BEHIND THE MUSIC
It starts with a murmur; we can almost see the sun crawling lazily from behind a distant, snow-capped mountain, surrounded by the proudest pines. This is Mahler’s Symphony No. 9–a piece of music that the composer feared for his entire career. “The Curse of the Ninth” was all-too-real for Mahler: penning a ninth symphony had claimed the lives of many composers before him. Schubert, Dvořák, Spohr, Bruckner, and, of course, Beethoven all composed their ninth symphonies and then departed from this world soon after. Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is actually his tenth symphonic work: he tried to avoid the “curse” by titling his ninth work for orchestra and soloists Das Lied von der Erde, or “The Song of the Earth”.
Mahler composed his Symphony No. 9 in a custom-built composition studio near the small alpine town of Dobbiaco. The studio, which was surrounded by an impasse of barbwire fences to thwart “visitors”, was pushed up against a magnificent spruce forest along the Dolomites. It was a solemn time for Mahler and his wife, Alma: just two years earlier they had lost their oldest daughter to scarlet fever. Mahler had also recently been diagnosed with a heart valve disorder that forced him to refrain from strenuous activity–a huge challenge for Mahler, who loved hiking and trekking in the outdoors. This can all be heard in the music; at times Mahler writes the chirping of birds and the rushing of streams but fills the spaces between with contemplative ponderings and nostalgic nods to a life well-lived.
What to listen for
An irregular, syncopated rhythm heard throughout the first movement that conductor Leonard Bernstein called Mahler's heartbeat
Low bells, only to be used once in the entire symphony, heard in the first movement to signal a section that Mahler wanted to be played "like a funeral procession"
A biting, almost sarcastic series of rustic German dances called landlers that comprise the entirety of the second movement
A churning, manic third movement that Mahler titled "Burleske" and included a handwritten note reading "to my brothers in Apollo", which is thought to be a reference to the harsh criticisms received by Mahler and his composer friends from the press
A recurring melody in the final movement that sounds eerily similar to the popular hymn Eventide or "Abide with Me"
If you enjoy Mahler’s Ninth, try his Fourth Symphony. The composer himself called the Ninth the closest to the Fourth but admits it’s completely different. You might also enjoy Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle for voice and orchestra that makes a cameo in the first violins in the final movement of the Ninth.
Listen to our favorite recording of Mahler 9 on Spotify: