Mahler 9

I tried to write a breathless account of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth the other day, and it totally didn’t work. One of the difficulties of writing about classical music is that descibing the experience of hearing something depends on bridging the gap between your own frame of reference and somebody else’s.

One day I was walking down Divisidaro Street in San Francisco, headed into the Lower Haight for whatever reason, and as I turned left at the intersection, there was an older guy with a boombox blasting “It’s Like That” by Run DMC. He called to me “Hey man, you know what?” I leaned towards him with interest. “If you don’t know this song, you don’t know shit about music!” I smiled and nodded enthusiastically.

Now, did I really agree with the guy there on Haight Street that Run DMC was foundational to music as we know it? Well, I agreed with him in spirit, I suppose – I mean, Run DMC is the shit – but on a literal level, no. I’m pretty sure there are people who will go their whole lives without once hearing Run DMC and still live rich, meaningful musical lives. That’s not to take away from the remarkable contributions of Run DMC – they’re great. But music is way bigger than any one person, or group of people, or even whole countries.

All that said, you have not lived until you have heard a world class orchestra perform Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Felt as real as could be at the time, but now it seems a little ridiculous.

Mahler’s symphonic writing is among the finest ever done – his scores demonstrate encyclopedic knowledge of orchestral capabilities.  I once saw a performance of Mahler’s orchestration of Beethover’s Ninth Symphony at the Kennedy Center in DC, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The entire first half of the concert consisted of Slatkin’s commentary on the extraordinary craftmanship of Mahler’s version of a classic symphonic work. For one thing, the orchestra was much bigger. Instead of two horns, as in Beethoven’s original, Mahler scored for ten. The performance after lecture was epic. Beethoven’s Ninth is sort of the Gold Standard magnum opus – the “Ode to Joy” melody is known throughout the world. It’s big dramatic stuff, and Mahler’s own career as a composer was a continuation of composers with big, dramatic personalities writing big, dramatic pieces of music.

Mahler’s primary career was as an opera conductor. He composed usually during extended summer holidays in the countryside, in a series of huts built specifically for composing in.

Mahler’s second composing hut, at Maiernigg (near Klagenfurt), on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia

The above pictured hut apparently featured separate entrances for Mahler and the maid.  The maid would approach the hut on a path hidden from the view of the hut, so that meals could be delivered without the composer being in any way disturbed by arrivals and departures. For Mahler, composing demanded a kind of absolute solitude. He would sit in a room with a piano, a desk, books of poetry and German philosophy, somewhere deep in the woods by a lake. Again, Mahler is a little ridiculous. He produced these symphonies – which, I’m telling you, contain some of the most beautiful music ever set to paper – amidst a kind of bourgeois fantasy of communing alone with nature (with room service! in a three piece suit!).

The conductor that evening with the CSO was Esa-Pekka Salonen, currently principal conductor with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, and formerly music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic for seventeen years. I’d never heard of him, myself, but he’s apparently a pretty big deal. Anyways, at the close of the performance, he hopped down from the podium and kind of wandered off stage, holding out his baton as if he was still half-conducting. He did this three times – bowing, pointing out various members of the orchestra for individual recognition, having the whole orchestra on their feet for a bow, and so on. That funny little conducting shuffle, back and forth, three times. Conductors tend to be eccentric white guys, and this guy fit the bill for sure.

I’m not sure if Mahler was necessarily eccentric, or just super intense. I do know he had numerous affairs as an opera conductor, and was generally anxious and domineering. The exact kind of guy the #MeToo movement would conduct a Twitter campaign against (with, you know, good reason). That aside, he was, by nearly all accounts, an insanely great opera conductor. His tenure as music director at Vienna’s Royal Opera (a position for which Mahler, an effectively secular Jew, converted to Catholicism) is legendary. His departure after ten years was due only to rising anti-semitism in Austria (ironic, no?)

Opera was at it’s artistic height at the turn of the 20th century. Orchestras had grown, in part because of the growth of cities and the rise of the middle class over the previous century had produced large audiences with substantial disposable incomes and desire for high culture. But also, musical institutions and technology had advanced considerably from the time of Mozart. Mahler himself attended the Vienna Conservatory (established 1817) as a young man – an opportunity unavailable to earlier composers such as Beethoven and Schubert. His education included a systematic and thorough study of classical music, which is readily evident in his highly polished scores. And by the late nineteenth century, horns, woodwinds, and percussion had all seen considerable advancement. Between university-style education and the industrial manufacture of instruments, orchestras had gone from being highly specialized ensembles in service of aristocracy to standardized groups (with established repetoire) playing before large audiences in public concert halls in virtually every European city (plus several major cities in the Americas, like Buenas Aires and New York). Mahler’s career is in the middle of all that.

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is a titanic piece of music. It was the only thing on the program that night. It features only an orchestra – a big one, but not necessarily the biggest. The hall and the stage both seemed full, but not crowded.

One of the things I simply adore about going to concerts with the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera is the quiet of the audience. The audience for Mahler Nine seemed especially attentive. Focused.

The first movement begins with a horn call, because of course it does. It felt to me like sitting alone, looking out the window, on a train ride into the country. The rider sits comfortably,  journeying toward death. He engages in rememberences, tender and melancholy. A seasick rhythm in the cellos resemble a kind of disorientation – the steadiness of the steam engine is distorted by fear and trembling – the security of the modern world dissolves into some sinister game. After a brief fit of tympani, the orchestra dwindles down to nothing. The violence subsides almost as quickly as it appeared, and the piece seemingly begins again, hobbling along. And then a call of winds and horns erupts into a fury of tympani and low brass! A duel between a horn and a flute ensues, which, in my notes, I recorded as a fight between a hawk and a sparrow. The hawk wins, but the sparrow is defiant! A soaring clarinet solo follows, and the movement closes quietly. It was a solid half an hour or so at the close of just that first movement. It ended with a brief stillness, a moment of silence before the conductor signaled we could breath again. When people finally coughed and sneezed and shuffled their feet, it was a tangible release of tension.

The second movement is a Landler – an old Austrian country dance tempo in triple meter. It sounds like a fairy dance party in the woods and magical beer or something. There’s a part of me that wonders if Mahler would have been in cosplay, although I kind of doubt it. In any event, we eventually get lost deep in the woods (because of course we do) and after some hobbling, some sneaking, some laughing, we get into some turbulence, and we begin to veer into death march territory before returning to the dance theme. The string writing in parts is labyrithine, full of harmoic feints and shifts, misdirections and melting passages. Like the first movement, the second ends softly, with a nod and a wink.

The third movement, a rondo, is the most rhythmic. It opens as a kind of parade of laughing clarients. But then it cracks open and an ethereal string section emerges. A weightless moment extends into momentum and gradually builds into fury, ending suddenly. The stand-out feature for me here was the E-flat clarient part, a kind of squeaky clown – the part is the most yiddish-feeling in the piece. With possibly the exception of the violins in the  opening of the fourth movement.

A schmaltzy melody opens into a counterpoint between the violins and the basses, with multiple octaves of space between them. As simple as it is, it feels very grand, the basses and cellos striding along like a giant while the violins soar high above. The movement shimmers – it is patient and slow and gentle. And it fades and fades and fades, down on out to nothing. It seems to go on forever. Quieter, and quieter, until finally, there is no sound. The conductor held that last, perfectly silent moment for what felt like an eternity. It was a transcendent moment. When Salonen relaxed at last, peels of applause rained down from the gallery to the front row.

At the end of all that, I couldn’t help feeling like I had just been through a mystical experience, or something like it. Like I wanted to embrace every member of the orchestra, the entire staff at the hall, and the audience. It was like we had accompanied Mahler himself into the darkness – laughing, crying, dancing, telling jokes, falling down, and shaking our fists at the heavens.  And that ending!

The weird thing about Mahler’s Ninth is that it’s actually his Tenth. He was worried, you see, about dying after writing a Ninth symphony, because of Beethoven having just nine symphonies. So, when he wrote his ninth symphony, he titled it “The Song of the Earth.” But then, of course, he was diagnosed with congenital heart failure, and he wrote the Ninth symphony thinking about the fact that he was about to die, and, not all that long aftewards, died at the age of 50. Although he managed to finish one movement of the Tenth symphony, a gorgeous Adagio, before finally giving up the ghost.

Most people don’t know who Mahler is – outside of the classical world, he’s pretty obscure. Within the world of symphonic music, he’s a giant. It’s weird. And I feel like an appreciation of Mahler only grows with a knowledge of classical music. For someone who doesn’t know or like classical music, a Mahler symphony might be just long and boring. To me, it’s enthralling. I’m excited to hear more!




Published by samuelbarbour

Besides writing a blog, I also teach, farm, cook, and play music. I live in the Illinois River Valley with my partner, Molly Breslin, who sometimes posts stuff at

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