We all have those concerts that we wish we had the chance to hear, but didn’t. In the Spring of 1996, I was talked out of going to hear the Cincinnati Symphony play Mahler’s Ninth, and as I’ve worked through the piece over the last two months, I’ve been regretting missing that experience. Nonetheless, coming to it late is better than never, and I only wish I had more time to really dig in–I’m already ten days later than I had hoped!
That said, before I begin my comments, I’m pleased to have come to the end of my Mahler cycle. I’d been considering spending 2011 with some great scores of the 194os, but I’m feeling the need to take some time away from this project–at least until May 1, which is the deadline for the textbook I’m working on for National Social Science Press. The book, to be entitled Music: Notation and Practice in Past and Present is inspired by a book that I picked up in the early 90s, when I was just beginning to become serious about music. That book, Introduction to Music by Roald Pen, was a reference and my first visit to many ideas in music and about music, and I hope to be creating a contemporary analogue to it. My posts for the time being will be excerpts from my drafts, as I plow through music theary and music history.
But–one last time to Mahler. This last movement–his final completed statement–unfolds and develops with a stateliness and slowness that I htink is most parallelled in the finale of the Third Symphony. Ending with an Adagio is somewhat atypically of Mahler. There are highly predictable, very tonal moments, and there are also very strange, very contrapuntal moments. Above that, I hear this piece as a group of deferred climactic moments, each of which allows the movement to expand in scope and makes the ultimate climax all the more satisfying.
After an extended dominant tone, the first presentation of the chorale appears in mm. 3-10. Mahler makes fascinating use of enharmonic equivalence–he can only be understanding these pitches as being equal-tempered, then, despite the ill-advisedness of playing them as such. The movement is filled with root motions by descending third, by deceptive progressions and, most interestingly, by progressions which cut against the grain of traditional functional tonality. Are they backward-looking, or simply intended to sound strange?
Following the chorale presentation, where there should be a confident, full-chorded cadence, there is, in m. 11, a single Db. At m. 13, the strings enter, again full-throated, with a fuller, clearer cadence in m. 17, where the first independent wind voice is heard. The horn has always been Mahler’s instrument.
The music changes from Db major to C# minor in m. 28, and the first violins have a quotation fro mthe last movement of the Second Symphony in m. 31. Measure 34 sees the reappearance of the solo viola–the signature sound of this symphony. The remainder of this minor-key section is a slower, transitional passage that ends with a return to Db major in m. 49, coupled with a return of the solo horn and the chorale theme, in variation.
Gradually, more and more instruments fill in the texture, as Mahler has held the winds largely in reserve. Measure 63, a dominant chord on D major, seems to herald a climactic moment, only to diminuendo to a return of the chroal material, again in the strings,with only the bassoons doubling the basses. This is perhaps the most string-dominated of Mahler’s work since the Fifth Symphony.
Over the next two pages, another climactic approach is developed, this time with the first entry of the trumpets, only to be deferred in m. 73. After a cadence in m. 77, another transitional passage leads to C# minor in m. 88. Of note, however, is the first passage in this movement for winds without strings, mm. 81ff.
The minor-key section at m. 88 has a degree of harmonic stasis unusual to this point in the movment, with an implication of the subdominant key in m. 97. From this point, the texture builds to the actual climax of the movement, but not before the first entry of the percussion combined with the first point at which the brass is fully-voiced.
The climactic moment of the movement is in m. 126, with a cadence that begins a further variation of the chorale material. Measure 138 features a fantastic pianissimo tutti color, with the flutes an octave above the violins and the horns doubling the celli. An aftershock of the climax appears in m. 142, followed by a diminuendo to a long coda. Measures 153-5 have an interesting coloristic moment in which the line moves up while the instruments involved move “down”–violin to viola to cello.
The last page is masterful–it seems to fade into nothingness, just as the First Symphony began from nothing. There is as much silence on this page as there is anywhere else in Mahler’s preceding work. With a quiet Db major chord, Mahler’s work, and my comment on it, ends.