The Ninth tale

A sublime new recording of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and the recent publication of "Letters to His Wife," recall the chilling summer when the Austrian composer faced down his demons and wrote his masterpiece.


The Ninth tale

In June 1909, Gustav Mahler didn’t want to go back into his hut. At the time, the incorrigible composer was living in a big farmhouse in the Dolomite mountains in South Tyrol, Austria (now Italy). His restless wife, Alma, and daughter, Anna, were staying at a spa 60 miles to the south in the town of Levico, taking the waters. The hut, a wooden shack with windows, furnished with a piano, sat in a grove of pine trees, a quarter mile from the farmhouse.

For over a decade, Mahler had been shacking up in the woods to write music. Alone in his huts with his fountain pens and blank staves, he drew his musical breath from the encompassing forests, lakes and mountains. In the summer of 1896, the German conductor Bruno Walter visited Mahler in the Austrian alps and gazed up at the steep cliffs. The bold composer told his young acolyte not to bother looking at them. “I have already composed that all away,” he said. He was referring to his Third Symphony, with its exhilarating peaks of cellos and basses, rushing river of trumpets and trombones.

But now his Tyrolean shack, which he called a cellar, had to wait. “I haven’t yet summoned the courage to move into the cellar,” he wrote Alma. (Mahler’s “Letters to His Wife,” the first complete edition in English, was published in October 2004.) For one thing, it was cold and the hut needed a new stove. So Mahler dawdled around the farmhouse, where he was renting the upper floor, complaining, as he often did, about the noise made by the owners.

“When these yokels whisper, the windows rattle, when they tiptoe, it shakes the rafters,” he wrote. “All day their two sweet offspring chirp away: ‘Bibi! Bibi!’” Then of course there was the dog. It “barks from sundown until long after the yokels have entered the Land of Nod. Every quarter of an hour I’m woken by the dulcet tones of their snoring. Damn it all: how wonderful the world would be if one could fence off a couple of acres and live within them completely undisturbed.” Yes, Mahler could be a real charmer.

The courage he was trying to summon, though, wasn’t just to face the frigid weather. He was bursting with new ideas and was anxious to start his Ninth Symphony; earlier in the year, he had exclaimed to Walter, “I see everything in such a new light — am in such a state of flux, sometimes I should hardly be surprised to find myself in a new body.” But exposing that new light meant descending into solitude, and as much as Mahler loved only the company of his own music, that journey had been getting more difficult to make. The previous summer in the Dolomites had been one of the most emotionally wrenching in his career.

During those months, Mahler wrote “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), a symphony of six songs based on “The Chinese Flute,” an adaptation of ancient Chinese poems by a young German lyric poet, Hans Bethge. The song cycle was a musical breakthrough for him, although not an uncharacteristic one. He had been setting poetry, including his own love poems, to orchestral music since he was a budding composer in his teens. By 1908, two years shy of 50, he had illuminated his volatile symphonies, particularly the sprawling Eighth, with vocal music, and transformed lieder with the magnetic hues of his own dark soul. “The Kindertotenlieder,” finished in 1904, and based on tales about the death of children by German poet Friedrich Rückert, seemed to foretell the death of Mahler’s own 4-year-old daughter, Maria, from scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1907.

But “Das Lied von der Erde” was something else altogether. Two days after Maria died, Alma collapsed when she glimpsed the tiny coffin being loaded onto a carriage. After treating her, the doctor examined Mahler and discovered he had a congenital heart defect. The prognosis wasn’t fatal and the eternally willful Mahler wasn’t devastated by it. He was upset mostly because the doctor told him to go easy on the long walks in the woods and swims in cold mountain lakes, which had always undammed the first torrent of notes in his symphonies. But in the wake of his daughter’s death, learning he had a flawed heart understandably scattered his musical bearings. In a remarkable letter to Walter, written from the farmhouse in July 1908, Mahler tried to explain his mood.

“If I am to find the way back to myself again, I must surrender to the horrors of loneliness. But fundamentally I am only speaking in riddles, for you do not know what has been and still is going on in me; but it is certainly not that hypochondriac fear of death, as you suppose. I had already realized that I shall have to die. But without trying to explain or describe you something for which there are perhaps no words at all, I’ll just tell you that at a blow I have simply lost all the clarity and quietude I ever achieved … and now at the end of life am again a beginner who must find his feet.”

That Mahler found his feet with “Das Lied von der Erde” is one of the most magnificent accomplishments in music history. Composed for tenor and alto voices, Mahler orchestrated the unadorned oriental poems with exquisite precision. The finished work blooms with his innate passion for nature, soaring like the sun, and settling, like a falling leaf, into a trembling reconciliation with death. Its final song, “Der Abschied” (“Farewell”), particularly as sung by Kathleen Ferrier in a now legendary 1952 recording, conducted by Walter, stops any listener’s heart from beating, filling the stillness with a longing for which, truly, there are no words.

“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful,” Benjamin Britten, the literary British composer, wrote to a friend in 1937, after playing a recording of “Der Abschied” all night. “It has the beauty of loneliness, and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony.”

“Tomorrow I’ll go down to the shack,” Mahler wrote to Alma on June 21, 1909, having finally decided to brave the cold weather with a cheap paraffin stove. By the end of the summer, the chilled composer had written an encore to “Das Lied von der Erde.” Much more than an encore. “To anyone who knows how to listen, my whole life will become clear, for my creative works and my existence are interwoven,” Mahler boasted early in his career. The Ninth, written in an amazing four months, embodies his clarion, stunning summation.

Scrawled on the messy score of the Ninth’s first movement are the words, “O days of youth! Vanished! O Love! Scattered!” At the end of the fourth and final movement, Mahler inscribed, “O Beauty! Love! Farewell! Farewell! World! Farewell!” You might say the portentous notes are a good indication of the composer’s state of mind. But Mahler composed all of his symphonies as if Thanatos was staring in his window. Intimations of mortality were his middle name. While the melodramatic notes suggest he was writing with a renewed force and immediacy, they don’t reflect the intensely refined symphony that he ultimately produced.

Unlike his practice in his earlier, signature works, such as the Third and Sixth, Mahler didn’t kick off his Ninth with a throat-grabbing fanfare or heart-pounding march. By the time of the Ninth, the mature composer had honed his arsenal of big statements into concentrated chords of exquisite power. He channeled the Zen clarity of the poems in “Das Lied von der Erde” into every last grace note in the Ninth.

The symphony dawns on two spare phrases, played on cello and harp, that sway like a haunted lullaby, punctuated by a muted trumpet as keen as an owl’s call. Conductor Leonard Bernstein maintained that this seesaw rhythm symbolized Mahler’s unsteady heartbeat. A melody slowly arises, evoking the quivering serenity of “Der Abschied,” and lodges in profoundly simple rhythms that feel unlike any Mahler ever wrote. In the first movement alone, this simple band of motifs journeys through the firmament of the orchestra — and Mahler’s memory — gaining menacing violins at one turn, haunting trombones at another, and thundering cymbals at yet another. Churning violins, with trumpets and timpani in tow, pick up speed and race toward crescendos that erupt but never climax. Like fireworks, the notes seem to trickle down from the sky.

In a letter to his wife, early 20th century Austrian composer Alban Berg described the emotional pull of the Ninth’s first movement: “Everything earthly that has been dreamt away culminates in it (hence the climaxes breaking forth like new ebullitions after the sweetest passages) — strongest, naturally, at the uncanny place where this premonition of death becomes certainty, where in the midst of the deepest, most painful lust for life … Death announces his arrival.”

You don’t have to be a masterful composer, though, to feel that in the Ninth, Mahler is no longer animating nature but has become the animating force of nature itself. The music is so pure it makes a humble mystic out of you. And that’s just the first movement. The symphony’s simple motifs are not done casting their spells. In the following movements, they transform into a drunken waltz, dissonant rondo, and tranquil adagio. They borrow phrases from the Johann Strauss tune “Enjoy Life,” Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 81, and Mahler’s own Second (“Resurrection”) Symphony, always retaining their unadorned shape and power.

The Ninth’s collage of forms signal Mahler’s trademark style — but this time they embody much more. The Ninth is his remembrance of things past, mostly musical things. Theodor Adorno, the German critic, philosopher and passionate Mahler scholar, wrote that the Ninth’s first movement evokes the “splendor of immediate life reflected in the medium of memory.” He was referring to the composer, but also listeners, who are drawn by the Ninth’s open spaces into their own pasts, when music evoked a mysterious world of charm and danger. Adorno beautifully described the unfolding music in the Ninth as “irresistibly remembering.”

Throughout his career, Mahler had stitched his influences into his symphonies, where he colored them to suit his own manic emotions. From his country kin in rural Bohemia, where he was raised, he sampled popular marches and songs, most notoriously “Freres Jacques” in his First Symphony. From the urban swirl of life in Vienna, where he went to college, he borrowed waltzes that were all the rage among the bourgeoisie, only to paint a mustache on them with pre-dadaist glee. Many critics — Mahler sarcastically called them “superiors” — labeled the composer a snob for bossing around popular music in his symphonies. But his pop references fueled his symphonies with urgency and energy and melted, as Mahler intended, the carapace of classical music traditions.

You might expect by the time Mahler got to the Ninth, he would have outgrown his punk-rock days of trashing his influences. He hadn’t. The second (“Landlers”) and third (“Rondo-Burleske”) movements are as smart-alecky as he gets, sending up pastoral waltzes and bawdy country dances with a killer smirk. But the thrilling movements, unparalleled in structure, strike listeners as anything but one-dimensional. Coursing beneath their irony is a nostalgia as strong as a rip tide, pulling you under the music’s dark currents. The two movements are Mahler’s last dances, desperate and erotic, in a teeming ballroom. For 25 dizzying minutes they erase the mystical presentiments that surround them. “Joy flares high at the edge of horror,” writes Adorno.

In the concluding adagio, the yearning cellos and trumpets, rollicking timpani and trombones, have shed their importunate edge. Only a serene tune, tenderly fleshed out by violins, deep as a mountain lake, remains. While sitting around the farmhouse, waiting for a new heater for his hut, Mahler answered a letter from Alma, explaining the meaning of the last scene in Goethe’s “Faust.” The structure of all great art vanishes, he wrote; after all, art is only a place holder for the inexpressible. He must have been anticipating the closing of the Ninth. “We have arrived,” he wrote, “we are at rest, we are in possession of that which on earth we could only desire or strive for.”

For almost a century now, the world’s best conductors have shown they “know how to listen,” as Mahler hoped they would, to his Ninth Symphony. Saying where one conductor succeeds and another fails is always subjective at best and totally geeky at worst. Given the extraordinary chops required to even keep the baton in sync with the complex score guarantees that the work will end up in accomplished hands. Since Walter first conducted the Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1912, maestros from Sir John Barbirolli to Pierre Boulez to Herbert von Karajan have unveiled countless great performances of the symphony, onstage and in the studio, from which no listener can walk away without having heard something masterful.

But conductors tune their own sensibilities, talents and times into a work, and in the past decade no conductor has been more in harmony with Mahler than Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Since 2001, Thomas and the top-flight orchestra have been recording a new cycle of Mahler’s symphonies. So far, they have worked their way through six of the nine complete works (Mahler never finished his Tenth); in 2004, their radiant version of the Third won the Grammy for best classical album. This spring they released a sublime Ninth in what must be an emotional peak in the 60-year-old Thomas’ acclaimed career.

Earlier this year, Thomas told Fanfare magazine the Ninth had always been special to him. It was the very first symphony he conducted as a professional, when he was 25 and with the Boston Symphony. “I felt the closest to it, I felt like I just understood everything it was about,” he said. “I’m sort of more in a trance state with that one than with any one else; I feel like I’m stepping into this journey.” Thomas’ sojourn is remarkable for both getting inside the storm in Mahler’s head and surfacing with a version that sounds fresh and modern. It’s one that would surely suit the hairsplitting musician himself.

During his lifetime, Mahler was known primarily as a conductor. No artist was more famous in Vienna, the nucleus of European culture at the turn of the century — stomping ground of Gustav Klimt and Sigmund Freud — than “Herr Mahler,” director of the Vienna Court Opera. Walter wrote that when Mahler “crossed the street, hat in hand, gnawing his lip or chewing his cheek, cabmen would turn to look at him and mutter, in tones of awe: ‘Mahler himself!’” Gossip columnists incessantly wrote about his outbursts at musicians and singers who missed a cue, and his insistence on barring insouciant patrons who dared arrive a minute late for his performances.

The perfectionist conductor was also the meticulous composer. Alma relates the story of their daughter Anna, who as a little girl exclaimed to Mahler, “‘Papi, I wouldn’t like to be a note.’ ‘Why not?’ he asked. ‘Because then you might scratch me out and blow me away.’” Mahler himself said: “Everything must be heard, everything must sound.” The “aspect of instrumentation in which I consider myself ahead of past and present composers can be summed up in a single word: clarity.” He asserted that “each orchestral part should sound as though written for a human voice.” This philosophy guides Thomas himself, who says with Mahler he strives to create “an overall sense of songfulness, so that the lines are played, as much as possible, as if they were being sung, with the kind of inflection and concept of breath that a singer would have, even in the music that’s played by the strings.”

Thomas’ lyricism may surprise those who know his mentor was Bernstein, who sprung Mahler from cult status in America and exposed his symphonies to a wide audience. Bernstein harbored a grand vision of Mahler’s music as “a camera that has caught Western society in the moment of its incipient decay.” Only after the world suffered through Auschwitz, McCarthyism, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, and South African apartheid, Bernstein wrote in 1967, “can we finally listen to Mahler’s music and understand that it foretold it all.”

Under Bernstein’s baton, Mahler’s mighty rhythms charged like locomotives, his melodies soared like Arctic winds, and his crescendos crashed into despairing hums. With Bernstein at the helm, the music achieved the one thing that new audiences valued most when they went to the symphony: having their minds blown. Thanks to Bernstein, Mahler was dynamite to the world’s concert halls. Today, along with Mozart and Beethoven, Mahler is the one composer who can fill even the cheap seats.

In San Francisco, though, Thomas, like the marvelous Czechoslovakian conductor, Rafael Kubelik, dials down the Bernstein amplifier to magnify every line in Mahler’s intricate scores. Thomas’ precise and lyrical approach represents a perfect marriage of form and content in the Ninth. Without light in every note, the spare symphony can sound dim. Conversely, too much power can burn out its lambent glow. Adorno summarized Mahler’s late work “as the density of the experience of fragility.” Thomas handles the Ninth with care. The San Francisco Symphony sings the work electric.

At the end of the summer in 1909, when Mahler completed the Ninth, his mood was as bright as the sun. In September, he left the cold farmhouse in the Dolomites and traveled to Moravia, where he stayed with friends in their small castle in the country, not far from where he grew up. “I feel wonderful here!” he wrote to Alma. “Altogether, my stay here has done me a power of good. I can feel that it has put me at my ease. There’s nothing for it: everyone needs warmth and sunshine. The thought of my various composing shacks fills me with horror. I may have spent the finest hours of my life in them, but my health has probably suffered in the process.”

Mahler died on May 18, 1911, at age 50. He never heard the Ninth Symphony performed.

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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