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Mercury Essays Mahler’s Ninth


With impressively studied intent, the Mercury Orchestra under Channing Yu’s direction  delivered consistently intense and warm sound in a deeply focused, well-sustained maximum effort over 90 minutes of immense technical difficulty at Sanders Theater on Saturday.

Mahler’s Ninth and last completed symphony is also his most conflicted. A continuous battleground of emotions, and a Wirrsal of technique at the very height of the composer’s powers, it’s brilliant and fascinating, but no one would call it lovely. And yet despite significant weaknesses, it is an extraordinary and constant astonishment. “The first movement is the most wonderful thing that Mahler has written,” wrote Alban Berg in an undated letter to his wife. “It is the expression of an enormous love for this earth, the longing to live on earth in peace, to be absorbed into the very depths of nature — until death comes, as it inevitably must come.” Mahler’s last symphony, like his first, is anchored in D major overall, with significant echoes from the first to the last.

The first and longest movement (lasting half an hour) is a drastic accumulation in a loose sonata-rondo form, with cyclic motives that reappear in later movements. Many writers have explored the rhythmic doom-motive, beginning in the bass in the first measures, but the harmonic motive of I-V-flat VI is important throughout the entire work; so is the association of D major and B-flat major structural between First and Second Themes. Mahler’s melodic counterpoint is virtuosic to the point of incredulity; it is everywhere, furious and complex and often screamingly dissonant — m. 174, no. 9, is amusingly marked “Mit Wut [raging]. Allegro risoluto. (Nicht zu schnell.)” — yet it is always absolutely clear and note-for-note precise, the utter opposite of the messy and fussy textures characteristic of Richard Strauss. The overall orchestral dimension is huge, but the strings generally carry the main expressive burden, as they do in the fourth movement, from beginning to end.

The easygoing (gemächlich) but pointedly clownish Ländler second movement is marked “Rather clumsy and very coarse.” Four clarinets, like a street organ, are answered by three horns, all with mordents and trills, before a main melody starts in Violins II (seated on the right in this performance), marked “Ponderously. Like fiddles.” A tempo secondo moves abruptly from C major to E major after beginning with the cyclic I-V-flat VI. This movement is in a small-rondo form (a-b-a’-b’-a), basically C major but ranging over an arcade of keys. There are a few echoes of the Ländler in the First Symphony, as well.

It was good to take a short breath-break here in the performance, enough of a pause for retuning, and then to jump unhesitatingly into the third movement: Rondo. Burleske, which is marked “Allegro assai. Sehr trotzig.” The dictionary gives “defiant” for the German adjective, but I’d also hear it as “spiteful.” This angry music begins and ends in A minor ― compare the C major / A minor pairing in these two middle movements with the similar pairing of keys in the outer movements of Das Lied von der Erde, which immediately preceded this symphony in composition. Once again, the cyclic I-V- VI harmony is notable in several repetitions, and the tonality goes everywhere; it was funny to see a seven-flat key signature (A-flat minor) appearing in the middle of the movement for just eighteen bars of wild ff counterpoint, and then vanish just as quickly, returning to A minor. The b’ section of this rondo is suddenly pianissimo in D major and high-registered, with a screech for unison clarinets that morphs into a main motive for the Adagio fourth movement following.

Emotionally, this Adagio is supposed to be a summarizing poem of peace, like the sixth movement of the Third Symphony. For that very reason, it has always seemed to me like a letdown – as though Mahler had tried to access the heavens before. The tonal distortion begins with the wildly unrelated key of D-flat major, but contrapuntal ulceration is apparent in the third bar, as though the favored harmonic pattern I-V-flat VI miscarried even before it became necessary:

The turn motive deriving from the previous movement’s screech is already familiar in the empyrean slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony; in the Ninth’s Adagio it stabilizes the lyrical progress. Drama is already overspent, and we really need it no more, not for 24 minutes. But there’s no doubt that the tempering of passions succeeds. And this orchestra played it, especially at the end when only the strings survive, with surpassing beauty.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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