If you’re still following along, we are down to the final three Mahler symphonies and because I’ve been tackling them out of order, you’ll know these are my favourites. While I like various bits and pieces of the other symphonies we’ve heard, these three are absolutely some of the greatest orchestral pieces of music ever written and an amazing experience. (Especially if you can hear them live!)
So we turn now to Mahler’s haunting Symphony No 9, the last complete symphony that he ever wrote. If you remember, the Mahler 10 was completed melodically – as in, he wrote down the main tunes – but was never fully orchestrated. The Mahler 9, however, was fully written and scored for orchestra but he died before he could hear it performed. Despite that, it works amazingly well. I’m always staggered that composers could just be so intimately familiar with the sound of different instruments that they could write it down, hearing in their head what it would sound like, and then – lo and behold – it all turns out to work in real life.
In terms of its sound and theme, if you’ve been listening to the other symphonies on this tour, it fits in very well with Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde because it is about the same thing – dealing with death, saying farewell to life, etc. But, for my money, the Mahler 9 easily outstrips the other two in terms of raw emotional power. It feels like this is Mahler, knowing he is going to die, looking death in the face and expressing all the emotions that go with it. It feels, in short, like a last symphony. (And given that Dvořák, Bruckner, Schubert and Beethoven all hit nine symphonies and then died, 9th symphonies always seem to have a special flavour to them.)
It consists of four movements, but unlike regular symphonies, the first and fourth movements are slow movements (and massive slow movements at that) and the two middle movements are the fast ones. So there’s nothing really resembling the epic fast opening or closing movement that you would get in a Brahms or Beethoven symphony. So why this unusual structure? Well, it really gives him a chance to express philosophical ideas without using words.
Movement I starts out as a gentle farewell to life and turns into a massive life-and-death struggle against mortality. Movement II is an increasingly crazy dance. Movement III is a harsh, chaotic scherzo. Both of these seem to be looking at life and seeing chaos and meaninglessness. And then, finally, Movement IV – one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written – expresses a calm and resignation in the face of death and contains one of the most astonishing musical representations of dying ever composed.
For the recording, I’m showcasing a beautiful performance done by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who I am privileged to currently work for), conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!