Friday, September 5, 2014

Gustav Mahler Dressed to the Nines

No. 163 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


Today is our first new Friday Blog and Podcast since last June, and we embark in a new thematic arc, considering ninth symphonies. Today’s instalment has its peculiarities…

The Curse of the Ninth

A “ninth” symphony seems to have a curse around it. Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak, Schubert and Bruckner (the latter three being featured this month) didn’t compose (or, at least, publish) symphonies past their ninth. Mozart composed at least 41, Haydn 104, and Shostakovich 15 but there seems to be this stigma associated with a ninth symphony that didn’t go unnoticed by Gustav Mahler.

After writing his Eighth symphony (the mammoth Symphony of A Thousand), Mahler chose not to call his next large symphonic work, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) a symphony, thus avoiding the need to call it “his ninth”.

Now, maybe thinking the curse of the ninth had been avoided, Mahler did compose a tenth major symphonic work, which he proceeded to number as his ninth symphony, and started on a tenth and then – you guessed ir – Mahler died and so the Curse struck again.

Because Mahler was a working man with a day job (at the time, he was the music director of the New-York Philharmonic), summers were the opportunity for Mahler to compose at his lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in the Carinthian Mountains. His usual gestation period for a major work was two years – one summer sketching out the work, and the following summer completing the orchestration. The ninth followed the same ritual, over the summers of 1908 and 1909. Had Mahler survived, he probably would have programmed the work for performance sometime in the 1910-11 season, which of course was plagued by his health problems.

The work was premiered posthumously by his close collaborator Bruno Walter on June 26, 1912, at the Vienna Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Although the symphony follows the usual four-movement form, 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. 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-flat major. As is the case with his latter symphonies, the work not only requires a large orchestra (including clarinets in A, B-Flat and E-Flat, two harps, and a large array of percussion instruments), it lasts well over an hour.

The performance I retained is by the late great German conductor Kurt Sanderling who has the distinction of having had a storied career both East and West of the Iron Curtain. Fleeing Nazism at the onset of the Second World War, he chose to go to the Soviet Union, where he was co-music director of the Leningrad Philharmonic (with Evgeny Mravinsky) and led the (East-) Berlin Symphony Orchestra, which is featured in today’s podcast.

Sanderling died in 2011, two days shy of his 99th birthday.

This is an inspired performance of this great Mahler symphony.

I think you will love this music too!

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