Mahler’s 9th, Part 1: A Little Background [to the] Music

NaBloPoMo Day 20!

My first real date with McDoc (which, I told him, was not a date, just as our two previous dates had also not been, I said, because I was status-post-heartbreak, courtesy of Mr. Wrong-but-I-was-the-last-to-realize-it, and I “wasn’t ready”… aren’t I lucky that he was so persistent? 😀 ) consisted of dinner at a cozy neighborhood place in the Pacific Beach section of San Diego, followed by a walk along the seashore. We then repaired to the beautiful house, complete with grand piano, where I was dog-sitting for the week, and proceeded to (get your minds out of the gutter, people!) read through two Mahler song cycles — Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, (Songs of a Wayfarer) and Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) — with me at the piano and both of us singing. And if that doesn’t win a prize as the most romantic, yet nerdiest thing ever, I don’t know what would!

BTW, we were engaged 3 months later! 😀

It was sad, then, that McDoc’s work schedule didn’t permit him to accompany me to the Detroit Symphony‘s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 that I heard this past weekend. Then again, it would have been a bit embarrassing to have both of us sitting there weeping through most of it — it was a little bit easier for me to conceal on my own. 😉

I wondered if it was intentional that the DSO played this piece during the weekend that included the anniversary of Mahler’s death? (In fact, he died on May 18, the date of the performance I attended.) It would be fitting, as scholars and conductors of his work have understood it to be a sort of farewell, a meditation on the end of life and the inevitability of death. Mortality was a recurring theme in his life and work, both by choice and, tragically, not; between 1901 and 1904, he composed Kindertotenlieder, a setting of poems by Friedrich Rückert mourning the loss of his two young children, and in 1908 Mahler’s own daughter died of scarlet fever at the age of four. That same year, he was diagnosed with infective endocarditis, a bacterial infection of the heart.

Mahler also labored under the “curse of the ninth” — a superstition that all symphonic composers after Beethoven are fated to die soon after completing their 9th symphony, as he did. Mahler knew that Anton Bruckner, whose music he admired, had suffered the same fate. Other victims of the curse include Schubert, Dvořák and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Perhaps the only way to escape the curse is to be a woman composer (just a reminder: we exist!). That, or Shostakovich. 😉

Mahler thought he could maneuver around the curse by following up his 8th Symphony with a piece that was symphonic in scope, but had a different title: Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). Maybe making the 9th not really the 9th would fool whatever gods decided that if Beethoven had to stop at 9, so do you, buddy!

Did his little trick work? Join me tomorrow for the rest of the story!

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    3 Responses

    1. OK, Nancy and I bow to the masters! We thought we were the most romantic couple we knew, but you kids capping your non-date date by singing from one of Mahler’s song cycles takes the cake. Still, it’s not every day that you run across a man who not only likes Mahler, but can sing it!

      Anyway, my hats off to you both. Now that you have me curious about the Mahler 9th, I see that the St. Louis Symphony is performing it next season. I may have to get tickets!

    2. @ Andy — So, how was Carmina Burana? 🙂

    3. We had Peter Oundjian conducting the SLSO. They did well on Carmina Burana, but the solo vocalists stole the work, at least for me. I found soprano Anna Christy to be a fine singer, but also very easy to look at. 🙂 The orchestra was a bit ragged in places (I blamd Oundjian’s conducting) but sounded great otherwise.

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