Listening Guide – Movement 4: Adagio. Sehr langsam und noch zuruckhaltend


Having been subjected to the raging violence, manic fury and sneering mockery of the rondo burlesque, the human spirit seem to be doomed to a tragic fate, if the proceeding movements lead us to the conclusion that all that is civilizing and humane and human life must end, what more could the finale have to say? Even Gartenberg describes the last movement as more like an epilogue than a finale, it neither sums up nor resolves the conflicts that preceded, Mahler provides no stirring apotheosis as he does in the concluding movements of most of his symphonies. If, as many commentators suggests, this finale was intended to express complete resignation to human mortality, or total defeat by life negating forces, why is it so angst ridden? So riddled with pain and suffering? would life as described in the earlier movements not be worth giving up? Is Mahler’s last farewell negative or affirmative? Does it imply the defeat of the human spirit or its ultimate victory? In this closing Adagio, Mahler fathoms the depths of modern man’s troubled soul, with acute sensitivity he expresses the internalized anguish that comes from a subconscious awareness of the dilemma of contemporary life. Whatever he may have intended by the finale’s heart wrenching emotions, Mahler’s leave taking is apparently a reaction to the only conclusion one can make from the preceding movements, that forces within society and within us that seek to destroy what is the value in life, have succeeded in their goal. But if Mahler envisioned the end of humanity in the first three movements, he offers an impassioned plea for its survival in the finale. Mahler loved life so dearly, that he could not accept the defeat of all that is humanizing and life enhancing, without raising his voice in protest. For Mahler, like Nietzche, would only lay bare the terrible visions he conjured up, to represent life’s devaluation, in order to show them up for what they really are, Harbingers of the death of civilization. Thus Mahler concludes the Ninth Symphony with an ardent prayer for the survival of humanity, from the opening bars, a religious atmosphere permeates the music, not since the finale of the second Symphony had Mahler’s manner of musical expression been of such a spiritual nature.

The first theme is like a Lutheran hymn, set in Baroque counterpoint of fire with passion. Each time it is repeated, it raises his voice with ever greater intensity, until a crisis brings back thoughts of death, and with it, a final prayer that gradually disintegrates into oblivion during the closing measures. Unlike the preceding movements, no conflict of opposing forces dominates the music. Nonetheless, as Floros points out, “the idea of contrasts is pushed to its limits.” The E flat clarinets marking phrase based upon the turn figure at motive one and the Rondo burlesque is transfigured into an impassioned plea for life. Thick textured counterpoint, contrast, with chamber like spaciousness, burning passion dissipates into calm stillness, that recalls the closing moments of their ob sheet. Mahler heightens these contrasts as the music proceeds. Deceptive cadences disrupt intense buildups that end on quiet rising scales leading nowhere, ascending sequences of falling seconds into that in the first movement, reach heavenward, only to plunge back helplessly to earth. Three times the prayer is stated, each time more fervently, why must life seem so weak in the face of death? Why is the human spirit so easily subject to attack from its dark side? Failing to answer these existential questions could result in a nihilistic denial of life’s value. Having spent a lifetime seeking answers to these questions in his music without complete satisfaction, Mahler may well have reached a crucial impasse, but he must find a way to affirm life, not reject it. He struggles to the very end against mere resignation to his fate, and finally finds true and complete acceptance in the profound serenity of the last measures. Leonard Bernstein suggested that the ninth might be viewed as a farewell to tonality, a principle of composition once considered quintessential to all that is positive and affirmative in musical language. Dissonance by tonality and wayward harmonic progressions already savaged much of the pure tonal music in the previous movements. They also recall the music of the late 19th century of Wagner, Bruckner and Strauss, as much as anticipate the music of the future, and while Mahler certainly participated in the dissolution of tonality that had begun with Wagner, if not before him, Mahler remained wedded to its basic principles as a framework within which to engage his creative genius. As the overall tonal structure of the ninth regresses from the first movement’s D major to the finale’s D flat major Donald Mitchell suggests that this lowering of the tonic by a semitone, “is not a compromise solution, but unblinking recognition of the reality true demolishes art and his life that D major was no longer possible”. He also points out that the main material undergoes virtually inexhaustible reharmonization is that contrast markedly with succeeding passages of spectral counterpoint, melodic rhythmic and harmonic threads disintegrate during the final measures, dissolving into nothingness.
Lost life in musical image proceeds to its end, many commentators believe that this moving finale expresses resignation, both abstract and personal, the constant downward pull of thematic material, the resurgence of the motive of farewell that was buried under the deluge of mockery in the burlesque and the frequent dying fall of median supertonic. tonic phrases frequently used in German romantic music to convey a feeling of nostalgia and melancholy. All descend into the abyss, but musical references to Der Abschied, Kindertotenlieder and the nature movement of the Third Symphony could imply that Mahler goes beyond resignation. The inversion of the turn figure from a downward to an upward arch at the end of the movement might mean something more positive than mere submission to human mortality. It is suggested that at the end of the ninth, with the last sounds of life emitted between long pauses, as if groping helplessly for expression, Mahler accepts death as part of life.

The end of Das Lied shows that Mahler’s deep love of life could not allow him to resign himself to tragic fate, or to curse life, as vote on for instance, doesn’t devolve Kira by willing it to his adversary. In the final moments, Mahler is calm and accepting, his love of life is too strong to lose hold, even in death. Like the third movement, the finale has a title, Adagio. It is distinct from its opening temple market, by so naming the movement, Mahler may have intended to pay homage to his mentor, Antoine Bruckner, whose last completed symphonic movement was an Adagio, also written for a Ninth Symphony. The music of the finale’s first two measures gives further evidence to support this explanation for Mahler paraphrases the opening of Bruckner’s Adagio movement in haltingly reverend, and strongly accented tones. Several musical elements can readily be associated with Bruckner, a dotted rhythmic figure that keeps leaping upward by an octave, the Wagnerian turn, which already played a significant role in the proceeding movement, and a descending scalar phrase that moves toward a cadence violins playing in unison offer a touching obesogens to Bruckner’s memory in the first two bars.

It is interesting to speculate whether Mahler intended to make this overt reference to Bruckner’s music, not merely dedicatory. At the end of Mahler’s life in what he might have thought to be his last work, he looks backward with reverence and forward with trepidation. As strings begin the first theme in the third bar, notice the strong resemblance to the Anglican hymn Abide with Me. This deeply expressive hymn-like theme for strings is played softly in Baroque polyphony of an especially Bachnian cast here to Mahler may well have thought to be paying homage to the great Cantor of Leipzig, who was a strong influence upon Mahler from his middle period onward. That the first theme follows immediately upon an homage to Bruckner possibly indicates a relationship in Mahler’s mind between these two great composers. At the same time, the opening theme, beginning with a short descending scale of the medium supertonic to tonic had been used by several of Mahler’s predecessors as a musical gesture to elicit a feeling of leave-taking. For example, at the beginning of Beethoven’s Les Adieux Piano Sonata.

It also recalls the serene calm and gentle fluidity of the Adagio movement from Beethoven String Quartet Opus 132, downward arching turns appear frequently in the contrapuntal interweaving lines that surround the first theme. Written with sharp accents, these turns reinforce the ttheme’s reverent, quasi-religious character. As the theme progresses, it becomes more assertive, it’s peaceful composure, giving way to intense passion. Mahler alludes to a phrase from the early movement of the Second Symphony, sung to the words Ich wäre viel lieber im Himmel, I would much rather be in heaven.

On the way to what appears to be the end of the first subject, it is interrupted by the soft sound of the tonic note, middle D flat on the violin, suspended as if on the edge of an abyss, and polyphonic texture is momentarily dissolved. We will listen out to the beginning of the first subject, to the moment when a sustained D flat briefly interrupts the subjects forward progress.

From out of the stillness created by this sustained tone, the bassoon enters quietly and lumbers upward from a low D flat with a scaler phrase that casts a dark mysterious shadow over the music. Continuing for about two measures, the second of which is a rhythmic variation of the first this doleful phrase responds to and contrasts with the two opening measures of the Bruchnerian paraphrase, it sounds an ominous note in the midst of Mahler’s Arden prayer. Strings enter strongly at the height of the bassoons rising scale with the second theme in Baroque light CounterPoint. Both principal themes have similar elements, like the first theme, the second begins with a falling phrase, now played chromatically on the descending median, supertonic, tonic sequence, and in anapestic, rather than dotted rhythm. The descending chromatic phrases of the second theme recall the motive of despair from the first move. Again, the turn figures serves as an important element of the contrapuntal design. Unlike the first theme, however, the second begins forcefully, in just four measures it builds to a fortissimo at which point the motive der Tag ist schön appears in the second violins. That motive is repeated by first violins in the very next measure, with its interest stretched far apart. With this repetition of the der Tag motive, the strings suddenly quiet down, giving way to a variant of the second theme played by a solo horn. Above the der Tag motive in first violins. A playful cadence momentarily restrains the increasing intensity, but when the second theme resumes after the horn solo, it is as intense and forceful as before. It builds in just two measures into a strong reprise of the first theme, now driving forward with great urgency. First, violins climb heavenward on a rising sequence of falling seconds, the motive of a farewell, recalling a similar phrase that appeared in the second movement, just before the closing section. This climbing phrase builds on a crescendo but fails to reach either a climax or closure, instead, it falls directly into the Adagio theme that was anticipated by the E flat clarinet in biting mockery during the middle section of the third movement. As a reminder, here is the E flat clarinet phrase from the Rondo burlesque. Again as a reminder, here is the der Tag ist schön four note phrase, from the fourth song of Kindertotenlieder.

A rising sequence of falling seconds and violins that seems to reach heaven word simply collapses into the Adagio theme, and segues into the first theme, pressing forward urgently only to give way to a high sustained tone on violins. Let’s listen from the bassoons brief interlude between the first and second subjects through the reprise of the first subject.

Notice that the second subject also contains a downward turn phrase that had already permeated the first subject. The Adagio theme marked by the E flat clarinet and the previous movement now has a completely different character, sounding like a fervent prayer. It fits neatly within the framework of the first theme, although it only appears briefly. When first violins leap upward to a super octave A, they quickly soften to pianissimo this high A function Just as the middle range D flat had during the two-bar interlude proceeding the second theme, creating a sonic aura, when suddenly bereft of any accompaniment. Emerging from the mystical atmosphere of this soft, sustained tone contrabassoon and cellos enter sluggishly, crawling upward from the depths on the same scale or phrase played by the bassoon as an interlude between the two principal subjects. After the base theme crawls upward as before, violins wander dreaming late into a nostalgic reverie on elements of the first theme in counterpoint with an extended variation of it on an ascending baseline in low strings without the olders, the first few measures of the violin melody, look ahead to the principal theme that Mahler sketched for the finale of the 10th Symphony. Solo violins take up the theme from the second violins in stretto with low strings, while the first violins subtly sound the rising scalar phrase in their lower register, a transparent oriental quality, akin to passages from Der Abschied permeates the music, chamber music orchestration, and the juxtaposition of extreme registers enhance the mystical aura of this passage, embellished with countervailing linear material. As the tempo presses forward slightly, woodwinds enter with the farewell motive, echoed against repetitions of a fragment of the first theme that descends stepwise. This bridge passage leads directly into the return of the main material in the tonic key and the original tempo.

From here Mahler develops both principal themes conjunctively and independently, maintaining a chamber ensemble, he has a solo horn doubled by second violins play a segment from the second theme, while the first violins and violas have part of the first theme. Since these themes contain common elements, the turn figure and the descending scale or phrase being the most prominent, they are perfectly suited to contrapuntal integration. Soon, the music becomes more impassioned, assertive, and strongly accented. Stretched intervals wrench the countervailing thematic lines apart until the strings forcefully assert a whateley accented phrase combining the first measures of both principal themes in inverse order. Then the second theme enters in the second violins as the music catches fire on intervallic leaps that burn with passion. Approaching a climax, the music seems to resist combination, holding back with incredible strength, the musical line is forced downward after a powerful thrust in winds on a D major seventh chord. As the music gradually diminishes, second, violins slowly descend on long-held quarter notes that seem limp and lame. Once again an effort to bring the music to a climax fails, instead, the descending phrase in the second violins telescopes directly into the reprise of the second subject that begins on a variation of the second theme played by the strings. Elements of the second theme are interwoven with those of the first so as to be virtually indistinguishable in the multi-layer polyphony. Notice that this section begins with a variant of the der Tag motive in first violins. The next excerpt begins with the first measure of both principal themes converge and ends as the second theme returned.

Again, the music builds and presses forward in another attempt at resolution. This time, its efforts are more compelling than before the ascending sequence of falling seconds, the mode of the farewell heard earlier, reappears at the end of this buildup, rising even higher than before in an urgent plea for consummation, but none results at the high point of their climb, violins are left stranded in midair, holding on to a high A flat that suddenly softens, strings quietly other fragments from the principal themes, continuing to focus on the downward turn figure and descending scalar phrases, adding an inverted version of the der Tag motive.
When the dynamic level suddenly softens, the orchestration is reduced to strings and a few woodwinds, the opening notes of the first theme sound sweetly before the tender strains of the strings fade away, an oboe size on the first theme, while a clarinet plays the first notes of the second, and a solo violin has the turn figure. At such moments, a profound sense of loss envelops the music or recognition that fulfilment and redemption appear to be hopeless dreams on achievable within the brief span of human existence.

Texture thins out and veiled tones seem to whisper sounds that have some hidden meaning. Soft string chords have a calming effect, the downward turn is repeated in elongated tones at various levels of the reduced ensemble, ending on flutes in their middle register, but they fail to resolve their last turn. Instead, a high C sharp is softly sustained by violins, forming another tonal bridge passage that both leads to the development section and anticipates the closing coda. The rising scalar phrase that had followed the violin sustained tone before is delayed for two measures, where a clarinet and harp play a rocking figure in minor thirds, this is a direct quote from Der Abschied and also relates to the undulating nature rhythm, sourced in the fourth movement of the Third Symphony. Here is the passage from Der Abschied.

An english horn then enters with a series of rising couplets in iambic rhythm from Der Abschied that also recalls the nature movement. And E flat clarinet overlaps this figure with a fragment of the first thing, repeated by a flute, as the rising scale or phrase enters in bass strings. A distinctively oriental ambiance permeates the mysterious atmosphere. We are beyond the earthly plane, where existence is purified of strife and suffering, a world that could only be found in our innermost being, sparse orchestration, a combination of diverse tambours and widely spaced registers give the music a spatial quality. As the bass clarinet reprise is a variant of the rising scalar phrase from the second interlude, the music’s progress is suddenly halted, awaiting the gathering of musical material from the beginning of the section that will be integrated more fully during the rest of the extensive development. This same process is then repeated.

Elements of the first theme suddenly build on a crescendo that quickly brings back the second theme, stated forcefully by the strings, with strong emphasis on each note. Soon the pace begins to increase. Low woodwinds, enter with power are full chords. As the second theme presses on der Tag motive plays an increasingly prominent role in the continued development of the second theme. As the music builds and more lines add to the contrapuntal complex, a contrast between ascending and descending motion becomes more noticeable evidence of an internal struggle of the spirit to overcome the feeling of hopelessness that threatens to overwhelm it and defeated striving for redemption. While the tempo continues to increase, and the tension mounts, horns sound, the motive of redemption as a regenerative balm on contrasting elements of both principal themes, featuring various rhythmic permutations of a group pedal figure, the intensity becomes almost unbearable. Suddenly the tonic key D major is re-established, and the tempo quickly presses forward. If only for two measures, until it is forced to subside as we reach the main climax. Wins powerfully state the second theme, with the oboes and trumpets attacking its first three falling chromatic tones with extreme force, while trombones play the turn motive, horns with bells raised powerfully assert the first movements motive of despair. Have we at last found an answer to the painful questions that haunted the entire Symphony? An upsurge of glissandos urges the answer to find voice, and the strings and woodwinds follow them fanatically with the turn figure that symbolizes the feeling of peace that this answer could provide, but the horns raise the specter of damnation by asserting its first two rising notes, and thus stifle combination of this passage, just as it seems ready to give the answer. The music freezes on a powerful C flat minor seventh chord out of which violins pierced the air with stabbing c flats on a doubly augmented version of the life-negating motive X from the very beginning of the symphony. All hope of an answer seems to be dashed with each thrust of these wrenching notes played in a syncopated rhythm, but seems to attack the very foundation of human existence. Here the development reaches its tragic climax and ends without finding the answer and long prayed for after the last of these see flats sounds, strings gradually proceed downward chromatically playing each note with riveting force. This embittered climax has been an extension of the measure that concluded the first segment of the development playing and forceful, elongated tones the syncopated mode of X. Our next excerpt begins with a reprise of the second theme, and takes us through the climax of the development on these stabbing c flats of motive X.

As we just heard the violins slowly falling chromatic phrase and follows the climactic return of motive X, telescope directly into the return of the first subject that begins the recapitulation, elements of the first theme are interwoven in tightly compressed and dense polyphony. The character of the music becomes heroic as if paying homage to the positive forces of the human spirit, and their courageous effort to overcome the fear of death. Clarinets, bassoons, and trombones assert the first theme with great power, which was lacking during the proceeding struggle, horns and cellos on the downward turn figure, with their tog added, sound confident, as if they have overcome the painful emotions expressed earlier by this melodic string. The rising sequence of farewells, and falling seconds that were denied resolution before seemed to have lost the sense of urgency that drew it upward toward their goal earlier. Now the sequence builds only slightly and without its former strained intensity, at its height, the ascent ends with a sudden hush has serenity at last been achieved, as the music reaches a transcendent realm. Only the horns and strings remain, horns whisper the turn figure, and lower strings respond with the Adagio theme from which the figure was derived, first violins begin the first themes falling phrase against which two horns play the phrase in contrary motion, both phrases and with the falling second farewell.
How soothing these conjunctive phrases sound, acting as a restorative to heal the wounds inflicted on the spirit at the end of the development section. The first theme continues to develop, occasionally rising fervently in the full orchestra. As if mustering strength, once more, to take up the challenge of overcoming the dread of mortality, violins soar on the first theme that returns for its final concert statement. Notice that its turn figure is no longer played with strong accents that thrust painfully to the heart. But the figure is now calmer, as if resigned to its fate. One senses that the Spirit has no more strength left to make another attempt to find the answers that would redeem it from the destructive power of death. While the first themes order has cooled, it still gives the impression of retaining some confidence in a positive outcome. As the theme concludes, it rises to great heights and violins just as its strength dissipates, and the rest of the orchestra fades away, leaving only a small ensemble to continue during the final moments. violins in high octaves ascend softly to a super octave C natural, one half step below the movements principal key. They hold on to this note, as they had earlier on a low D flat, a super octave a and a high C sharp. These sustained tones previously ushered in the rising scalar phrase that came lumbering up from the depths of the abyss, but that abyss is no longer a symbol of total annihilation in death. In its place, a few woodwinds and strings softly and gently sound the descending notes that begin the first theme. The English horn calmly continues this phrase with a falling octave. A second violins play the rising scaler figure in a continuous sequence that falls by a dissonant interval at each top note. First, violins slowly descend from the heights, and peace reigns once more. Soon only a few strings remain, as the music dissolves on thematic fragments, ordered with increasing difficulty as they descend into the low strings. After the cellos play the downward turn motive, followed by descending chromatic tones played haltingly, the music stops, as if unable to go on. This two bar cello passage is a complete transformation of the powerful climax hurt at the end of the development. But it lacks the thrusting sea flats on which the movement reached that climax. A painful reminder of our mortality, presented in the shape of the life negating motive x from the first movement now smoothed out and merged into a single tone. We’ll begin the next excerpt from the reprise of the first theme during the recapitulation.

After a short pause, the music resumes in an even slower tempo, only the strings remained to the very end, muted second violins enter softly and gently with a rising scaler phrase that is all that remains of the dark and foreboding bassoon solo that separated the two principal themes at the beginning of the movement, over what would be the last page of the draft score, Mahler writes, O Schönheit! Liebe! Oh, beauty, love, and then Lebe wohl! twice written, and Welt and again Lebt wol, farewell, words that recall Der Abschied. Isolated fragments of the second theme follow played very softly and prayerful solemnity, but they cannot continue beyond two measures, pausing for breath. All we are left with is the broken fragments of a life about to end, apparently without having resolved itself with death. It is as if we were witnessing the very last moments of human life. Its divine spark slowly draining away, with another short pause, the music tries to begin again, to regain strength enough to continue. Strings re-enter on a soft dissonant chord that leads into an augmented version of the turn figure in violas that falls by a seven to a D flat seventh chord. Each short phrase dissolves into complete stillness, and when revived, it lingers on each note, as if holding on to life with what little strength remains. At the moment when existence seems suspended between life and death, the first violins whisper softly and with deep feeling, the motiveder der Tag ist schön is extremely significant motive that symbolizes the dawn of a new day was already integrated into the main material throughout the finale. As well as appeared in other movements of the symphony, it generates the feeling of Hope it gave to the sorrow of the fourth song from the Kindertotenlieder with a vision of a beautiful new day that lies beyond the horizon. That horizon is now about to be reached, and so this lovely phrase emerges during the final moments of earthly life.
After this visionary motive concludes only isolated tones, and the smallest fragments of the downward turn figure and the first theme remain, separated by moments of complete silence. The music seems suspended beyond time, in infinite space, a realm of perfect peace and complete union with being “in the slowest possible tempo”, Mater writes, “virtually pulseless soft string tones flow gently lowing the spirit to its final rest”. In these last measures, D flat major is firmly established, only to shift into the minor for a moment, giving multivic voice to its fate. One more turn figure in the viola and D flat major is reestablished on the last chord, out of this final chord, violas play the very last sounds uttered by the human spirit. It is in these final notes that the Spirit finds true acceptance of life, with its last breath, the spirit sounds the turn motive stretched out over the last two measures, but the motive has changed it no longer moves downward as it had throughout the movement, but has reversed itself and moves upward, encouraging us to believe that the Spirit has at last found the meaning of human mortality. This reversed turn, coupled with a downward turn heard throughout the finale, forms a complete circle, a symbol for the eternal return. As in Das Lied, this Nietzschean principle of life-affirmation is the answer to the underlying existential questions that are the fundamental subtext of the Ninth Symphony. You’re now is the remarkable last page of the ninth century.

During the course of this extensive Symphony, Mahler confronts in a most direct and disturbingly frank manner, the negative aspects of human life that he must affirm if the lessons of eternal return offered in Der Abschied as a response to the dread of mortality are to be fully accepted. In the closing moments of Das Lied, the concept of eternal return was symbolized by the seemingly endless repetitions of enharmonically vague ascending phrases, contrasted with the Abschied of farewell. Having discovered in absorbing this life principle, the dreadful fear of death would seem to have been overcome. But in the ninth, where Mahler descended from the metaphysical plane to the earthly realm, to confront the horrors and absurdities that debilitate and threaten to degrade life, he must have recognized if not consciously, then in the depths of his being, that to affirm life by accepting the eternal return, he must also affirm its most terrible aspects. Nietzche face the same crisis, causing him to add a fourth book to his masterpiece, Also sprach Zarathustra, in that final book, nature gave vent to his disgust at the inevitable consequences of accepting eternal return, that he would have to affirm the smallest, along with the greatest, the worst, along with the best that life has to offer.
In the first three movements of the Ninth, Mahler presents a series of conflicts in which the forces of violence brutality, senselessness, and perversity seem to triumph over the heroic, compassionate, and innocent in humankind. Can he accept a world in which the forces of devaluation or destruction triumph? In the closing moments of the finale, his prayers for an answer to this profound dilemma are fulfilled, he affirms even that which caused him the greatest revulsion. Even if everything the good and the bad were to return and continuous repetition forever, life is still worthy of our unswerving devotion. Thus, the ninth is not merely a farewell Symphony, but a hymn to life for different and possibly even more ultimately affirmative than the positive eighth for the transcendent Das Lied Von der Erde.

By Lew Smoley

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