Symphony No. 9 (Mahler)

The Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler was written between 1909 and 1910, and was the last symphony that he completed. Though the work is often described as being in the key of D major, the tonal scheme of the symphony as whole is progressive. While the opening movement is in D major, the finale is in D major.[1]

A typical performance takes about 75–85 minutes.



The Symphony is scored for the following orchestra:


The symphony is in four movements:

  1. Andante comodo (D major)
  2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (C major)
  3. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (A minor)
  4. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (D-flat major)

Although the symphony has the traditional number of movements, it is unusual in that the first and last are slow rather than fast. As is often the case with Mahler, one of the middle movements is a ländler.

I. Andante comodo

The first movement embraces a loose sonata form. The key areas provide a continuation of the tonal juxtaposition displayed in earlier works (notably the Sixth and Seventh symphonies). The work opens with a hesitant, syncopated motif (which some, including Leonard Bernstein, have suggested is a depiction of Mahler's irregular heartbeat[citation needed]), which is to return at the height of the movement's development as a sudden intrusion of "death in the midst of life", announced by trombones and marked within the score "with the greatest force"[cite this quote]. Moreover, the main theme also quotes the opening motif of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 26 "Les Adieux", Op. 81a, which coincidentally marked a turning point in Mahler's early musical career as he performed "Les Adieux" during his graduation recital in college[citation needed]. This is the descending F-E second which is resolved only at the end of the movement.

II. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb

The second movement is a dance, a Ländler, but it becomes distorted to the point that it no longer resembles a dance. The movement contains shades of the second movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, in the distortion of a traditional dance into a dance of death. Traditional chord sequences are altered into near-unrecognizable variations, turning the rustic yet gradually decaying C major introductory Ländler into a vicious whole-tone waltz, saturated with accidentals and frantic rhythms.

III. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig

The third movement, in the form of a rondo, displays the final maturation of Mahler's contrapuntal skills. It opens with a dissonant theme in the trumpet which is treated in the form of a double fugue[clarification needed]. The following five-note motif introduced by strings in unison recalls the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. The addition of Burleske (a parody with imitations) to the title of the movement refers to the mixture of dissonance with Baroque counterpoint. Although the term "Burlesque" means "humorous", the actual "humor" of the movement is relatively small compared to the overall field of manic violence, considering only two small neo-classical sections that appear more like a flashback than playfulness. The autograph score is marked "to my brothers in Apollo" and the movement may be intended as a sarcastic response to the critics of his music at the time.[citation needed][original research?]

IV. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend

The final movement, marked zurückhaltend ("very slowly and held back"; literally, "reservedly"), opens for strings only. Commentators[2] have noted the similarity of the opening theme in particular to the hymn tune Eventide (familiarly sung as Abide with Me). But most importantly it incorporates a direct quote from the Rondo-Burleske's middle section. Here it becomes an elegy. After several impassioned climaxes the movement becomes increasingly fragmented and the coda ends quietly. On the closing pages, Mahler quotes in the first violins from his own Kindertotenlieder: The day is fine on yonder heights. The last note is marked ersterbend (dying away).

Mahler died in May 1911, without ever having heard his Ninth Symphony performed. The work's ending is usually interpreted as being a self-conscious farewell to the world,[3] as it was composed following the death of his beloved daughter Maria Anna in 1907 and the diagnosis of his fatal heart disease. However, this notion is disputed inasmuch as Mahler felt that he was in good health at the time of the composition of the 9th Symphony; he had had a very successful season (1909-1910) as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and, before that, the Metropolitan Opera (New York). In his last letters, Mahler indicated he looked forward to an extensive tour with the orchestra for the 1910-1911 season.[4] Moreover, Mahler worked on his unfinished Tenth Symphony until his death from endocarditis in May of 1911.


The work was premiered on June 26, 1912, at the Vienna Festival by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter. It was first published in the same year by Universal Edition.

Views on and quotes about the Symphony

The enjoyment of Mahler's Ninth Symphony prompted the essayist Lewis Thomas to write the title essay in his Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony.[5]

Many Mahler interpreters have been moved to speak with similar profundity about the work:

  • It expresses an extraordinary love of the earth, for Nature. – Alban Berg[6]
  • 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. – Leonard Bernstein[8]
  • I believe it to be not only his last but also his greatest achievement. – Otto Klemperer
  • [The Ninth] contains what may be termed objective, almost dispassionate statements of a beauty which will be perceived only by those who can dispense with visceral warmth and who feel comfortable in a climate of intellectual coldness. – Arnold Schoenberg[9]

Less favourable views include:

  • Someday, some real friends of Mahler's will ... take a pruning knife and reduce his works to the length that they would have been if the composer had not stretched them out of shape; and then the great Mahler war will be over ... The Ninth Symphony would last about twenty minutes. – Deems Taylor[10]

Recordings (in chronological order)

The Ninth Symphony has been recorded over a hundred times for commercial release on 78-rpm discs, LP, CD, or DVD. An incomplete lists includes:

References and external links

  1. ^ 'Gustav Mahler', in New Grove, Macmillan, 1980
  2. ^ Mitchell, Donald (2002) The Mahler Companion OUP
  3. ^ Leonard Bernstein conducts and comments Mahler's Ninth Symphony
  4. ^ Henry de La Grange, Gustav Mahler, Vol. 4 - Oxford University Press, 2008
  5. ^ Lewis Thomas: Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony
  6. ^ Quoted in the liner notes to Mahler: Symphony No. 9, Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
  7. ^ Quoted in Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music by Richard Osborne
  8. ^ The Unanswered Question by Leonard Bernstein
  9. ^ Peter Quantrill, Gramophone, March 2008, Haymarket Magazines
  10. ^ Chord and Discord, February 1932, p. 23

See also

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