Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 belongs, along with Das Lied von der Erde, which immediately preceded it, and the unfinished Tenth Symphony, to the closing period of his career, from 1907 to his death on May 18, 1911. The last three works are, as measured by Mahler's grand scale, relatively intimate. Das Lied van der Erde is a symphony cast as a song cycle for two solo voices and orchestra. The Ninth and the Tenth Symphonies are purely orchestral, and the Ninth, which opens and closes with a slow movement, makes an especially beautiful use of what could be called Mahler's "chamber music" writing, with its woodwind and string solos within the orchestral fabric.
The Ninth Symphony is in four movements. The first is a leisurely and spacious Andante comodo; the second is in the tempo of a gemächlichen ("comfortable") Ländler; the third is a Rondo Burleske; and the fourth is an Adagio. It opens in D Major and closes in D-flat Major, a musical journey similar to but in a different direction from that found in his symphonies numbers 5 (c-sharp minor - D Major) and 7 (b minor - C Major) in which he closed in tonalities one half step higher than the opening tonality.
The first movement is a grand, spacious movement, an expansion of sonata-form, in which all hints of applied patterns vanish. Motives are grown, and transform themselves into one another, and the flow of music seems to follow nothing other than Mahler's meditation. It opens with a low A in the cellos; over this is a two-note motive of a rising fourth, then a three-note motive of the drop of a fourth and rise of a sustained third, and a violin melody takes shape with distinct reminiscence of Das Lied von der Erde. The second subject group is highly lyrical. In the sketched score of this movement, Mahler wrote over the restatement of the first subject group, as H.F. Redlich notes, "To my brethren in Apollo." The flow of the music alternated turbulence with lyricism, and its close is a magical and tender sweetening of the opening motives. Albam Berg wrote of this movement in an unpublished letter quoted by Redlich:
"Once again I have played through the score of Mahler's Ninth Symphony; the first movement is the most heavenly thing Mahler wrote. It is the expression of an exceptional fondness for this earth, the longing to live in peace on it. to enjoy nature to its depths – before death comes. For he comes irresistibly. The whole movement is permeated by premonitions of death. Again and again it crops up, all the elements of terrestrial dreaming culminate in it… most potently of course in the colossal passage where this premonition becomes certainty, where, in the midst of the höchster Kraft, an almost painful joy in life, Death itself is announced mit höchster Gewalt."
The second movement, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, is highly expressionistic. It creates sardonic unrest from the very beginning, where Mahler juxtaposes two clashing simplicities: an "accompaniment figure" of five fast staccato notes consisting of the first five notes of the major scale, and above this the deliberately childish Ländler theme which nevertheless has its clashing seconds, and which Mahler marked "somewhat awkward and coarse," stressing its footstamping character. There is a second subject with march-like accents, Poco piu mosso subito, announced by the strings alone in contrast to the previous woodwind clamor. The winds, however, soon re-enter, and the music, with fantastic harmonies, reaches a climax of sardonic fury; a mockery of the outer world and its distortion of feeling. It now calls up memories of Ravel's La Valse, composed a decade later, in 1919-20. The closing pages are increasingly quiet and sparse in instrumentation, and the end is a reiteration of the five-note "accompaniment figure" followed by a simple, pizzicato, C Major chord.
The third movement is a Rondo Burleske (Allegro assai, Sehr trotzig). A "Burlesque" traditionally is a jesting piece. While Mahler adds his own tone of abruptness and unrest – "trotzig" could mean defiant, obstinate, independent – he creates a mood quite different from the preceding movement. The main theme appears at the outset as a three-note statement by trumpet and five-note answer by the strings, and then takes more integrated and expanded shape as a lyrical but propulsive melody. The concluding passage is Presto, and instead of the relaxed ending of the previous two movements, there is an abrupt close on three chords.
It is the tender theme of the slow passage in the third movement that becomes the theme which haunts the sublime closing Adagio movement. In its simplified form, sounding like a sigh, it is a slow version of the ornamental turn that often preceded a trill in Baroque music, and indeed much of a romantic melody builds on such ornamental phrases and gives them emotional weight. This motive occurs throughout the long, sustained, free polyphony of Mahler's deeply moving and exalted Finale, which ends in what Bernard Jacobson has described as "almost imperceptible music motion." The last 34 bars are for strings alone. At the very close, the muted violas whisper the "turn" motive in augmented notes, and lead to the last, simple D-flat chord which Mahler marked ersterbend, or "fading away."
The orchestration is for 4 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, bells, 2 harps, and strings.
— Sidney Finkelstein
Recorded May 3-10, 1969 in the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Producer: Seymour Solomon
Engineer: Ed Friedner
Originally release: Vanguard Cardinal Series VCS 10075-6 (2 LPs)