Mission: To seek and share inspiration

jesuslopez2550x482 -opt.jpg

López-Cobos Conducts Mahler 9




(b. 1860-1911)


Symphony No. 9 in D Minor


There will be no intermission at these concerts.


Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Timing: approx. 81 min.
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, piccolo, 4 oboes (incl. English horn), 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, snare drum, orchestra bells, cymbals a2, triangle, bass drum, chime in a, suspended cymbals, chime in F-sharp, tam-tam, chime in b, 2 harps, strings


The CSO has performed this work on six previous subscription weekends, including the premiere in December of 1976, Eduardo Mata conducting, and the most recent in November of 2006, Paavo Järvi conducting.

Mahler was born on July 7, 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia; he died on May 18, 1911 in Vienna. He first sketched the Ninth Symphony in the summer of 1908 in Toblach, Austria. The work was completed by April 1, 1910 in New York. Bruno Walter conducted the first performance at the Vienna Music Festival on June 26, 1912.

At rare times circumstances conspire to place an artist of sensitivity and vision at a cultural and philosophical crossroads that he or she uniquely understands and can express. The result can be a great work that speaks eloquently of its era to all future ages. Such a time was the end of the first decade of the 20th century, and such an artist was Gustav Mahler. The great work was his Ninth Symphony—a heart-rending farewell to 19th-century values and to a world of innocence, and simultaneously a vision of a future too terrible and too wonderful to imagine in 1910.

The Ninth is the middle work of Mahler’s farewell trilogy: (1) Das Lied von der Erde, the song-symphony the composer refused to label Number 9 out of superstitious fear of death (Beethoven, Bruckner, and Schubert had died after nine symphonies), the last movement of which is “The Farewell”; (2) the Ninth, the most abstract of the trilogy and yet the most universal; and (3) the unfinished Tenth Symphony, over the manuscript of which Mahler wrote repeated cries of anguish at his impending death, yet which closes in a mood of tranquil acceptance of the inevitable. The Ninth is a work of parting not only because it repeatedly uses the farewell motive from Beethoven’s Les Adieux Sonata, but particularly because of its total range of expression. It is Mahler’s farewell to his life with his wife Alma, with whom he had had a stormy relationship but for whom he had found renewed tenderness as he came to rely on her more and more during his final months.(He also came to understand his feelings for her better during a psychoanalytic session with Freud.) It is a farewell to romanticism, which had grown overripe as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. It is a farewell to the symphonic tradition (although subsequent composers have indeed written symphonies, after Mahler the genre was no longer supreme and to utilize it was in some sense to invoke the past). Mahler brought the form that Haydn had first made viable to its emotional limits.

The death of one era means the birth of a new one. Mahler’s Ninth is the farewell of a dying artist in a dying age. The new age is best represented by the music of Mahler’s younger colleague, Arnold Schoenberg. The new music is really no more dissonant than Mahler’s (an important point to bear in mind). The crucial difference is that Schoenberg no longer believed in the aesthetic necessity of resolution. The conjunction between old and new, between farewell to the past and embracing of the future, is mirrored in the not very different music of Mahler and Schoenberg.

KEYNOTE. Before the Ninth can take leave of its special world, it must establish what that world is. The first movement does so on a lofty, abstract plane. It starts with the most elemental of sounds—a rhythmically repeated single note, suggestive of the first sound we ever hear, a heartbeat. Soon various fragments of sound appear—a simple harp motive, a horn fragment, a viola oscillation. Still no melody, no continuity. The violins enter with a fragmented line, more like a series of sighs than a true melody. The music is growing, gradually and inexorably, from the most basic sounds to a sophisticated musical statement.

Several times the music reaches this goal, and several times it crumbles back to its fragmented origins. Twice (the second time triumphantly) the opening elemental rhythm interrupts and brings back nebulous wisps of sound. Only toward the end does resolution come: at last continuity is achieved, not by the full orchestra blaring forth its agonized cries but by an intimate and poignant duet for flute and horn. Now there is peace. When the fragments return after this duet, their inner tension is gone. They are consonant, gentle, touching, other-worldly. The music has gained in simplicity what was impossible with grandiosity.

If the first movement bids a tortured good-bye to the aesthetic turmoil of romanticism, the second says adieu to the very different world of Austrian peasant culture. The music is thoroughly continuous, and the continuity comes from two age-old folk dances, the Ländler and the waltz. Mahler subtly makes them a bit grotesque by unusual orchestration (notice in particular the use of contrabassoon, piccolo and string bass), as if to indicate that the innocence of pre-20th-century Austria had already begun to sour.

The movement opens with a simple Ländler in moderate tempo that seems to end over and over again, often with a version of the farewell motive from the first movement. As if to get out of this endless cycle of cadences, the music plunges suddenly into a demonic waltz—a waltz with none of the elegance of Johann Strauss’s Vienna, but rather full of the conflicts of the 20th century. Eventually a second Ländler comes along, in a slow tempo. The three dances alternate to the end of the movement. When the first Ländler returns in the middle, it has lost its folklike naïveté, but when it returns at the end, it is again innocent. Or is it? Just before the close it turns suddenly sinister and shadowy, although it does end simply enough.

The inner tensions of the first two movements erupt with veritable violence in the third, and thereby the symphony is finally purged of its turmoil. Just as the second movement derives from the dance, so the third comes from the march. The music plunges headlong into grotesqueness. The fragmentation of the first movement returns, as melodies often seem unable to go on for more than two bars without stumbling. Here Mahler comes closest to a 20th-century sensibility. The music drives relentlessly, mercilessly, until—almost without warning—the mood changes to a sentimental serenity. After this extended slow section, the fury of the march returns to drive the music ruthlessly to the end. 

It is a master stroke that a small but prominent motive from the middle section of the third movement, stated at first calmly but then mocked in the E-flat clarinet, is transformed into a principal motive of the poignant finale. It is in this movement, a broadly sweeping adagio, that Mahler makes overt his farewell. It is not a farewell of bitterness (as in the first movement), of nostalgia (as in the second movement), or of protest (as in the third). The composer has moved into a purely spiritual realm. It is as if he is accepting death, even welcoming it. The movement is bittersweet, intense, impassioned and extraordinarily beautiful. And when it ends, it is with exquisite tenderness.

—Jonathan D. Kramer