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The knowledge that for two of the immortals of symphonic history – Beethoven and Bruckner – their ninth symphony was also their last would both challenge and irritate any composer with a historic awareness as strong as Gustav Mahler’s. Mahler certainly regarded himself as successor of the named composers, for whom the ‘symphony’ was the supreme form of composition. A good measure of superstition played a role in this perception, but one should also not ignore the fact that the movement of ‘Symbolism’, which strove to demonstrate connections between generally understandable symbols and personal destiny, was an important concept in the poetry and art of the time.
Mahler at first elegantly but consciously, if one is to believe the memoirs of his wife Alma, avoided the problem by giving the composition following his Symphony No. 8 the title Das Lied von der Erde and only calling it ‘A Symphony for one Tenor and one Alto’ in the subtitle. But the title page of Symphony No. 9 shows that Mahler obviously had problems with the number ‘IX’; it is recognizable that the first of the two symbols was added to the ’X’ at a later time.
The work was composed in a single summer, that of the year 1909 in Toblach / Dobbiaco. In a letter to Bruno Walter from his holiday domicile, Mahler wrote: ‘I have been very diligent and am presently finishing a new symphony. […] It expresses thoughts that I have meant to express for the longest time.’ As in the case of other compositions, Mahler is here referring to a draft of the score (dated 1 September 1909 at its end) which he took with him to New York in order to orchestrate and prepare a fair copy of the score during the winter season. He began with this task around Christmas 1909 (letter from 18 or 19 December to Bruno Walter: ‘I hope to begin with my 9th soon’) and completed it on 1 April 1910 (letter to Bruno Walter: ‘The fair copy of my IXth is finished’). Apparently Mahler had the first movement, which was probably finished in January or February, copied before completing the work; his copyist in New York, the German-born second violinist and librarian of the New York Philharmonic Henry G. Boewig, prepared the engraver’s copy of that movement before the Mahlers left New York for Europe on 5 April. Mahler took everything with him and entrusted his main copyist of the last years in Vienna, Johann Forstik with the preparation of the engraver’s copy of movements 2 to 4. It was completed during the summer of 1910 while Mahler was in Toblach, drafting his Symphony No. 10. As always, Mahler reworked the engraver’s copy, making numerous corrections and adding a great number of items. The publishing contract with Universal Edition is dated 21 May 1910, but engraving did not begin until 11 July 1911, almost two months after Mahler’s death on 18 May. The first performance on 26 July 1912 by Bruno Walter and the Vienna Philharmonic was conducted ‘from the manuscript’; the printed score was first delivered on 10 December 1912.
The following sections of this introduction use the examinations and thoughts of the distinguished American Mahler scholar Stephen E. Hefling. One of the characteristics of Mahler’s late work is that it obviously spans an arc to his youth by using the forms, motives and methods of his early compositions and leading them to a greater perfection. Thus regarded, Symphony No. 8 builds on the cantata for choir and orchestra Das klagende Lied, while Das Lied von der Erde expands upon the symbiotic relationship between symphony and orchestral lied that began during the ‘Wunderhorn’ years. In comparison, Symphony No. 9 at first glance seems to have no connection to Mahler’s youth; we shall see, however, that this is not true. Symphony No. 9 is characterized by two factors: it limits itself to instruments (as the middle trio of Symphonies No. 5, 6 and 7 do), and it occupies itself intensively with ‘musical language’. Jens Malte Fischer has compared the beginning to the stammering of one awakening from a dream. The composition of Symphony No. 9 was preceded by endless discussions concerning metaphysical questions in the arts (in May 1909 in Vienna) with the philosopher and poet Siegfried Lipiner, an important friend of Mahler throughout his life. Lipiner had written a poem about the theme (Der Musiker spricht [The musician speaks], a tribute to Mahler on his 50th birthday) and the main idea of the poem seems to have found its way into the symphony: ‘Sie selbst, die Nacht, horcht auf, wie sie erklingt / Vom ew’gen Licht, das ihr im Schooße schwingt.’ [The night itself, listen how it rings out / of the eternal light, that vibrates in its womb.] Alban Berg had similar feelings when he wrote to his wife, in 1923 or later: ‘The first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler ever wrote. It is the expression of an exceptional love for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to relish nature to its deepest depths – before death comes. Because it will inexorably come. This whole movement is a presentiment of death. It appears again and again. All that is earthly and dreamy culminates in it …’
The draft of the score contains some words which verify these general perceptions and offer tangible evidence of the underlying semantic character of the symphony. The first movement three times cites a theme from the waltz Freuet euch des Lebens op. 340, by Johann Strauss jr., in variations. This waltz was dedicated to the Viennese Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and was written for the opening ball of the new golden hall in 1870. The Conservatory of the Gesellschaft, where Mahler studied piano and composition from 1875 to 1878, was located in the same building. At the most prominent citation (mm. 267–271) Mahler wrote the following into the score: ‘O Jugendzeit! Entschwundene! O Liebe! Verwehte!’ [Oh, time of youth! Vanished! Oh, love! Scattered by the wind!] (The other two citations are at mm. 148ff. and mm. 436ff.) It thus appears that ‘Freuet euch des Lebens’ is indeed a symbolic, bittersweet memory of the student years, of vanished youth.
There is another connection to the time of youth: All movements are built on the ‘motto’ of a descending second from the third to the second step of the scale, from mi to re. This motivic gesture also plays a role in Das Lied von der Erde (as for example in the famous ‘ewig … ewig …’ at the end). This, in turn, could be a reference to Beethoven’s programmatic piano sonata op. 81a, Das Lebewohl (commonly known as Les Adieux), which begins with these two tones. It may possibly be of importance that Mahler’s father in 1875 permitted his 15-year old son to study in Vienna after the youth performed the sonata on the piano.
The large-scale form of Symphony No. 9 is unusual in a number of ways. It reminds in no way of the ninth symphonies of famous predecessors. Two slow movements, an Andante comodo at the beginning and an Adagio at the end, form the frame for two of the most parodistic and embittered inner movements that Mahler ever wrote – a ländler-waltz combination, and the ‘Rondo-Burleske’, a bitter, ironic movement that is derisively dedicated ‘to my brothers in Apollo’. The most extraordinary part of Mahler’s last completed symphony must certainly be the slow finale – a 20-minute long intensively singing movement laden with conflict that includes references to earlier works by Mahler, in slow motion as it were (Urlicht, Ablösung im Sommer, the scherzo of Symphony No. 3, Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde, and Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen from the Kindertotenlieder); it indeed seems that a circle is being closed.
(translated by Thomas Stark)