Symphony No. 9 (Mahler)

Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler was written between 1908 and 1909, and was the last symphony that he completed. It is actually his tenth symphonic work, as Mahler gave no ordinal number to his symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde. A typical performance takes about 75 to 90 minutes.

Symphony No. 9
by Gustav Mahler
Gustav Mahler in 1907
KeyD major (-D-flat major)
Composed1909 (1909): Toblach
RecordedBruno Walter, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, 1938
Date26 June 1912 (1912-06-26)
ConductorBruno Walter
PerformersVienna Philharmonic Orchestra

Though the work is often described as being in the key of D major, the tonal scheme of the symphony as a whole is progressive. While the opening movement is in D major, the finale is in D major.[1]


The symphony is scored for large orchestra, consisting of the following:

4 flutes
4 oboes (4th doubling cor anglais)
E clarinet
3 B and A clarinets
bass clarinet
4 bassoons (4th doubling contrabassoon)
4 horns
3 trumpets
3 trombones
4 timpani
bass drum
snare drum
3 deep bells in F, A and B
2 harps
1st violins
2nd violins
double basses


The symphony is in four movements:

  1. Andante comodo (D major)
  2. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb (C major)
  3. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig (A minor)
  4. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend (D major)

Although the symphony has the traditional number of movements, it is unusual in that the first and last are slow rather than fast. As is often the case with Mahler, one of the middle movements is a ländler.

I. Andante comodo

The first movement embraces a loose sonata form. The key areas provide a continuation of the tonal juxtaposition displayed in earlier works (notably Symphonies No. 6 and No. 7). The work opens with a hesitant, syncopated rhythmic motif (which Leonard Bernstein suggested is a depiction of Mahler's irregular heartbeat[2]), which is heard throughout the movement.

The brief introduction also presents two other ideas: a three-note motif announced by the harp that provides much of the musical basis for the rest of the movement,

and a muted horn fanfare that is also heard later.

In the development, it is heard in the horns and clarinets in Mahler's original form, with a third descending into a fifth. At the height of the development, the trombones and tuba announce the rhythmic heartbeat motif, marked within the score "Mit höchster Gewalt" (with greatest force). This has been interpreted as a sudden intrusion of "death in the midst of life", and it leads into a solemn funeral march, marked "Wie ein Kondukt" (like a funeral procession), on a timpani ostinato of the harp's three-note motif. Low bells are heard here for the first and only time in the symphony, accompanying the timpani in the three-note motif. Near the end of the movement is a remarkable example of Mahler's linear polyphony, in which piccolo, flute, oboe, and solo violin imitate bird-calls. Alban Berg asserted that this section was a "vision of the hereafter".[3] Allusions to other music in this movement include references to Ludwig van Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 81a[4] and to Johann Strauss II's waltz Freut euch des Lebens, the latter first noted by Philip Barford in 1971.[5]

II. Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers. Etwas täppisch und sehr derb

The second movement is a series of dances, and opens with a rustic ländler, which becomes distorted to the point that it no longer resembles a dance. The movement contains shades of the second movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 4, in the distortion of a traditional dance into a bitter and sarcastic one. Traditional chord sequences are altered into near-unrecognizable variations, turning the rustic yet gradually decaying C major introductory ländler into a vicious whole-tone waltz, saturated with chromaticism and frenetic rhythms. Strewn amidst these sarcastic dances is a slower and calmer ländler which reintroduces the "sighing" motif from the first movement.

The movement ends with a cheeky pianissimo nod from the piccolo and contrabassoon.

III. Rondo-Burleske: Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig

The third movement, in the form of a rondo, displays the final maturation of Mahler's contrapuntal skills. It opens with a dissonant theme in the trumpet which is treated in the form of a double fugue . The following five-note motif introduced by strings in unison recalls the second movement of his Fifth Symphony. The addition of Burleske (a parody with imitations) to the title of the movement refers to the mixture of dissonance with Baroque counterpoint. Although the term "Burlesque" means "humorous", the actual "humor" of the movement is relatively small compared to the overall field of manic violence, considering only two small neo-classical sections that appear more like a flashback than playfulness. The autograph score is marked "to my brothers in Apollo" and the movement may be intended as a sarcastic response to the critics of his music at the time.

IV. Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zurückhaltend

The final movement, marked zurückhaltend ("very slowly and held back"; literally, "reservedly"), opens with only strings. Commentators[6] have noted the similarity of the opening theme in particular to the hymn tune Eventide (familiarly sung as Abide with Me).

But most importantly it incorporates a direct quote from the Rondo-Burleske's middle section. Here it becomes an elegy. After several impassioned climaxes, the movement becomes increasingly fragmented and the coda ends quietly. On the closing pages, Mahler quotes the first violins from his own Kindertotenlieder: The day is fine on yonder heights.[7]

The last note is marked ersterbend ("dying away"). The last two pages last for six minutes, an unprecedented amount of time for so few notes. Leonard Bernstein speculated at the end of his fifth Norton lecture that the entire movement is symbolically prophesying three kinds of death: Mahler's own impending death, the death of tonality, and the death of "Faustian" culture in all the arts.

Mahler died in May 1911, without ever hearing his Ninth Symphony performed. The work's ending is usually interpreted as his conscious farewell to the world,[8] as it was composed following the death of his beloved daughter Maria Anna in 1907 and the diagnosis of his fatal heart disease. However, this notion is disputed inasmuch as Mahler felt that he was in good health at the time of the composition of the 9th Symphony; he had had a very successful season (1909–10) as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and, before that, the Metropolitan Opera (New York). In his last letters, Mahler indicated that he was looking forward to an extensive tour with the orchestra for the 1910–11 season.[9] Moreover, Mahler worked on his unfinished Tenth Symphony until his death from endocarditis in May 1911.


The work was premiered on 26 June 1912, at the Vienna Festival by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter.[10] It was first published in the same year by Universal Edition.

Views on and quotes about the Symphony

The enjoyment of Mahler's Ninth Symphony prompted the essayist Lewis Thomas to write the title essay in his Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony.[13]

Many Mahler interpreters have been moved to speak with similar profundity about the work:

  • It expresses an extraordinary love of the earth, for Nature. The longing to live on it in peace, to enjoy it completely, to the very heart of one's being, before death comes, as irresistibly it does.   Alban Berg[14][15]
  • It is music coming from another world, it is coming from eternity.  Herbert von Karajan[16]
  • It is terrifying, and paralyzing, as the strands of sound disintegrate ... in ceasing, we lose it all. But in letting go, we have gained everything.  Leonard Bernstein[17]
  • I believe it to be not only his last but also his greatest achievement.  Otto Klemperer
  • [Mahler's] Ninth is most strange. In it, the author hardly speaks as an individual any longer. It almost seems as though this work must have a concealed author who used Mahler merely as his spokesman, as his mouthpiece.  Arnold Schoenberg[18]
  • It was voted the 4th greatest symphony of all time in a survey of conductors carried out by the BBC music magazine[19]

Less favourable views include:

  • Someday, some real friends of Mahler's will ... take a pruning knife and reduce his works to the length that they would have been if the composer had not stretched them out of shape; and then the great Mahler war will be over ... The Ninth Symphony would last about twenty minutes.  Deems Taylor[20]

Recordings (in chronological order)

The Ninth Symphony has been recorded over a hundred times for commercial release on 78-rpm discs, LP, CD, or DVD. An incomplete list includes:

See also


  1. 'Gustav Mahler', in New Grove, Macmillan, 1980
  2. "Program Notes- Mahler Symphony No.9 in D Major" (PDF). Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
  3. Constantin Floros, GUSTAV MAHLER The Symphonies(2000)
  4. Hefling, Stephen E., "The Ninth Symphony", in The Mahler Companion (eds. Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson). Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-816376-2), p. 474 (1999).
  5. Barford, Philip, "Mahler Symphonies and Songs". BBC Music Guides, University of Washington Press (Seattle), pp. 55-56 (1971).
  6. Mitchell, Donald (2002) The Mahler Companion OUP
  8. Leonard Bernstein conducts and comments Mahler's Ninth Symphony
  9. Henry de La Grange, Gustav Mahler, Vol. 4 - Oxford University Press, 2008
  10. "Mahler Symphony No. 9--Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; Bruno Walter, conductor (1938)" (PDF). Library of Congress. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  11. "The Hallé - a timeline" (PDF). Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  12. "Music Containing Multitudes". The Boston Musical Intelligencer. 15 April 2016. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
  13. Lewis Thomas: Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony
  14. Quoted in the liner notes to Mahler: Symphony No. 9, Berliner Philharmoniker/Herbert von Karajan
  16. Quoted in Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music by Richard Osborne
  17. The Unanswered Question by Leonard Bernstein
  18. Adorno, Theodor W. (15 August 1996). Adorno/Jephcott: Mahler. ISBN 9780226007694.
  20. Chord and Discord, February 1932, p. 23
  21. Published by ACCENTUS Music: No. ACC20214

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