Chicago Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon, Conductor
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D Major
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 9
Mahler received a shocking medical diagnosis on July 14, 1907, two days after the death of his daughter Maria Anna. His doctor had identified an irreparable cardiac defect—a virtual sentence of death—and prescribed a drastic reduction in his workaholic routine. The physician’s recommendation included scaling back his professional activities and limiting physical exertion, such as the outdoor walks he enjoyed so much. Superstitious, and perhaps more than a little paranoid, the ailing composer attempted to outmaneuver fate by evading a “Ninth” symphony, the number after which Beethoven, Schubert and Bruckner died. Mahler delayed destiny by giving the successor to his Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand,” 1907) a programmatic title—Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”). The term “symphony” was relegated to its subtitle.
But, to what extent did Mahler become fearfully obsessed with physical death after his diagnosis? The composer’s own statements shed light on the question. A letter to conductor Bruno Walter written on July 18, 1908, explained away his melancholic state: “But fundamentally, I am only speaking in riddles, for you do not know what has been and still is going on within me; but it is certainly not that hypochondriac fear of death, as you suppose. I have already realized that I should have to die.” Obsessed? Unquestionably, as compositions produced after the dual tragedies of 1907 demonstrated. Fearful? Not at all.
Instead, Mahler dreaded a creative death caused by the very measures intended to prolong life. His doctor’s prescribed reduction in physical activity, in particular, cut too close to the core of his existence. “My mental activity must be complemented by physical activity,” he wrote to Walter. Aware of the consequences, Mahler chose a new summer home high in the northern Dolomite Mountains at Alt-Schluderbach, near the town of Toblach, in 1908, thus liberating his soul but condemning his body. In a small mountainside shack constructed as his compositional workshop, Mahler plunged into work on the Ninth Symphony between June and July 1909.
Walter perceived a close connection between this symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. “The title of the last canto of Das Lied von der Erde, ‘Der Abschied’—the farewell—might have been used as a heading for the Ninth.” Mahler tacitly supported Walter’s interpretation with subtle references to other musical “farewells.” His large-scale structure places a slow movement at the end, similar to Tchaikovsky’s final symphony (No. 6, Pathétique), whose hidden program followed a progression from life to death. More obvious are the thematic links between the first and final movements of Mahler’s symphony and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, otherwise known as Das Lebewohl (“The Farewell”). While the motif is indisputable, it remains unclear whose farewell Mahler portrayed: his own impending demise, his daughter’s death or the unavoidable end to every human life. Another thematic quotation—Johann Strauss’s waltz Freut euch des Lebens (“Enjoy Life”)—might have served as Mahler’s creed during his final years.
The Andante comodo reveals that its composer had reached a musical, as well as personal, crossroad. Mahler’s writing balances the expressive Romantic idiom—luxurious melodic lines, imaginative scoring and rich harmonies—with modernist chromaticism and a rhapsodic interplay of three quite dissimilar themes. This magnificent movement has been acclaimed as one of the composer’s most glorious and transcendent orchestral essays. Alban Berg described it as “the expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it, to enjoy nature to its depths—before death comes.”
For the scherzo movement, Mahler chose a commonplace Ländler, a triple-meter peasant dance evoking the dance of life itself, in this case done “somewhat clumsy and rough.” Unusual instrumentation turns the simple, happy dance step into an awkward, mocking gait. The sarcastic mood continues in the Rondo-Burleske, which the composer privately dedicated “to my brothers in Apollo,” fellow composers who accused him of possessing little contrapuntal skill. Symphony No. 9 concludes with a slow finale in which the “farewell” quotations resume. This anti-climactic ending distances itself emotionally and musically from the rest of the symphony (the Ninth begins in the key of D and ends in D-flat), and symbolically from life itself.
Mahler survived the composition of his Symphony No. 9, which was, in fact, his tenth symphony if one counts the unnumbered Das Lied von der Erde. Believing that he had dodged the curse, he sketched and began orchestrating a five-movement Symphony No. 10 during the summer of 1910 in Alt-Schluderbach. Mahler laid aside the score, intending to complete the orchestration the following summer. His feeble heart gave out on May 18, 1911, and the symphony remained unfinished. Fate prevailed in the end.
—Program notes © Todd E. Sullivan 2009
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Sunday, July 19 - Bennett • Gordon Hall
Artists from Ravinia’s Steans Institute