Heart (broken) on its sleeve

This is a long post. But the part I’d most love you to see comes toward the end, where I quote a heartbreaking reminiscence of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder — his songs about the death of children — in his Ninth Symphony, which is about his own death. For me, it’s profoundly moving to hear the two passages back to back, the music from the song simple and direct, its distant memory in the symphony already evaporated into a world that’s not ours. 

So if you’re not inclined to read  the whole post, scroll to the reminiscence. You’ll see I’ve plainly flagged it. I wonder if it will give you chills, as it did for me.

Few pieces of art wear their heart on their sleeve as plainly as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony does. And even fewer contain, in effect, their own translation, things inside them which have a verbal meaning, and can help us translate the meaning of the entire work into words. 

Mahler’s Ninth has implicit words inside it. The most basic musical idea in the piece, the one that helps generate some of the most notable music, is a simple three-note descent, from the third note of the scale down to the tonic. 

This is far easier to hear than to describe. And it can’t be a coincidence — from Mahler’s point of view — that those three notes are also the start of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, in E flat. Three simple notes downward. Or that the sonata is known as “Les Adieux,” the farewells. Or that Beethoven wrote the word “lebewohl” — farewell — over those first three notes, to show that they literally (to him) meant farewell:

Mahler of course knew this. And knew he was using the same motif. So the Ninth Symphony is a farewell — clearly a farewell to life. (Since Mahler knew he was dying, knew that Beethoven and Bruckner hadn’t gotten past their ninth symphonies, and had already started taking leave of life in “Das lied von der Erde.”) 

Here’s the three-note farewell, turned into something like a dance (a piece of cheerfulness the fails to go anywhere) in the second movement. And here it is again, beginning the melody that runs through the last movement

In the first movement its role is more nuanced, and much more wistful. What we hear, early on, and repeatedly, are the first two notes, as if Mahler doesn’t want to make the full descent, knowing all too well what it means. So here’s the start of the opening melody, rocking like a cradle between the first two notes. And here the two notes are again, at the end of the opening melody, rocking downward, elaborating themselves very slightly upward, then falling toward the last note that Mahler doesn’t want to hear — and evading it, by starting something else. 

And Mahler keeps evading the conclusion, throughout the movement. Until the very end. But then, almost with a shy little leap, he raises the last note two octaves above where you think it’s going to be, as if to say, “Look! I escaped!” 

Again, that’s easier to hear than to describe, and it’s one of the most touching moments of the symphony. Mahler doesn’t fool us — or, I think, himself, but it’s so very touching that he tries to do it.

He tries to evade the last note, too, at the end of the symphony, by hovering on the first note of the descent. And on the fifth of the scale, above that first note. Again, I don’t think he fools himself. His unwillingness to end is so plain to hear, that it might just as well be written on the face of the music. And he’s made the descent, over and over, over and over, in the movement’s restless main theme, which never finds a home, never finds rest, and detours constantly into disaster and distress. The ending, as I said in my previous post on the symphony, is far more tragic than it seems. 

Here’s the Kindertotenlieder reminiscence, which I mentioned right at the start. 
And here’s evidence that this is so. As the music subsides toward the ending, Mahler quotes a passage from his Kindertotenlieder, songs about the death of children. Though “quotes” is really the wrong word. I’d rather say that he seems all at once to remember the passage, and to let it sound in his mind, but now translated into the far more rarified, far more distant, unearthly, and disturbing sound-world of the symphony. 

I hadn’t read about this passage, though of course I’m not the first to notice it. I spotted it, curiously, only by looking at the score, where the Kindertotenlieder memory, once I noticed it, was inescapable. But I hadn’t heard it the many times that in recent days I’d listened to the symphony. Maybe that’s because it’s pulled so far out of itself that it almost seems to have no substance. 

But when i put the two passages back to back, I got chills. Of course they’re related. Of course the music in the symphony remembers the song. Nothing could be more obvious, or more disturbing, when the direct and simple feeling in the song gets moved into whatever dissolves in our minds after death. (For more of what I mean by that, see my previous Mahler 9 post.) Listen to what happens: the song; the symphony.

(A pause to let that sink in.)

And now the translation. The song is the fourth of the five-song cycle, “Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur aufgegangen!” (“I often think they’ve only gone out!”)  The songs, as we know, are about the death of beloved children. In this one, the singer imagines that the children aren’t dead, that they’ve only gone for a walk, and have chosen to stay away longer than usual. Right away, that’s heartbreaking. The part Mahler remembers in the symphony is the very end of the song. Just before that passage come these words (translated into English):

They have simply gone on ahead:
They will not wish to return home.

And then the part Mahler lingers over, transforming it into something very strange and distant:

We’ll catch up to them on those hills.
In the sunshine the day is fair

Denial of death, in other words. We don’t die. We go into the hills. In the soft, eternal sunshine. But in the song Mahler knows that isn’t true. The children have really died. So we can believe, if we like, that Mahler accepts death at the end of the symphony, or that he pictures to himself an afterlife. But the memory of the song suggests something else, that at the very least he isn’t sure, and that the thought of comfort might be only an evasion. As it is in the song. 

A heartbreaking symphony. Adrift in a sea of loss. 

The Beethoven excerpt is from Andras Schiff’s sonata cycle, recorded for ECM. The Kindertotenlieder excerpt is from an old recording by Jenny Tourel, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. All the Mahler 9 excerpts, in this post and the last one, are from the Roger Norrington recording, with the Radio-

Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. jacques israelievitch says

    Thanks for that !

    I’m actually hearing the 9th this afternoon, played by the Chicago Symphony and Haitink, followed by a reunion of the alumni of the orchestra of which I was assistant concertmaster (1972-78).

    It’s the first time I’m able to attend the reunion. I think I was the youngest member of the orchestra when I joined so, many of my colleagues have died and this is a much younger orchestra.

    It will be be a poignant experience to hear Mahler 9th in this context.

  2. Jeffrey Dowd says

    Mahler 9 has been in my personal canon since I was a teenager. As an opera singer who has sung more or less all of the romantic repertoire, it’s been strange to experience all the antecents over the course of the years, cumulatively realizing what an amalgator-thief-“i’ll show you, Mr. Wagner,Mascagni,Beethoven, how a real genius uses that idea”,guy Mahler was. But 9 has retained it’s sublimity.

    Can’t warm up to Norrington in this rep, however. The lack of vibrato bothers me only in as far as it makes intonation in chromatic music so difficult. But this constant tapering off of every phrase, as if it’s a moral defect to have a musical idea last longer than 4 bars is nauseating, and can’t be right, even in baroque literature. Did the literary works of the time also consist of only short sentences?

    For a stiff upper lip M. (, I prefer von Donanyi,Boulez or Zinman.


  3. says

    While not being that knowledgable about Mahler I wonder if the descending three note theme is inspired by, or a reference to, the well known phrase that is typical of writing for the natural horn. In Germany, and even more so in the 19th century, there is a far closer connection with the countryside and nature than in many other countries. The natural horn immediately suggests rural Europe I think.

    Nostalgia for the countryside of our childhood is, I think, part of our psyche. I remember a woman telling my family that she knew her father was dying because he asked her husband to drive him round all the country roads he used cycle through as a young boy. He died the next day.

    In England there was a documentary on Elgar, and at the end of the film, when Elgar was laying on his death bed, they showed flashbacks to him cycling round rural England when he was a child.

    The countryside can also be a metaphor for life after death. The hymmn ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ is usually taken to be a patriotic anthem. It is not, it is quite clearly about a greater place (country) in the next life.

    I also wonder if composers take a theme that is of special significance to them and develop it beyond all recognition. Certainly it appears Mahler does this in the excerpts quoted above.

    Maybe the three note descending theme, reduced to two notes, was still imbued with its potency in Mahler’s mind.

  4. says

    Greg–I really enjoyed reading your remarks on the Mahler #9. Since I first heard the piece (and I can vividly remember that first listening), it has moved me probably more than any other work of music. (And as a composer, there’s always something in that score to admire every time I look at it.) Your “Kindertotenlieder” quote remark made me go back and listen to those songs, which I hadn’t heard in a long time. It strikes me that although people like to refer to the first 4 Mahler symphonies as “song symphonies,” there’s a lot of the sound of the K’totenlieder in the later symphonies as well, so maybe ALL his symphonies are “song symphonies” in some way.

    One last thought: I’ve always thought the 3-note descending chromatic motive that appears throughout the 1st and last movements (eg: F#-F-E in 1st mvt bar 44 and C-Cb-Bb in 4th mvt bar 13) is probably a chromatic shrinking of the 3-note “Lebewohl” motive.