Expert’s perspective- Mahler 9, a bitter burlesque

The Bridgewater Hall- Mahler in Manchester

Mahler in Manchester

In American football, coaches learn that when a play is working for you, go keep going to it until the other team figures out a way to stop it. In this spirit, I’ve asked Peter Davison, whose previous contributions to this series ahve been so valuable and complimentary, for his thoughts about Mahler 9. The Halle, with their Music Director, Sir Mark Elder, will perform Mahler 9 as part of Mahler in Manchester on the 27th of May, 2010 in The Bridgewater Hall.

Burlesque and Elegy in Mahler’s Ninth symphony

I often think of Mahler’s Ninth symphony as his “New World” symphony, because it says good-bye to the familiarities of Vienna and tries to draw a line under the traumas of 1908. In that year, Mahler not only lost his position as Director of the Vienna Opera and went ot the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but he lost his first child and learned that his own health was detoriorating. For Mahler, composing was therapeutic. It was a way of getting to grips with the torments of his emotions and the sensitivity of his inner being. At the time of composing the ninth in 1908-9. Mahler had a lot of life experience to digest.

The Ninth symphony is often heard as valedictory; a work about Mahler’s own farewell to life, although there is little real evidence that this was his intention. There is certainly an air of resignation, but it is acceptance in a higher sense; namely he goes through a process of mourning to find inner peace. But as ever with Mahler, the music is never just about him, but a universal expression of compassion for the lot of man. Man is born to suffer.

So much can be said and has been said about the first movement of this work, that I don’t want to focus on it here. It is simply the best music Mahler ever wrote; a compelling essay on the human condition. It narrates the confrontation between Man’s aspiration to joy and hostile fate. It is suffused by anxious longing and, at times, paralysing fear. Yet within its enormous emotional and psychological compass, there is a perfect symphonic resolution. This begs the question – why compose three more movements after this at all?

Mahler was reluctant to let the format of the traditional symphony go much as he was attached to Vienna itself. But we can hear these three movements as a paranthesis to the first movement, i.e. Mahler’s explanation in more specific terms of what has been first presented as universal drama; like a Passion story in fact. But what do these three later movements express which illuminates the first?  The bitter irony of the Landler and Rondo Burleske are expressions of righteous anger. Mahler had lost his job in Vienna. He had been toppled from a great height by back-biting and gossip. We can hear these movements as depictions of the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, but increasingly devoid of any meaning. The Landler takes the most simple white-note motive, a rising C major tonic to dominant scale, and subjects it to serious violence. Only occasionally are there moments of sentimental longing to return to the innocence which this motive represents in its purest form. The movement marks a loss of innocence, so that urban life seem like a dreadful parody of true nature. There is grotesquerie, distortion and disintegration. What should be a dance of life-affirming joy has become the epitome of sardonic humour and ugliness. It is music of profound disappointment.

The Rondo Burleske takes this feeling a step further with its allusions to the flower movement of the third symphony and Lehar’s Merry Widow. All that is pretty surface is here blown apart by angry ripostes, resentful remarks and wicked asides. It is as if someone has walked into a Viennese salon and ripped down all the soft furnishings or thrown ink at the watercolours on the walls. The fugal voices of Mahler’s musical god, J.S. Bach, have here become transformed into a demonic crowd of carping critics who shout down the voice of truth. But who is angry with whom? This is a full-scale row with fingers pointing in all directions. We are in the thick of it; the pettiness, the squabbles, the absurdity of wounded egos and ruined reputations. Mahler knew he had allowed himself to be drawn into pettiness and that it had robbed him of his well-being. Mahler connected his personal situation with the universal truth. When we allow the small-minded to drag us down to their level, we become ourselves small-minded like them.

I made a discovery the other day while listening to the radio. I heard a work I did not quite recognise, but which nonetheless sounded very familiar. Then I realised why I knew it. It was the music of Mahler’s Rondo Burleske, but without its savage “wrong-note” irony. Instead I heard a pleasant rustic dance. At the end, I found it was from the Suite Pastorale by Chabrier – a suite drawn from ten pictorial piano works. This was the Dance Villageoise. Why would Mahler so obviously parody this rather ordinary work by one of the most bourgeouis of all 19C composers? But that is the point! Mahler hated the picturesque attitude to nature, because it could only see the surface of beauty and could never accept the wild, spontaneous and dark side of nature, nor its deep spirituality. The implication is that Mahler’s anger is being directed towards the hypocrisies of the bourgeouis culture around him. This is what had undone him in Vienna; why he had been so misunderstood. Mahler believed that he spoke with the voice of true Nature, and because he was uncompromising in that regard, Vienna had rejected him and his music. So the acerbic humour of the Rondo is aimed at his “Friends in Apollo”, as Mahler wrote in the score. It is a gesture of defiance against those who could only judge by the standards of formalism and surface beauty; the social conservatives, the power-hungry careerists and the simply ignorant. The Friends in Apollo were being given a lesson in angry Dionysian energy by Mahler preaching with fire and brimstone.

But there is something else to notice about this movement. It is a Rondo, and Rondos usually end symphonies by summarising what has gone before and resolving the drama with wit and playful detachment. Here the Rondo appears as a set-back. We have returned to a state of inner turmoil which seems to precede the first movement’s universal vision of tragic human destiny. It is a regression stimulated by worldly defeat and antagonism. There is no tragic dignity or soulfulness to be found, except in the fleeting anticipations of the adagio which emerge tantalisingly during the movement. Mahler may have had in mind Tchaikowsky’s Pathetique  Symphony which posits a false sense of triumph before a tragic slow-movement finale. But there is not much triumph, false or otherwise in Mahler’s Rondo. It is diabolical and cynical; music of angry and destructive protest “A plague on all your houses”….so to speak. Mahler knows deep down that he cannot stay in this hellish place. he must move on, put it behind him.

The work’s Adagio finale is then a refuge from this state of bitterness. Mahler searches deep inside himself to restores his soul to balance after deep trauma and hurt. This is expressed in the hymn-like opening of the movement. Mahler rediscovers some semblance of tragic dignity and reconnects with the atmosphere of the first movement. The unwionding of the inner tension comes through grief and mourning, through entering loneliness and confronting the most difficult questions. Mahler thereby finds some affirmation, by accepting loss and what life really is. But he must have found it hard to forgive or to be positive about a society that silences true nature; the child-like voice which is so often drowned out by the chatter of the world. He may at the end of this symphony have found some personal closure, but he was never again able to feel at home in Vienna.

Peter Davison


Anyone interested in listening to Chabrier’s Dance Villageouise can listen here.

I hear other Wunderhorn songs in this music: Lob des hohen Verstands and Das irdische Leben.You can imagine that Mahler may have identified a bourgeouis Frenchman as the ultimate falsifcation of true Nature (an opinion Wagner and Nietzsche might have held). Lob des hohen Verstands is about a donkey passing judgement on the music of the cuckoo and the nightingale. Das irdische Leben is about the mother who does not feed her hungry child; the the dark side of Nature, when it seems indifferent to the loveless predicament of her own off-spring. If anyone wants to speculate why Mahler has absorbed this work by Chabrier, please feel free to post your thoughts.

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American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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11 comments on “Expert’s perspective- Mahler 9, a bitter burlesque”

  1. mahler9

    Great discussion of Mahler 9, my personal favorite symphony by any composer. I have often asked the same question: why did Mahler have to add 3 movements after the magnificent Andante Comodo? The first movement seems a symphony in itself and I always feel the two fast movements are tremendous departures before the great Finale. You explain it all rather well, but I remain frustrated looking and listening for musical connections between all the movements. They are there, for sure, the melodic turn figure first heard prominently at the last great climax in the Andante returns in the following 3 movements and you point out the ‘preview’ of the Adagio we get in the Rondo. These help, among other details, but I still sometimes almost wish Mahler had made the Andante Comodo a standalone work.

  2. Neal Gittleman

    I can’t/won’tdon’t refute Peter’s post, though I have a very different personal take on the Rondo-Burleske, which came to me on-the-fly in rehearsal as I tried to articulate to my orchestra a rationale for not playing quite so heavily, angrily, and ugly as they did in a first read-through of this movement. I suggested that they think of it as a burlesque, yes, but in a more playful sense, as in “Get a load of all this crap I have to put up with, when all I really want to do is take a nice walk down Fifth Avenue with Alma.” The more I thought about this imaginary backstory, the more I liked it, and the more the orchestra played in that spirit, the more a I liked what I heard from them. What’s more, I certainly hope Mahler wasn’t attacking Chabrier. Not just that it’s hardly a fair fight, but I’d point out de la Grange’s Vol. IV appendix shows that Mahler conducted at least two Chabrier works on multiple occasions (including “España”!), so I find it hard to imagine Mahler holding a perfectly nice composer like Chabrier in such contempt that he’d subject him to harsh parody. If it is, indeed, a parody, maybe it’s in the olden-days sense (e.g. parody masses, etc.) and Mahler’s citing the “Dance Villageoise” as a way to say that the philistines he was dealing with at that time in his life were hardly the sophisticates they imagined themselves and were little more (or maybe even less) than provincial Chabrier-style country bumpkins. Perhaps Chabrier isn’t the butt of the joke at all…

  3. Peter

    These are both very interesting responses. I agree, the problem of how to relate to the last three movements of no.9 doesn’t go away, even if you find thematic and programmatic linkages. There is a similiar problem in Bruckner 9th, which is also a model for M9. The key issue is how to resolve such a massive work in a conventional finale. Bruckner’s first three movements are so powerful and transcendent that it is hard to imagine what scale of finale would add something that summarises and trumps what went before. I realise that someone has tried to construct a finale for the work, but this seems a monumental task.

    Mahler made a comment that his ninth was rather like his fourth; a remark that is usually dismissed as obscure and misleading. But there is some sense in it, because both works lack the clinching rondo finale, and we can hear in the middle movements of the ninth something of the combination of pastoral and mocking tone found in the fourth’s scherzo. Both symphonies have very classically constructed first movements and Adagios that are in effect sets of double-variations. Of course, the ninth lacks a song at the end, although references to Kindertotenlieder are present.

    Perhap the best way to see the ninth is as a typical Mahlerian juxtaposition of the epic and personal drama. The first movement concerns the universality of the human condition, while the middle movements tend towards the specific and personal (as in symphony no.7 for instance.) The Adagio finale builds the bridge between the two worlds by dissolving the divisive ego. Our sense of separation from life comes as a consequence of egoism, and you might say Mahler regains his humanity at the end of the work, but he needed to show us what it means to lose it. The disjunction after the first movement is then felt as a regression which has to be overcome.

    I agree with Neal that Mahler obviously did not hate Chabrier, indeed we know that he was quite fond of a lot of this kind of music. But we can’t ignore the traditional antagonism between the French and Germanic cultures, and the general tension with the southern European cultures that obsessed German Romantics from Goethe onwards. The point here is again regression. When you are really angry, primitive emotions lead you to say and do nasty things you might regret later. So Mahler’s outburst is a bit indiscriminate (knowingly so) – no-one is safe and all kinds of targets for his bile come into view. This is an angry child who hates his parents for a moment.

    I was reading Nike Wagner’s excellent study of her ancestor’s music, The Wagners, and found this quotation about Tannhauser:

    The Venusberg is surely a symbolic representation of the Parisian paradis artificiel, rather than a Christian projection of a hell of voluptuousness. I agree with Friederich Dieckmann’s argument that the Venusberg stands for “Paris, Europe, the West”: that frivolous, commercialised and corrupt world in which “freedom and also alienation are more advanced than provincial Germany with its comfortable backwardness.”

    Interestingly she goes on to say that Wagner’s musical development was about learning the art of transition, bridging the opposites, resolving the wild extremes of his often child-like extreme responses. Wagner felt like a peasant compared to the sophisticates of Parisian musical life. Mahler can be seen in this lght too in Vienna; the Bohemiam Jew who has risen to dizzy heights – but who has retained something of his primitive background. Mahler is force to build bridges between the universal and the personal, as well between extreme states of emotion such as anger and serenity.

    You can find an example in Mahler where French music is portrayed as a symbol of seductive sensuality – think of the allusions to Carmen in the first nachtmusik of no.7. Mahler had read and absorbed Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, which is almost a manifesto for his whole output. You can read there that Des Knaben Wunderhorn was considered by Nietzsche as a reservoir of deep instinctive truth, and there is also the lambasting of France and England as decadent democratic cultures that have lost trust in true nature.

    Mahler I believe did not in the end share Nietzsche’s narrow nationalistic fervour and simplistic understanding of other cultures. But if we hear those middle movements as a regression to a state of Wagnerian inner conflict and with Wagner’s bent for venting hisn spleen, then of course, old prejudices and antagonisms are exposed. Perhaps Mahler’s bile is a little bit as the first post suggests, rather tilting at windmills, chasing old ghosts, feeling paranoid – and Mahler knows he has to pull himself together.I doubt his preference was for a walk down Fifth Avenue with Alma, but he surelyn would have preferred to have been in the mountains in Toblach than fighting with critics, managers and ladies’ committees.

    Interestingly Tannhauser is also a figure out of Des Knaben Wunderhorn,so a fairy-tale hero with the traditional Germanic love of Heimat. He becomes an emblem of Wagner’s awkwardness as a Saxon in the cosmopolitan world of Paris. This is also a very Mahlerian conjunction of opposites. Homesickness – a desire to return to the bosom of the countryside.

    But the French have something the Germanic cultures struggle to understand, which is an instinct for good taste, limiting excess, elegance in manners and expression. It was what attracted Nietzsche to Bizet’s music in rebellion against Wagner. In cultivating the art of transition, a bit of French polish is exactly what Wagner needed and his resentment of Meyerbeer etal was driven by envy as much as a burning sense of injustice. Mahler too needed a bit of French fluency in expressing and containing the extremes of his emotional make-up. I haven’t found any French music in the Adagio Finale of No.9, but the work which expresses the art of transition and containment most successfully in Mahler is Das Lied von der Erde. This is exactly where Mahler comes closest to Debussy in colour and means of expression. It is Mahler’s greatest flight from Wagnerian excess.

    One might conclude that in the Rondo Burleske Mahler for a moment lapses into a Wagner-like state of torment and frustration, but his deeper humanity asserts itself as he sees what he has allowed himself to become. But there is a universal message too…that is how we all become if we lose sight of the profound truth in the first movement, raise our expectations too high and let our egos prevail.


  4. NJG

    Mahler called Chabrier’s Espana “the beginnings of all modern music.”
    It’s quoted by de la Grange from the Malloch interview with bassoonist
    Banjamin Kohon, who said Mahler once broke off a rehearsal to tell this to
    the players. And Mahler did say absolutely awful things about Bruckner,
    Sibelius, even Brahms. So, as things go, it’s hard enough to take
    seriously what one great composer says about another great composer
    (especially when it’s out of context and maybe said when he was very
    young), let alone when he hasn’t said it at all, or in fact said the exact

  5. George

    Well, taking seriously is one thing, taking at face value is quite another.
    I think that we must try to keep in mind that no two brains are the same
    , so the ways they “process” the same music are different even if the “verdict” is the same. Now, if we talk about people who lived not only in differ ent societies, but also in different times than we did there are additional factors that should make us even more cautious. I found very interesting, for instance, that two so different musicians as Mahler and Weingartner assessed Bruckner’s music=A0by using practically the same words. They detectedthe same pros and cons. Was it a mere coincidence ? I think not. I would a lso guess that Klemperer’s feeling that Bruckner went too far at the finale of the 8th (hence the cuts he introduced on several, but not all,=A0occasions. This was one of the cons mentioned by both Mahler and Weingartner though they felt that it was a general characteristic of Bruckner’s compositional method rather than one limited to one movement only.


  6. Peter

    The questions of acceptable length and how to conclude the Romantic symphony extend way beyond Bruckner and Mahler of course. The discursive nature of romantic art in general and its aspiration to transcendence create the problem, which exists acutely in Wagner also. (Tannhauser is a good example and one where cutting is an obvious solution.) Schumann made that famous observation about Schubert’s Great c major symphony being of heavenly length which puts the matter in a nutshell. At what point does the sublime, timeless unfolding of symphonic architecture become a bore? Indeed, our fast modern culture takes a dim view of what takes a long time to reveal itself and perhaps has not enough patience with the apparently plodding pace of some symphonic narratives.

    Bruckner’s repetitiveness was never a problem to me, but I know many who find it lacking in substance and purpose. The same applies to the supposedly controversial finale of Mahler 7. It never occured to me that it was long-winded and empty until I read about it. Equally, should one perform the repeats in Mahler 1 and Mahler 6? The same issue applies. Why make longer what is already long, why repeat material that recording has made very familiar to us? Or are they truly part of the symphonic shape or narrative and must therefore be respected.

    Then also, the sense of ennui that we get at times in Mahler and Bruckner is very much part of the experience. In the finale of Bruckner 6, as also in Mahler 7, we can hear the composer thinking – enough of this, let’s bring this to an end….as if the music might otherwise go on spinning around for ever, unable to resolve its inner contradictions.

    That is what happens when you write music true to life-experience. We all would like more time to decide what happens next, but either events overtake us or there comes a time when we have to make a choice and live with it. And yes, life can have long dull moments too, when we want things to happen, but they stubbornly don’t.

    This issue acknowledges something generally true about the Romantic symphony, namely that its can never fulfill its stated ambition of reflecting true life and achieving sustained transcendence – and Mahler’s ninth is perhaps the moment when that is most clearly understood in the development of the genre. The conflict between what is complete and symphonically whole (the first movement on its own) and the creative ambition that seeks to go beyond (the rest of the work) leads first to ironical contradiction, then the mystery of silence.

    Whether that makes Mahler’s ninth a profound retreat from the extroverted Romantic outlook or a rich and complex failure is a matter of interpretation and hinges upon whether Mahler knew what he was doing. Generally Mahler knew what he was doing, and by reversing the conventional order of Rondo and Adagio and having opened with a movement that is strongly reminiscent of the finale of no.6 – we have a symphony made up of two finales that are neither an ending. The work finishes instead with an Adagio that should be a middle movement.

    One last thought – going back to Mahler’s comment that drew parallels between his fourth symphony and the ninth – imagine a performance where after the Adagio a singer steps forward and sings “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” transposed into D-flat. Would the Adagio, as in No.4 have led us to the gates of this particular Nirvana?

  7. Kenneth Woods

    What a great discussion everyone! Please keep the comments coming.

    Peter mentions the parallel with Tchaik 6, something I read about in countless program notes growing up. Of course, on a formal level, the comparisons are easy to see- an epic first movement, a dance movement with a twist, a finale that isn’t and a third movement played fourth.

    If Mahler had the Tchaikovsky in mind, though, it seems to me he’s written a near mirror image. Where the first movement of the Pathetique culminates in an apocalyptic climax before winding down in a a state of detatched resignation, Mahler manages to work from despair to transcendence in the first movement. Tchaikovsky’s 2nd mvt looks at the dance through the prism of nostalgia, Mahler’s does so with a certain ironic bitterness, as though to see the good old days were never all that good. Tchaik’s 3rd mvt really does feel climactic and has an almost unmatched sense of unbroken forward momentum, where Mahler’s is all about interruption and instability. Tchaik’s Finale opens as a mood of triumph is shattered by a scream of anquish, Mahler finishes the Rondon Burleske in a mood of instability, and his Finale re-establishes and intensifies the sense of transcendence achieved in the 1st mvt.

    The Tchaik (a piece I love a lot) is really a work about despair and negation- Mahler uses the same structure to write a work about getting beyond despair and negation.

  8. Peter

    I agree Ken that the differences between the Mahler and Tchaikovsky are along these lines. Mahler was dismissive of Tchaik generally, but it didn’t stop him performing the music and being influenced by it. The Manfred Symphony in particular provided material for Mahler’s Sixth, and the fate motif of Tchaik 4 is not unlike the fate motif in the finale of Mahler’s tragic work. We might suspect that Tchaik would be another target for Mahler’s tirade against bourgeois sentimentality – although little did he know that privately Tchaik would have agreed with him. We know, but Mahler did not, that Tchaik’s Sixth symphony was probably a response to his despair living in a bourgeois society which could not tolerate his homosexuality.

    There are possibly common lines of tradition in Tchaik and Mahler going back to Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt and Berlioz – where no doubt many of these musical devices like fate motifs, blurring of movement types and rearranging movement orders can be found. Another model for Mahler 9 is Strauss’ Don Quixote – which ends in pathos, death and musical disintergation. (Spendidly imitated by Elgar in his Falstaff too!)

    Mahler, as we know, was a bit of a musical kleptomaniac – and was always using other people’s material on the grounds that he could make it work better than the original. Why let a good idea remain in the hands of the mediocre, he was thinking. Arrogance? genius? Deluded? True?

    I guess we are grateful for Mahler’s enlightened appropriations.

  9. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- A View From the Podium » Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 9, a meditation after a drama

  10. Brandon

    I know I’m incredibly late to this conversation…but as a fan of Mahler’s works, I have begun to interpret this 3rd movement as a recollection of his memories of his parents…mostly about his mother.

    I have read that his father was abusive towards his mother…and from his lyrics in that song about the mother who doesn’t bake the bread for the child, and the child dies, I have a feeling Mahler was not very fond of women, or may have had a cynical view…probably because his mother may have been at least neglectful herself, probably emotionally neglectful. His mother was a woman full of suffering and despair, was probably outwardly cynical. Gustav of course was influenced by this. I think this may have drove his father to drink…and couldn’t help but lay his hand on her every once in a while.

    I think the 3rd movement may have had something to do with trying to resolve his feelings from those early years, which obviously had a huge effect on shaping his personality and mentality, and then to connect that music with the feelings he had for his wife.

    When Wagner wrote music for/about his wife, it was elegant, soft and beautiful. When Mahler did the same, it was the 1st movement of the 6th, which I think interestingly is also on the same emotional level as this 3rd movt of the 9th.

    Some time after he finished this symphony, Mahler and Alma were not getting along, she had an affair, and he went to see Sigmund Freud, who had the following to say about this meeting:

    “Mahler’s wife Alma loved her father Rudolf Schindler and could only seek out and love his type. Mahler’s age, of which he was so afraid, was precisely what made him so attractive to his wife. Mahler loved his mother and sought her type in every woman. His mother was troubled and full of suffering, and subconsciously he wanted this also from his wife Alma.”

    Except I don’t think it was so much as Mahler “loved” his mother, of course he did, but the important thing from the relationship was that his mother used him as an emotional pillow – he had to listen to her go on and on about her sufferings, to the point where he felt all the guilt himself.

    This is was I think this 3rd movt of the 9th was about…or at least what I hear when I listen to it. The symphony was about life and death – and Mahler was obviously a composer to wrote with his heart on his sleeve – I find it a little hard to believe that Mahler would write an entire movement of a symphony to “snub” others. He had never done that before, so why would he all of a sudden do that now?

    Just my opinions, but the great thing about music is that one can interpret it how he/she likes, and what it means to them personally.

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