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Goodbye To All That

New York
Riverside Church
11/14/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler: Symphony #9
Manhattan Symphony, Glen Cortese (conductor)

Mahler knew that he was dying and became resigned to the notion that the 9th would be his last orchestral effort. He even goes so far as to begin this four-movement farewell to the world with the hesitant rhythms of his own defective heartbeat. Now totally in the grip of the past, Mahler looks back to the opus ultima of his composition teacher, Anton Bruckner, and recreates the mood of that composer's ninth symphony, framing the short uptempo material between two gigantic slow movements which express the essential spirituality of the composer's entire output. The first movement (Andante comodo) abandons sonata form completely, opting instead for a set of unequal variations whose variety of phrase lengths suggests the death of form itself. When he thought that he was dying in the 1940's, Mahler's protégé Arnold Schoenberg wrote a piece describing his stay in hospital (the String Trio) which experiments with a total abandonment of form, using only isolated phrases to express the remaining loose threads of his own existence. Undoubtedly he was inspired in his equation of formlessness to death by this episodic movement written by his mentor. Incidents from the composer's life enter as snippets of string motives or abbreviated brass fanfares. Memories appear but only fleetingly. The flute plays a figure reminiscent of its embodiment of the human soul in the "Resurrection". The harp enters late in the movement and combines with the strings to produce the feeling of the great Adagietto. As the movement ends the instrumental lines become thin, sometimes with only solo instruments playing. One is aware for the first time of the silence which surrounds this profound essay.

The second movement, "In the tempo of a relaxed laendler", immediately recalls the Totentanz which is the second movement of the fourth. Here the entire orchestra, from the opening bassoon figure, plays in an off-center manner reminiscent of the "friend Death" character of the out-of-tune fiddle from that previously jarring movement (Mahler even exhorts the second violins to play "clumsily, like peasant fiddles") and the entire movement, as Bernstein pointed out, is a farewell to the hurly-burly of the life of the marketplace. Mahler's artist lived not in a Zen garden, but in the rough and tumble of Viennese musical politics and this movement recalls for one last time the cauldron which produced such magnificent creations. Once again Bruckner is the inspiration, both in the Upper Austrian character of the dance and in the way that the coarsely jovial is intermingled into the most sacred of artistic settings.

The Rondo-Burleske which follows is dedicated "to my Apollonian brothers" and is the composer's sardonic farewell to art. A war rages between two themes, a charming, perhaps overly precious waltz and a lively, bullying rollicking dance. Each theme makes its assaults and bruits the other back in retreat. This is Mahler at his most self-critical and certainly his most raucous. It is as if all of his distinguished works were just coarse creatures of the alley, fighting aimlessly for supremacy in an unappreciative world. This movement describes a battlefield as sure as the great Shostakovich movements to come (a good monograph would be the influence of Mahler on the powerful Russian symphonist). Even surrounded by the two beautiful slow movements, it is the realization of this wild episode which makes or breaks a performance of this symphony and here many conductors fall short.

Wisps and pauses of the strings in the last movement (Adagio) of the 9th recall the Adagietto of the 5th except that now we have a dirge-chorale which sounds like a love song rather than the reverse. Not since the amazing Adagios of the third and fourth has Mahler attempted this highest of all musical forms and his years of experience help to produce a much more harmonically modern version of this thoughtful penultimate slow movement. The opening leap indicates that Tristan is once again on his mind and the entire movement has the sorrowful feel of both the third act of that great classic (which was considered a Mahler specialty when he was the conductor of the Vienna Opera) and his own movement from the fifth symphony with its quotations from the music of the tragic lovers. This introduction had special meaning for Mahler. It is an homage to the opening passage of the last music that Bruckner ever wrote (the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony) and Mahler firmly believed that this was to be his last music as well (both symphonies are in D Minor, itself an homage by Bruckner to the key of Beethoven's 9th). Unlike the Adagio of the third, however, Mahler doesn't build a great edifice; rather he slowly dismantles one, introducing the solo violin early on as a precursor of the sonorities to come. Employing the comforting constructions of a Bach chorale (compare Berg's Violin Concerto and its use of Bach to emphasize the qualities of a requiem) Mahler allows his melodies to soar well out of the range of conventional tonality and yet remain grounded in the most acceptable contrapuntal soil. The middle section features individual woodwind solos accompanied only by the harp (and some very dissonant flute and oboe combinations) and the thinness of the sonic world is once again established. Even though the full orchestra swells immediately thereafter, the listener has already become conscious of a palette of orchestral color based on individual lines against a backdrop of silence. Webern, in his Symphony, Op. 21, recreates the spare acoustic first explored by Mahler in this movement, which at the time Mahler thought was to be his last.

Taking his cue from the "Farewell" Symphony of Haydn, Mahler begins to consciously reduce the number of musical lines late in the movement. After a shuddering string glissando the sound becomes thinner and thinner. As instruments drop out the music becomes only strands and the illusion is created that there is less than sufficient oxygen to the brain. The phrases seem to have lives of their own and the silences between them begin to increase. There is one frightening moment when all sound ceases but then there is a brief recovery which, however, is fleeting. The ending is pure memory, just isolated thought existing for its own sake. The "I" is gone forever. Pitts Sanborn, writing in the New York World-Telegram of a performance from November 19, 1931 wrote:

"...the music faded into the silence of eternity...
the last sleep which is our inalienable birthright."

Glen Cortese and his student forces understand the essence of this seminal work and performed a masterful version today at the Riverside Church. The overall power of the presentation completely belied their youth and inexperience and proved once again how much enthusiasm triumphs over experience. This is the fifth year in sequence that I have heard this orchestra do Mahler and each year they get better and better.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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