Gateway to Heaven
August 21 at 7:30 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church
The Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is not, technically speaking, his final work in the genre. Four movements of a Tenth Symphony exist in various stages of completeness, enough so that we must resist any temptation to hear the Ninth as his “swan song.” On the other hand, while composing the Ninth Symphony between 1908 and 1909, Mahler was painfully aware that his days could be numbered. In the summer of 1907, the 47-year-old received a crushing medical diagnosis (valvular heart disease) that all but eliminated the pleasures he could derive from vigorous, long walks in nature. Other tragedies—the deaths of his eldest daughter and mother-in-law—further deepened the pall that hung over Mahler in this period. Moved to superstitious feelings, he admitted noting parallels with Beethoven and Schubert, each of whom had lived to complete only nine symphonies (though, interestingly, both did sketch portions of their Symphonies No. 10).
Yet, through it all, as shown in this massive, incredible work, Mahler retained a devotion to beauty, love of nature, and a naive openness to the extremes of human emotion. The four movements are traditional in name only. The first, a grand Allegro comodo lasting nearly thirty minutes, offers a world unto itself. It opens with unhurried solemnity, coming to life ex nihilo (albeit in a very different way from Beethoven’s Ninth). It would be almost too easy to bask in this D-major reverie, where subtle tremolos ripple below a surface of pure longing. But while Mahler does develop this mood extensively, it is just one component of the overall narrative. That narrative can be aligned—with great effort—to many conventions of sonata form. In light of its overall scale and motivic density, it is perhaps more fruitful to study the movement in terms of prevailing contrasts: joy and despair, for example, which are writ large in fin-de-siècle music. Even the most sophisticated listener would struggle to spot elements of traditional sonata form, but most will perceive the opposition between passages of emotional repose and those of frantic unease. To say more, to pin a specific program on such music, is hardly necessary. Worse still, those descriptions likely say more about the commentator than the music itself, which does more than enough to make its emotional struggle feel both personal and urgent.
At the start of the second movement, Mahler calls upon a favorite topic: the earthly good cheer of a Ländler, Austria’s national dance. His intentional contrast against the previous spiritual dichotomy is made manifest in the tempo designation, “etwas täppisch und sehr darf” (rather clumsy and very coarse). Even so, within a minute we hear again Mahler’s commitment to sophisticated compositional technique. For instance, a new theme enters in the cello at measure 59 while at least four other ideas are also being played. A very different theme, kin to the Allegro’s chaotic passages, will eventually arrive, and it is striking to hear just how fragmented the motives become. It in turn gives way to another, more restrained Ländler governed largely by winds and horns. These two tempo ideas play off one another—a rustic battle of brute force versus tender entreaties. With all that being said, there is still much more to experience in this wonderful collection of dances, including a demonic waltz, before the various motives seem to fragment and peter out during the final bars.
The third movement typifies what makes Mahler so challenging for many listeners. The level of activity here seems boundless; one can imagine how “at sea” the first audience must have felt. Polyphony borders on cacophony, and certain passages sound like harbingers of Shostakovich’s freneticism. Labeled a Rondo-Burleske (the latter originally referring to a combination of comic and serious elements), it is not easy to pick out repetitions of a clear Rondo theme. More audible, in fact, is the ethereal high string/wind theme that intrudes midway through the riot. This theme does not evoke the lyricism of the symphony’s opening bars. Rather, being tinged with chromaticism, incredibly high strings, harmonic effects, and flutter tongue flute technique, it conveys something of a sacred experience among manic, asylum conditions. Still, as such, it provides a precious reprieve from the chaotic assault.
After nearly an hour, Mahler delivers us to the finale. Not having had a traditional slow movement to this point, his decision to end with a 20-minute Adagio makes sense in context. What else could fittingly cap such a symphony? An obvious precursor is Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the so-called “Pathétique” (1893). Tchaikovsky admitted the program to his Sixth was neither more nor less than “life and death.” The similarities to Mahler’s Ninth, particularly the anguish and pathos of their Adagio finales, only strengthen the urge to read a parallel narrative here. Tempo conjures a kind of hypnotic gravitas to all that occurs. For instance, the turn figures of the first theme lose their decorative charm, unfolding in cinematic slow motion to become markers of emotion. Moreover, the unexpected yet constant changes in tonal center will leave many feeling lost amid a swirl of thematic bits and pieces until pivotal arrivals (usually on a D-flat tonic chord) break through the gloom. Having established this mood, Mahler faces the aesthetic, philosophical, and religious choice about how to conclude. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth fades to nothingness. Mahler intensifies that strategy, creating glaciers of sound that barely move. In essence, the symphony’s final group of phrases lasts over five minutes; the last cadence alone stretches over two minutes. Creating such expanses of time allows the major-mode ending to not feel trite. The dilation of time—the image of relativistic effects to be felt on approach to a black hole comes to mind—completely overwhelms all our other senses. Based on this movement, Mahler had come to a deep peace with mortality. Despite his suffering, professional stress, and personal loss, Mahler ends his Ninth Symphony with a fervent homage to beatification.
Tonight’s performance features a brilliant arrangement for chamber ensemble by Klaus Simon. Mr. Simon has made numerous versions of symphonic works for reduced forces, including several of Mahler’s other symphonies. It might seem illogical to take the very largest orchestral works—Mahler himself would have been conducting the massive, hundred-person Vienna Opera Orchestra during the period in question—and pare them down to just 20 musicians. Yet Mahler’s music in particular, even at its most grand, works incredibly well as chamber music. There are several key passages in his symphonies, for instance, that are scored for solo violin, solo trumpet, solo horn. Moreover, among all the surface-level activity in his dense scores, one can often trace a feeling of conversation between parts, not unlike a string quartet. Of course, there will always be value in experiencing a live performance of Mahler by the Berlin Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony, with all of the immense talent and sheer majesty at its disposal. But there is also a great deal to be discovered when Mahler is stripped to the core, where every musician has a vital, singular role to play. The acclaimed conductor Benjamin Zander has said, “The ideal orchestra . . . would be one composed entirely of great individualists, each with the courage to play exactly what is he is given, regardless of what the others are doing.” That ideal cannot be attained by a full symphony orchestra. But Klaus Simon’s revelatory chamber arrangements bring that ideal much closer to reality.
© Jason Stell, 2021