Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini
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If we accept the definitive numbering. Mahler composed nine symphonies, and the symphony on this recording is his last. However, between No. 8 and No. 9 he wrote The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde), which he described on the title-page as "A Symphony for tenor and contralto (or baritone) and orchestra", and onlv refused to call it "No. 9" because of his superstition that a composer's Ninth Symphony must inevitably be his last (as with Beethoven and Bruckner). Also, following No. 9, stands the full-length manuscript draft of No. 10, which has been available in facsimile since 1924, and has been published in London, in a fair copy, together with a practical performing version of it by the present writer.
So there are eleven symphonic conceptions in all, as Mahler's biographer Richard Specht pointed out as early as 1913. And this total symphonic output is divisible into three trilogies - early, middle-period, and late - separated from each other by two single works. Specht indicated the first two trilogies: symphonies 1-3, either using voices or quoting Mahler's songs, express the high metaphysical aspirations of his early years; then, following No. 4, which is a kind of idyllic pendant to these first three, comes the humanistic realism of the purely orchestral symphonies 5-7. Finally, we can now identify the last trilogy: after the fully choral Eighth, which is a sort of throw-back to the first period, there are the three death-haunted works of his last years - The Song of the Earth, No. 9, and the unfinished No. 10.
The Ninth Symphony, then, is the centrepiece of the last-period trilogy; and like its equivalents in the two earlier ones - the idealistic "death-and-resurrcction" No. 2, and the stoical "death-without-resurrection" No. 6 - it plunges into a darkness which represents the spiritual nadir of its period. In this last period, however, everything is on a much more desperate plane than before. The Ninth Symphony marks Mahler's furthermost descent into the hell of despair that suddenly confronted him after the mighty spiritual affirmation of No. 8, when he was told by his doctor that he had not long to live, and found his hard-won religious faith too insecure to exorcise the spectre of his swiftly approaching premature extinction. The first symphony of the trilogy. The Song of the Earth, is inexpressibly poignant, but it uses purely poetic terms to evoke the shadow of death. And the last symphony, the Tenth, although it too plumbs the depths of despair, rises in the finale above the terror of death and the heart-break of leave-taking, to a calm and transfigured acceptance (this is clear in the final pages of the facsimile of Mahler's manuscript, which is his real "last musical testament" - not the end of the Ninth, as is so often said). But in the Ninth, death is confronted on a naked existential plane, and is seen as omnipotent. As Alban Berg wrote: "The whole [first| movement is devoted to the premonition of death. Again and again it makes itself felt. All the elements of terrestrial dreaming culminate in it ... most potently, of course, in the colossal passage where this premonition becomes certainty - when in the midst of the deepest and most painful joy in life, death announces itself 'with the greatest force'." This phrase, "with the greatest force" (mit hochster Gewalt). is Mahler's expressive marking over the "colossal passage" to which Berg refers - the plunge from intense exultation straight into the overwhelming image of death which is the great climax of the movement. The work is, in truth, Mahler's "dark night of the soul"; and it is all the more moving in that there is no easy yielding to despair. Amid the heartache of the finale, after all the horror and hopelessness of the first three movements, Mahler's unquenchcd love of life still shines through, thanks to the capacity of great music for expressing contrary feelings simultaneously. The Symphony stands as a musical equivalent of the poet Rilke's "den-noch preisen" - "praising life in spite of everything".
But why should we be so specially interested in Mahler's feelings? Certain people are so repelled by what they call the romantic, autobiographical approach to music (even though this was Mahler's own approach) that they have adopted the characteristic present-day attitude of regarding Mahler's Ninth Symphony from a purely aesthetic point of view. A writer suggested that the Ninth was not at all Mahler's "farewell to life" hut his "farewell to the symphony" - which sounds very plausible until we remember that Mahler made it clear that he had not taken his farewell of the symphony, by going on to make a comprehensive draft of a five-movement Tenth. Another suggestion is that the Ninth was Mahler's "farewell to tonality", which again only sounds persuasive until we remember the large areas of music in the work that arc absolutely tonal, diatonic and triadic, and the equally large areas of this kind of music in the sketch of the Tenth.
A more intelligent acsthetic approach to the Ninth, which is very widespread, concentrates on the purely "prophetic" character of its style: its foreshadowing of revolutionary elements in the music of Schoenberg - the occasional breakdown of tonality, and the starkly contrapuntal character of much of the orchestral texture. But the danger here is that we may be led to reduce Mahler to the position of a mere "forerunner" -just as Mozart was reduced to the position of a mere forerunner of Beethoven during the nineteenth century. And in any case, the historical perspective of such a view is quite wrong: by 1909/10, the period during which Mahler completed the Ninth Symphony. Schoenberg (no doubt partly influenced by the new elements in Mahler's earlier symphonies) had already, in his Five Orchestral Pieces, reached a far more advanced position. It should now be possible, nearly three-quarters of a century later, to see Mahler as a great composer in his own right - moving towards his younger contemporary Schoenberg, no doubt, but no more than Mozart was moving towards his younger contemporary, Beethoven.
The most valid aesthetic approach to the Ninth, undoubtedly, is that which stresses the work's remarkable originality in relation to the symphonic tradition. There is the constant variation of themes, the continual interpenetration of one theme by another, and the uniquely subtle and far-reaching treatment of "cyclic" form - the latter not only in the occasional reappearance in the finale of materials from the Rondo-Burleske, but also in the use of a disruptive modulatory sequence (a chain of flat-submediant key switches), initiated in the second movement, to permeate the rest of the symphony. Indeed, the strange modulation itself, without the chain of such modulations as in the second movement, is already introduced in the first movement: here, Mahler manifestly quotes the opening theme of Beethoven's "Les Adieux" piano sonata (Beethoven's second statement of the theme, where he himself gives it a flat-submcdiant modulation). Again, there is the unorthodox disposition of the four traditional types of movement. The first is not the customary Allegro, but an Andante containing allegro elements: and after the second movement has followed one tradition by being a Scherzo in dance-rhythm, the third movement again flouts tradition by being another Scherzo, in rapid march-rhythm, which moreover has the size and brilliance of the customary finale. But the finale itself is an Adagio - a procedure no doubt derived from Haydn's Forty-fifth and Tchaikovsky's Sixth (both "farewell symphonies, we may remember) - but this "farewell" finale sums up the whole symphony in a quite unprecedented way. Apart from anything else - its "cyclic" character, for instance - it gives the symphony its "progressive tonality": after the keys of the first three movements - D major, C major, and A minor - it turns, not to the D major demanded by tradition, but to D flat major.
Yet such technical, aesthetic exegesis tells us nothing about the work's actual nature. A symphony could be composed, fitting all the above descriptions, which would be completely different from Mahler's Ninth. What is the point, for example, of the finale's being an Adagio, in a key a semitone lower than that of the first movement? The point, surely, is the extraordinary emotional character of the music itself: a three-sided conflict between agonised despair, a deep love of life, and a resigned sense of valediction - a character confirmed by its hushed, long-drawn quotation, just before the end, of the final vocal phrase of one of Mahler's own Kindertotenlieder, a phrase which pictures the dead children transfigured "on yonder heights" ("auf jenen Hoh'n" - Ruckert).
Are we then thrown back on to the autobiographical approach after all? Not in the least, since the "subjective" feelings a great composer expresses, it goes without saying, are conceived by him as being those of Everyman. If, as we are often told, Mahler is too much concerned with himself in his music, why does it strike so many sympathetic chords in so many other people's hearts?