EMI have issued a new recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra conducted by their music director, Sir Simon Rattle, in October 2007. A video introduction to this recording is posted on the internet on which Sir Simon makes what I think are incomplete assertions:
“…Finally in all his pieces, he [Mahler] found really the shape for the middle movements — what these two scherzos are… And in a way it’s very simple. I mean, they’re both very bitter, very sarcastic, very angry pieces.”
Ignoring the implied claim that the inner movements of Mahler’s earlier symphonies are in some way defective, I do not find that describing both these movements solely as “bitter, very sarcastic, very angry” does full justice to them. The third movement might be so characterised in its outer sections at times, particularly at the end, but not all of it, and I do not believe this to be true of all of the second movement.
“…And most simply put, the second movement is everything he most hates about the country, and the third movement is everything he most hates about the city.”
To which I would reply that it is surely no coincidence that Mahler composed almost all of his music in the midst of exceedingly beautiful countryside. I do not believe that he had anything to hate about the country; he never expressed any negative feelings about it. If anything, it might be more true to assert that Mahler was less at home in the city than in the country.
The second movement has no title. It is based on two ländler, which are country dances in 3/4 time, one moderately fast and the other slow and sentimental. These interact with a fast waltz — a city dance. But in what way does this mean that the movement expresses “everything that Mahler most hates about the country”? Although the waltz is very energetic, becomes quite boisterous when it returns, and is definitely trying to stir things up, it does not does not prevail over the ländler. The ending of the movement is peaceful and tranquil: in the last few bars I can envisage the composer walking contentedly down a country lane into the distance towards the sunset.
Mahler: Symphony No. 9, 2nd. movement, b. 604-621
And what has hatred of the city to do with the third movement? Mahler himself styled this “To my brothers in Apollo”, entitling it Rondo Burlesque and sehr trotzig (very defiantly). Strong stuff it may be, particularly as it races towards its conclusion: it is a tour de force of contrapuntal mastery in Mahler’s most advanced style — an intellectual argument, not a rejection of city life, rather a forceful celebration of sophistication. The word “exhilaration” might be used, rather than “anger” to describe much of the movement. But to to use such words is to limit our understanding of the multi-faceted music that Mahler created, with its many juxtapositions and contradictions that are so essential to it.
I make no apology for again answering my question about “how non-musicians hear music” obliquely, by giving another example of how a musician thinks the audience should hear it. Whether or not his musical interpretation is consonant with it, I do not believe that Sir Simon’s verbal interpretation gets beneath the surface of what Mahler intended by these two movements. Mahler’s music is seldom as one-sided as we are being asked to believe and, as Mendelssohn knew, when we use words to describe music, we fail to convey all that the composer put into it.
The Ninth Symphony is one of Mahler’s greatest works, despite the fact that he himself never had the opportunity of hearing it. Many clichés have been used to describe it over the years on the assumption that Mahler was obsessed by death when he wrote the symphony but, as his biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, points out, in 1909 when he wrote it Mahler was hungry for life and not overwhelmingly “bitter, very sarcastic, very angry”.
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