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.
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.
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):
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.