When Gustav Mahler composed his Ninth Symphony, he felt in no way at the end of his life. His health was fine, and with his appointment as chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic, his career had taken an exciting turn. And yet it is hard not to see in this work a kind of musical harbinger of death. Partly because Mahler died a year after its completion, but principally because the character of the symphony is determined by moments of disintegration and dissolution.
The symphony begins tentatively, merging melodic fragments whose structures always remain fragile. In a reversal of the usual symphonic structure, the two slow movements in Mahler’s Ninth are framed by two fast sections. These convey a worldly vigour, but are interrupted by turmoil and despair. The idea, that in this symphony, Mahler captures a premonition of death in music, is fostered especially by the finale. It begins with a sonorous hymn, but contrary to expectations, the symphony does not culminate in a glorious apotheosis, rather the music gradually dissolves and at the end, looking “inquiringly into the unknown” (Theodor W. Adorno).
Mahler’s composing with fragments, however, is good not only as a symbol for the departure from life: It is exactly this fragmentary nature of the Ninth Symphony that has inspired composers from Modernism to the present day. An example of this, performed at this concert, is Helmut Lachenmann’s Tableau from 1989 that oscillates between the emergence and disappearance of sounds, noises and shapes.