MAHLER! Death Sentence

Mahler : Symphonie No. 9
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Following on from the death of his daughter, the diagnosis of a fatal heart condition, and the discovery that his wife had been having an affair and had decided to leave him, the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler sat down to write his last completed symphony, the Ninth. If the Ninth Symphony embraces the disintegration of Mahler’s personal life, it also speaks for the moral, political and spiritual decay that was beginning to infect the society in which he lived. Composed between 1909 and 1910, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony lays bare a German culture and a tradition of German music that had become, by the beginning of the twentieth century, increasingly febrile and fractured. Although the Modernist movement was still, roughly speaking, a decade away, the Ninth can be understood as a prophetic vision of the destruction that would come to devastate both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Symphonic tradition with the advent of war in 1914.

The first movement begins with an uneasy truce between a bruised resignation and the dawning realisation that one’s commitment to life can never be static – it must be renewed over and over. As such, this movement has a convulsive quality to it – indeed, it is a series of failed climaxes, wherein the pathos resides, not so much in annihilation, but in the repeated and often heart-breaking juxtaposition of the will to triumph and the slow, bloodied recovery from failure.

The second and third movements of this symphony are essentially polemical; they contain music of such cynicism that one could be forgiven for dismissing them as the ranting of a bitter old man. Although these movements bristle with the anger and frustration, they are by no means reactionary: the dissonances, atonality and sheer chaos of the third movement in particular imposes, ineluctably, on the listener a sense of the avant-garde, even a century after it was written.

It is in the fourth movement however that the true scope of Mahler’s ambition is revealed: the Ninth Symphony concludes with both a stirring, poetic affirmation of life, and a cold, almost Zen-like, acceptance of death. Like the first movement, it is a procession of essentially failed climaxes, but unlike in the first, this no longer seems so painful. As the music is gradually stripped bare, we approach the extreme horizons of sound and soul. As the great American conductor Leonard Bernstein put it: “It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate … in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.”

For the symphonic novice, I would recommend either the 1998 Deutsche Grammophon recording with Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or the 2008 EMI recording with Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. While these recordings may lack the prestigious pedigree of earlier recordings by Bruno Walter or Sir John Barbirolli, when listened to in conjunction with a first-rate stereo system (or a good pair of headphones) these modern, digital recordings provide a clarity of sound, in addition to rigorous interpretation, that is apt to provoke a most visceral pleasing reaction.