digress. 1907 was surely a terrible year for Mahler, but 1910 also contributed to Mahler's anguish, for at that time, he became aware of Alma's affair with the young architect, Walter Gropius. It was that bombshell which sent Mahler to Sigmund Freud.
Some commentators argue that the Ninth should not be considered a farewell symphony, but the evidence is overwhelming that Mahler considered it as such. I think there is merit also in touching upon the other two symphonies of Mahler's last period. The last movement of Das Lied von der Erde is called Der Abschied (The Farewell), and the lyrics are about the bittersweet farewell of two friends parting ("I wait for him to bid the last farewell"). The music, of course, reflects this sadness and certainly "farewell" looms large in Das Lied's finale. Bruno Walter, who knew a thing or two about Mahler and his music, wrote "The last movement of (Das Lied) Der Abschied, might have been used as a heading for the Ninth." Clearly, Walter believed the Ninth a "Farewell: Symphony," but so did Mahler! He made specific references to this by repeatedly quoting the "farewell" motive from Beethoven's Op. 81a Sonata, which Beethoven called Les Adieux (The Farewell). Beethoven actually wrote in the score of the sonata the word "lebewohl" (farewell) over that motive. Also, in the draft of his score, Mahler wrote "Leb'2wohl, Leb'2wohl!" (on page 52). In fact, each of the Ninth's four movements has at least one central theme, which begins with that same motive. And, in the original draft, Mahler wrote in the margin, "O vanished days of youth! O scattered love!" Farewell indeed. As for the unfinished Tenth, it is a farewell symphony if only because it is the last thing that Mahler wrote, but even more than that, on one of the pages of the sketches for the Tenth, he wrote, "Leb'2wohl mein saitenspeil! Leb'2wohl, Leb'2wohl, Leb'2wohl" (Farewell my lyre, farewell, farewell, farewell). There is support from music critics, musicologists and musicians who were convinced that at least Mahler's Ninth is, indeed, a farewell symphony.

a) Richard Specht, Mahler's intimate friend and biographer, wrote (of the Ninth's) evening sun and farewell mood."
b) The unknown critic of the newspaper Fremden Blatt, felt that Mahler's and Bruckner's Ninth had "The Farewell to life" in common.
c) In 1913, Mahler's close friend, the musicologist Guido Adler, stated that in the Ninth, Mahler said farewell to life, and that the symphony closed "dying."
d) Mengelberg: "The Ninth is farewell from all whom he loved and from the world."
e) Dr. Moriz Schleyer, a critic attending the premiere, wrote, "...the resigned farewell of an unsteady person who finally went to his rest."
Why then are some so adamant about Mahler's last three symphonies not being farewell symphonies? Perhaps it is because "farewell" has negative connotations'7loss, loneliness, abandonment, even death'7but these, Mahler's last symphonies, are not downbeat, despite their being "farewell" works. Mahler, himself, actually wrote lightly about the Ninth. If he believed it a bleak, tragic work, would he have notified Bruno Walter of its completion so gaily? "(The Ninth) is a very satisfactory addition to my little family." All Mahler symphonies, even the Sixth, called "The Tragic," have upbeat pages, even triumphant ones. It is true that the music of the second part of "The Abschied" is sad and desolate, yet the last words of The Abschied (some of which Mahler wrote himself) are among the most uplifting in all Mahler: "The lovely earth, all, everywhere, revives in spring and blooms anew, all everywhere and ever and ever, shines the blue horizon, ever, ever, ..., ever" (ewig, ewig, ewig).
When Das Lied was all but complete, Mahler told Alma that living in Munich was so inexpensive and the climate so salubrious that they should consider settling there eventually. These are hardly the words of a man who thought that he was at death's door, nor obsessed with thoughts of his own death: During the summer of 1909, when he was composing the Ninth, he was not in the least careful about following his own doctor's orders. He wrote to Alma that he tramped down to Toblach and back everyday in all kinds of weather. Moreover, he had planned 100(!) concerts for the 1910-1911 season in New York. Yes, the last page of the Ninth was described by Bernstein as "the most musically realistic description of death itself." And yet, Mahler included even humor in the Ninth (albeit, sardonic, bitter humor). In fact, the Rondo Burleske third movement is a vicious satire, dedicated to Mahler's "brothers in Apollo," a contemptuous reference to those critics who claimed Mahler could not write counterpoint. It is no accident that the movement has a masterly double fugue (That'2ll tell '1em). It also has low humor. Listen to the nose-thumbing e-flat clarinet! Mahler's music embraces the tragic, as well as the happy, at the same time. Perhaps Deryk Cooke said it best: "Although the Ninth is Mahler's ... dark night of the soul, ... his unquenched love of life still shines through, thanks to the capacity of great music for expressing contrary feelings simultaneously." No composer conveys this duality of expression as masterfully as Mahler.
Mahler certainly did not die in a valedictory mood, even in these farewell symphonies. Note the great orchestral sign towards the end of the Tenth Symphony, surely the last or almost the last orchestral statement he made. It says to me, "I accept death; but would dearly love to continue to live." Bottom line: The Ninth and the other two of Mahler's last period are assuredly "Farewell" symphonies, but each has many uplifting and even humorous pages. Mahler truly believed, and acted upon, his famous statement to Sibelius: "A Symphony must be like the world. It must be all embracing."

Recommended Recordings of Mahler's Symphony No. 9. There are 63 recordings of the Ninth listed in Peter Fülöp's Mahler Discography of 1995. Since that time, there have been many more recordings added. I have limited my recommendations to two recordings:

  1. Vienna Philharmonic/Bruno Walter, 1938. This is one of the first recordings made commercially of a concert performance and the first ever of the Mahler Ninth. Considering the technical difficulties of a concert recording as compared to a studio effort, the sonics are remarkably good. The Vienna Philharmonic, for the most part, plays with sheer beauty and deeply felt expression. The last movement, at a little over 18 minutes, is the fastest of any of the 63 recordings in Fülöp's discography (by comparison, the slowest is James Levine's, at almost 30 minutes); yet because of the phrasing, the beauty of the playing, Walter's musicianship and, perhaps, something extra: the orchestra's anticipation that the Nazis would be in Austria in weeks, ending the glory of both Mahler's and Walter's contribution to Austrian music (both had been Jews), I am never aware of undue haste when I play this recording. It always sounds gorgeous and apropos. The transfer of the recording from 78-rpm discs to CD has been accomplished so well that it might be taken for a taped recording of 20 years later. The recording has been released on several labels. Mine is EMI CDH63029, but I understand that the Dutton and the Naxos issues are at least as good.
  2. Berlin Philharmonic/Leonard Bernstein. This is also a concert performance. It is the most awesome, intensely emotional performance I know, and is so incredible that it is one of the tops in my list of recordings, despite a gross error in the fourth movement, where the trombones failed to enter in bars 118-121 (Critical Edition). It was the first and only time Bernstein ever conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, which probably explains why the bars with the missing trombones could not be corrected by splicing in from another performance. I do not think that the error would bother most listeners (or even be noticed by them.) The recording is DG album 435378-2.