Gustav Mahler / Symphony #9 - 1. Andante comodo (1912)

After beginning his post as conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, late romantic Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler would return to Europe in the summer to devote time to composing as well as the odd extra conducting job. In the summer of 1909, after his second season in New York, Mahler drafted his ninth and final completed symphony. After its 1912 premiere many people, including Alban Berg, the composer and former student of Arnold Schoenberg, discussed it with reference to themes of a love of nature and a farewell to life – indeed, Berg was writing about the piece after seeing its premiere a year after Mahler’s death. Allusions to these ideas can be identified in the first movement which will be the focus of this programme note.

The movement, marked Andante comodo (‘at a comfortable walking pace’), loosely follows a traditional sonata form – a structure consisting of an exposition where the main musical themes are introduced, a development where these themes are played around with and altered, and a recapitulation where the exposition is inexactly repeated, this time concluding in the piece’s home key (in this case D major). The very opening introduces five key motives which come to inform much of the movement’s material. The first is a dotted rhythm, introduced with notes being exchanged between the cellos and a horn – this can be seen as a version of what Schoenberg later developed as the technique of klangfarbenmelodie, in which a melody moves through different timbres. This first motive also features a thematic rhythm later used by Berg in his brutally violent opera Wozzeck. The second motive, introduced by the harp, has been referred to by many as a funeral march motive. As the movement goes on this motive articulates key points in the structure – it is later heard at the beginning of the development and just before the recapitulation. Musicologist Nicholas Baragwanath has suggested that Berg was referring to this motive when describing the foreboding of death underlying the movement, identifying this introduction as linked to both the Bell and Communion Leitmotivs from Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, with which Berg was very familiar, where they relate to the Knights of the Grail and a longing for death.[1] It’s also interesting to note that this style of having themes that grow out of a fragmented opening is reflected in much of Berg’s own work. After this short introduction there begins, rather than the conventional structure of an exposition, what Erwin Ratz describes as a three-part song, the first section of which is melodically derived from the fifth motive – a falling (but now rising) major second.[2] This section has an unusual phrase structure – whereas phrases may traditionally be four or eight bars in length, here an eleven-bar antecedent phrase is answered by a nine-bar consequent phrase. Mahler’s successful treatment of such unusual phrase lengths led Schoenberg to comment, in his lecture on the composer, on Mahler’s sense of form being that of a genius, suggesting that he instinctively creates such phrases in a balanced way without having even realised the potential issue.[3] The second part of the exposition, beginning with a key change to the tonic minor, is seen by Ratz as a contrasting section though Theodor W. Adorno, a prolific German philosopher, musicologist and composer (who once studied with Berg), describes it as seeming almost to be simply a minor version of the first.[4] Either way, the return of the major tonality and its themes in the third part of the exposition asserts it as the primary material. As the exposition approaches its end, both primary and secondary material are reworked in Bb major before this opening section draws to a close in G minor.

The development begins with the first motive now just in the horns, described by Adorno as the ‘catastrophe rhythm’ (perhaps nodding to its use in Wozzeck).[5] There is an interesting moment in this section where a chord containing the notes D, F, A and C# is heard. This chord can be found in the work of Schoenberg – Adorno identifies it as playing a key role in the first Orchestral Piece of Op. 16 and I would also add that it appears in the seminal fourth movement of his String Quartet No. 2, generally regarded as the composer’s first atonal piece.[6] Later in this section, the brass play a thunderous, triple forte tritone (an interval known as ‘the Devil in music’ due to its discordant sound) – this is the moment that Baragwanath believes Berg interpreted as where death comes.[7] Perhaps suitably, Adorno names the section beginning soon after as the funeral march section – indeed, it features the second, funeral march motive acting as an ostinato (a repeating musical phrase).[8]

After a very long development section with much use of material from the exposition, the recapitulation, is therefore condensed (though the addition of the coda causes it to equal the exposition in length). A wonderful moment in this final section is the rising melody that’s passed from oboe to flute to solo violin to piccolo – corresponding, according to Baragwanath, to Berg’s description of thin air above the mountains.[9] Seeing nature as a model was a view of Mahler’s that was shared by another student of Schoenberg’s, Anton Webern (these latter two composers, along with Berg, are known as the Second Viennese School, distinguished by their radical new atonal methods of composition). Crucially, both Mahler and Webern saw their music as deriving from nature rather than having a purely imitative relationship with it – that is, they saw the framework of nature as an inspiration to their music, rather than writing music that literally depicts trees or birds.[10] This is also clearly tied to the influence of Schoenberg and his focus on organicism – the process of generating whole works from a single motive, akin to how a tree grows from a single seed. The rising melody leads into a soft, intricate duet cadenza for flute and horn. Here, Adorno notes, the horn part maintains an expressive continuousness, thus requires a virtuosic player as there is no obvious space to breathe.[11] The coda ends with dolcissimo (‘very sweet’), sighing horn phrases, likened by Berg to taking deeper and deeper breaths of earth’s air before a final breath – indeed, this is where the movement ends.[12] These moments in the recapitulation are described by Berg as a resignation after the arrival of death. I find this choice of word (or at least the choice of the translator) ‘resignation’ interesting in relation to a point made by Schoenberg about Mahler. In the aforementioned lecture, Schoenberg defended Mahler from the criticism of sentimental themes by using the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s differentiation between true sorrow, which reaches resignation, and sentimentality, which does not – it simply continues to lament.[13] Schoenberg’s point is that a Mahler theme can’t be sentimental as it may well eventually reach resignation – it seems Berg deems this to be the case in the movement at hand.

Whether an idea projected onto the work by the likes of Berg who mourned the death of Mahler or due to something intrinsic and intended in the composition, I hope to have shown how many have read Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as dealing with the topic of death, perhaps foreshadowing the composer’s passing in May 1911. This symphony also demonstrates Mahler’s highly skilled motivic use and development. This along with his view of nature as a model and his phrase and melody construction, as seen in the first movement, are all aspects of the composer’s work that were greatly admired and emulated by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Despite the abandonment of traditional tonality that sets these composers apart from Mahler, he still had a profound influence – Schoenberg commented on his impressive means of continuing to write masterful music while still composing in a tonal idiom.[14] In this way he can be seen as playing a large role in paving the way for this younger generation of composers.

Oran Johnson, November 2020


[1] Nicholas Baragwanath, ‘Fin-de-siècle Wagner: Parsifal Analysed through Berg’s Programme to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony’ in Music Analysis, Vol. 23 No. 1 (Wiley, March 2004), p. 31. [2] Erwin Ratz, ‘Zum Formproblem bei Gustav Mahler: Eine Analyse des Ersten Satzes der IX Symphony’ in Die Musikforschung 8 (1955), p. 157. [3] Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Gustav Mahler’ (1912, 1948) in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stein, translated by Leo Black (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 462. [4] Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Long Gaze’ in Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, translated by Edmund Jephcott (University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 157. [5] ibid., p. 159. [6] ibid., p. 159. [7] Baragwanath, ‘Fin-de-siècle Wagner’, p. 32. [8] Adorno, ‘The Long Gaze’, p. 159. [9] Baragwanath, ‘Fin-de-siècle Wagner’, pp. 32-34. [10] Julian Johnson, Webern and the Transformation of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 41. [11] Adorno, ‘The Long Gaze’, p. 157. [12] Baragwanath, ‘Fin-de-siècle Wagner’, p. 28. [13] Schoenberg, ‘Gustav Mahler’, pp. 456-457. [14] ibid., pp. 459-460.

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