Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Programme notes: Mahler Symphony No.9

Here's the note I wrote for KSO's concert on Monday. I'll probably have more to say about Mahler later.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.9

1. Andante comodo
2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers (Etwas täppisch und sehr derb) (In the speed of a leisurely Ländler [folk-dance] (somewhat clumsy and very crude)
3. Rondo – Burleske
4. Adagio



“…So in the first place it is completely untrue that any affaires have brought me down. I have not been brought down at all. I am leaving of my own accord because I wish to have complete independence… after ten years of hard work I have decided to leave a post which has remained mine to keep, right up to the moment of my final decision; of that I can assure you most decidedly.”

Not the words of a disgraced cabinet minister fending off accusations of misconduct, but part of an interview that Gustav Mahler gave to the Neues Wiener Tagblatt in June 1907, following his resignation from the Vienna State Opera. Disquiet about the way the House was managed had been growing over several years. Direktor Mahler became the focus of a campaign that made uncomfortable accusations about the artistic direction of the House, as well as its financial management. Many asked why Mahler was drawing an exorbitant salary from an opera house that was going to rack and ruin while hawking his own compositions on long foreign tours.

Then as now, a superstar conductor who seemed less than wholeheartedly committed to his prominent, well-paid job was sure to provoke resentment. But the complaints were the result of more than artistic or economic concerns. Anti-Semitism was rife throughout Vienna and Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Mahler was acutely aware of this. He had had to deny his own roots and convert to Catholicism in order to obtain the post in Vienna. He once commented, “I am thrice homeless, as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian amongst Germans, as a Jew throughout the world. Always an intruder, never welcomed.”

Having jumped before he was pushed, Mahler wasted no time: even before his resignation was officially accepted, newspapers announced that he had been appointed to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. No wonder he felt able to be so bullish in his public comments about his departure from Vienna. But his fortunes were about to take a turn for the worse. In July 1907 Mahler’s elder daughter Maria-Anna contracted diphtheria and died suddenly, aged five. A few days later his doctor diagnosed a disease of the cardiovascular valves and ordered him to limit his physical activity. The condition was not deadly; Mahler’s doctor almost certainly exaggerated the gravity of the situation, in order to persuade his workaholic patient to limit his routines. Nevertheless, these two blows hot on the heels of the plotting in Vienna left Mahler devastated.

The trauma of all this is reflected in the vast triptych of works he composed between 1907 and his own death in 1911: the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde [The Song of the Earth], the ninth symphony and the unfinished tenth.

It is ironic that the piece we hear tonight was his last completed work: A common superstition of the time was that following Beethoven’s epic final symphony, and Bruckner’s death weeks from completing his, nine symphonies represented some kind of limit. To go beyond this number was to search after knowledge forbidden to mortals. Mahler, a man of his time, was not immune to such thoughts, and shied away from numbering Das Lied von der Erde as his ninth symphony – which, it is clear from his letters, is what he considered it to be. He then began what we know as his Symphony No.9, consoling himself that as it was really his tenth, he had circumnavigated the issue. Tempting fate rarely ends well.

The symphony’s design is unusual: two vast, largely slow movements, between which come two shorter interludes. The main theme, heard after a stuttering, unsure opening, is filled with an insatiable longing, always stretching out for a resolution, never quite finding it. It carries on almost directly from the closing bars of Das Lied von der Erde’s ‘Abschied’ [Farewell], to the extent that it almost seems like an instrumental commentary on the vocal work. Over and over the music reaches for joy and triumph, and over and over it is battered into numbness. Towards the end of the movement a solo violin transforms the main theme into an ironic quotation of Johann Strauss’s waltz Freut euch des Lebens! [“Rejoice in Life!”]

If the opening represents crisis, the subsequent movements may stand for the classic pattern of reaction to grief: denial, anger, resignation and acceptance. The second movement is based on the traditional Austrian country waltz, the Ländler. This had always been a symbol for Mahler of the joys of life, of simple revelry and love of nature, but here it becomes something else: the joy has gone, and what is left is an empty and shallow distraction.

The subtitle “Burleske” suggests more distraction. But in contrast to the disconnected Ländler, this extraordinary outburst throws the listener into a seething mass of activity. Having left Vienna for New York, Mahler had quickly fallen out with the management of the Metropolitan Opera, and left for the New York Philharmonic, which he also fell out with. It is tempting to see a reflection of this professional turbulence and hyperactivity here. The music strains and splinters at the edges in a complex mass of sound that teeters on the edge of chaos. For a brief moment the clouds roll back and a glimpse of hope emerges. But it is a mirage, and eventually the restraints are broken and the movement races out of control to its car-crash conclusion.

The distractions cannot continue, and the finale returns to the world of the opening movement, at once lushly beautiful and filled with anguish. The main theme’s allusion to “Abide With Me” may or may not be intentional, but the reference is entirely appropriate. The vision from the Burleske returns, now merely a memory. Later there is one more quotation, from the fourth of his Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children], ‘Oft denk’isch, sie sind nur ausgegangen’ [Often I think they’ve just gone out]:

“Wir holen sie auf jenen Höh’n
Im Sonnenschein! Der Tag ist schön auf jenen Höh’n!”
[We’ll go and fetch them up on the hills
In the sunshine! It’s a beautiful day up on the hills!].
From here everything retreats slowly to silence, and in the last moments, a suggestion of acceptance.

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