The last movement of the Mahler 9 – it feels like the musical equivalent of watching someone pass away. (Fading Away by Henry Peach Robinson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the contrasting emotions of facing up to death. Movement II was a raucous dance movement. Movement III was a representation of chaos.

But the thing that has been eluding Mahler for the last two movements, was the one thing that he had just found at the end of the first movement: acceptance. This final movement, which showcases the strings especially, is probably one of the most powerful representations of dying ever composed.

One quick musical bit of jargon which I would normally avoid, but will help a lot with me being able to describe the music to you more easily, is the concept of a turn. A turn is a very particular thing that composers used a lot in the 19th century to make their music sound a bit more fancy. (The term they would use is that they were adding “ornamentation” to the music.) So instead of playing just one note, they would quickly play four, like this:

  • The note above the main note.
  • The main note.
  • The note below it.
  • Back to the main note again.

We’re normally used to hearing this in earlier classical music, but if you have a listen to the opening few seconds of this last movement of the Mahler 9, you’ll hear it’s a really intense long note, which is then followed by a quick set of four notes. Those four notes are the turn. (It’s also the Last Movement Hint that Mahler dropped in the third movement.) It occurs so often throughout this movement, that I’ll refer to it as the Turn Motif. However, unlike older composers who used it for a fancy effect, I think Mahler is drawn to it because the turn, with the notes grouped so closely together, starts to create a hypnotic effect after a while.

Okay, that jargon out of the way, let’s finish the symphony.

(0:00) Theme 1 – the strings immediately set the tone of this theme (and the whole movement) with lots of vibrato (which refers to the vibration each note makes), and an especial care to make sure that each note is connected to the one that follows. (We call this legato, which is Italian for “tied together”.) I call this theme String Intensity. It instantly gives the melody an enormous emotional kick, right from the start.  Tune-wise, this opening theme is a combination of two main ideas. One is the quiet idea from the middle of the third movement, which is the Turn Motif we’ve already talked about. The other idea, which arrives around the 0:24 mark, is a sad series of descending notes, which could very well be a hint of the famous hymn Abide With Me, often played at funerals. (And also written by a hymn-writer who knew he was only weeks from death.)

(2:00) For a brief moment, we hear a hint of a very sparse theme on the bassoon (but it will come back later) but it is swept aside very quickly by more String Intensity. It climaxes with an Epic Climb (3:54), stair-stepping up two notes at a time to reach …

(4:05) … a plateau with the Turn Motif repeating over and over again, this time in the minor key, but still quite recognisable.

(4:44) Theme 2 – This is like nothing else in all of Mahler. Super-high barely-there notes from the strings and a creeping bass line. The famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said this moment was like “transcendental meditation”, as if Mahler has managed to put all emotion and feelings behind him. I can understand why he would say that.

(5:32) Solo viola and flute as the music gets more spare. I really like this sound that Mahler creates.

(7:08) The String Intensity theme comes back, this time beginning on the French horns (which then makes me wonder whether I’ve made it confusing by calling it String Intensity!), but the strings soon return to the foreground (7:23). It continues on, growing in passion, like this bit at 8:54. Either way, the overall feeling I get is that Mahler has found his bravery. He has steeled himself up to do something, not with false heroics, but simply with acceptance. And now we are striding slowly but steadily forward into the unknown.

(10:59) I love this bit when the music works up to a massive climax and then …

(11:08) … just drops away to the strings playing quietly. It’s tragic and beautiful all at the same time. The Turn Motif continues on and on … At 12:29, we have our obligatory Mahler Chamber Music Moment. This is the one that makes everyone cry. Heartbreaking violin solo, a couple of woodwinds to close off the phrase and then …

(12:55) Chords on the high strings, with the Turn Motif on the lower instruments. Possibly my favourite moment in the whole symphony. This is where normally you might expect the movement to stop. But, no, it keeps going …

(13:32) … back to the Transcendental Meditation zone again with an off-kilter harp and a lonely sounding group of woodwinds.

(15:25) Return of String Intensity. Builds up to an even bigger massive climax …

(17:00) … which dies away to an extraordinary descending scale with the legato now so intense that each note seems to be clinging for dear life to the one in front of it. The full orchestra joins in (for the last time in this symphony), in another one of those majestic build-ups that seems about to hit the big ending note …

(18:33) … but then die away to softness, with that Turn Motif hanging in space alone. A bit more String Intensity and Abide With Me.

(20:06) There is one more final build-up …

(20:52) … and then one of the most extraordinary codas ever written. Over high whistling notes on the strings, the Turn Motif repeats over and over again, sometimes on solo instruments, but mostly on the strings.

Gradually, every instrument goes quiet except for the strings (minus the double basses). They repeat the same phrases over and over again, but getting slower and with longer pauses in-between. The only thing you can compare it to is a dying person slowly running out of life. Bit by bit, they slow down, and you’re not sure which breath will be the last one.

No matter how many times I hear it, unless I’m looking at the track times, I’m never sure when the symphony is about to end. It’s like it doesn’t really end, it just slips away. You look over, and the life is gone, the orchestra has stopped playing. If you see it live, watching the rest of the orchestra quietly wait while the strings die out feels uncannily like old friends gathered around a deathbed waiting for the last breath.

Over a century later, it is still one of the most moving moments in all music.


One thought on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement IV

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