Late and great: A Portrait of Gustav Mahler by Arnold Schoenberg a year before the former's death (Arnold Schoenberg Centre, Vienna)
Gustav Mahler's double anniversary is steaming into its second year — the centenary of his death — and now orchestras' attentions are turning to his late works. You may already have heard his Ninth Symphony conducted by the brilliant Andris Nelsons with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra will play it in March.
Mahler's last completed symphony is the apogee of one of music's most peculiar phenomena. Why is it that music written near the end of a composer's life can "sound late"? It sometimes seems to possess an enhanced spiritual dimension, a sense of removal from life on to a higher, intangible plane. But is this real? Do we project a fantasy "endgame syndrome" on to the music? The answers are not as obvious as we might like them to be.
If Mahler evoked endgame syndrome in his Ninth Symphony, it is hardly surprising. His health — increasing heart trouble and recurring infections — was severely affected by his emotional response to his small daughter's death of scarlet fever, the loss of his post at the Vienna State Opera and his wife's affair with Walter Gropius. These blows contributed much to the valedictory nature of the Ninth Symphony. And he knew ninth symphonies appeared to be cursed: Beethoven's, Schubert's, Bruckner's and Dvorák's ninths were their last. Considering his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde a symphony in all but name, Mahler pretended that his Ninth Symphony was actually his Tenth. He, too, died before he could finish one movement of his real Tenth.
We talk, with good reason, of "late Beethoven" and "late Fauré" — composers whose final creative explorations involved new and remarkable developments. Yet oddly, we also talk of "late Mozart", although Mozart died at just 36, without having made any obvious modifications to his style. Why?
The idea that Mozart sensed he was writing his own requiem is powerful; it also seems, from his letters, to be true. Less obvious is the fact that Mozart was lucky to be alive at all by then. Since childhood, he had suffered several nearly fatal illnesses. He had furthermore lost four of his and Constanze's six children, and both his parents. Facing death was a daily part of his life. In 1787 he wrote:
"As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind that death's image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling, and I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity [...] of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that — young as I am — I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose or disgruntled."
There is plenty of truth to the "endgame syndrome" in Mozart, but he would not have seen it that way. To him, it was the crystallisation in music of the essence of life itself.