GUSTAV MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 9 (1908–10)
Fellow composer Alban Berg wrote that the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony “is the greatest [he] ever composed. It is the expression of a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully and to enjoy nature to its deepest depths.” Personal turmoil and tragedy are painted on the vast canvas of the Ninth. Nothing Mahler ever did was small or simple — a listener can hear that in the grand, bold gestures of this work. Though superstitious about composing a ninth symphony (he knew that Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, and Bruckner did not live to write a tenth), he tried to outwit fate after the Eighth by giving his next symphonic work a name, Das Lied von der Erde, instead of a number. Then came the Ninth, which in fact turned out to be his last completed score. Some view it as Mahler’s valedictory to life: it is preoccupied with thoughts of his own death and the tragic loss of his young daughter, Maria. In the pulse of the opening bars Leonard Bernstein heard “an imitation of the arrhythmia of [Mahler’s] failing heartbeat.” Others perceive a resignation to and acceptance of death, a farewell of such poignancy and beauty that it is impossible not to be moved. But if the first three movements sound as though Mahler is trying to grapple with inexorable fate, in the last he has already glimpsed the beyond.