Contemplating the abyss

Bruckner and Mahler were very different but their epic ninth symphonies have much in common

Jonathan Gaisman

In recent weeks, the evergreen Bernard Haitink has been conducting the LSO at the Barbican in Bruckner’s and Mahler’s ninth symphonies. You couldn’t hope for finer performances, nor for a better springboard from which to revisit the relationship between these composers, and specifically their ninths.

Both symphonies are set in D minor. (In Mahler’s case this requires some qualification: he employs a progressive tonality whereby the last movement falls back into D flat major). The choice is no accident: D minor is the key of Beethoven’s ninth itself. Its celebrated opening had so impressed Wagner that he paid an explicit if transformed homage to it in the prelude to Rheingold, which launches the Ring cycle. Although Bruckner is supposed to have possessed a character of simple piety, he approached his ninth symphony in no spirit of false modesty: it begins with a deliberate evocation of Beethoven’s sound-world, and there are other reminders in the first movement of the older looking over the younger composer’s shoulder. (Hans von Bülow apocryphally remarked that Bruckner intended the symphony to culminate with an Ode to Schadenfreude.) Mahler opens his ninth symphony with a falling cadence which, as will become apparent over the course of what follows, also looks back to Beethoven — to the farewell motto of the piano sonata Les Adieux — but the sonorities of this opening owe nothing to the earlier composer.

The very beginnings of both symphonies thus point up similarities and divergences between two composers who are often paired together. Mahler himself as a young man called Bruckner his forerunner, saying that his own creations followed the trail blazed by the older master. They were not contemporaries (their births were separated by 36 years), and in many ways they were utterly different — certainly temperamentally, to a great extent musically. Nevertheless it is easy to see why they are spoken of in the same breath. Together they close the Austro-German symphonic tradition begun by Haydn just a century and a half previously; they have a clear common ancestor in Schubert; and they both tend to express themselves on a colossal scale and at corresponding length. As Bruno Walter observes with heavy irony,  “the laconic idiom of restraint, the art of mere suggestion, involving economy of means and form, is not theirs”.

Walter knew Mahler well, and wrote an important essay in 1940 comparing the two composers. He was perhaps the first of many to identify what has since become a truism: that whereas the guiding spirit of Bruckner is repose, in Mahler it is unrest; that Mahler spent his life searching for God, whereas the fundamentally religious Bruckner had to endure no such struggle. Certainly, death in its various aspects is a main character in almost all of Mahler’s symphonies; one would not say the same of Bruckner’s canon. (Bruckner was nonetheless obsessed with death: he insisted on being present at the exhumations of Beethoven and Schubert in order to touch and kiss their skulls; Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was another whose corpse fascinated him. You feel the peculiarity of all this in the crypt of the abbey church of Saint Florian, near Linz, where Bruckner’s coffin lies before an eight foot high wall of skulls and amid other paraphernalia of mortality.)

Despite the differences in their personalities and their approach to almost every aspect of the symphonic undertaking, some sort of convergence is achieved in their ninths. For Bruckner, this was self-consciously a last utterance; he dedicated it to “Dem lieben Gott”, and jested that if he was not permitted to finish it (as he was not), God would have only himself to blame. Mahler too envisaged the symphony as a final statement, notwithstanding that he lived long enough almost to complete a successor: quite apart from the farewell motif, the scheme of the ninth is modelled on Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, a highly self-conscious symphonic valediction, and the quotation of earlier works (most obviously the fifth symphony and Kindertotenlieder) suggests the taking of a final leave.

The similarities are perhaps closest in the two slow movements with which the works conclude. Mahler’s adagio was the intended last movement, whereas Bruckner envisaged and partly composed a huge final movement after his adagio. Although there are performances of the symphony complete with versions of this finale (for example by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic), the piece is almost invariably given in its three-movement version. Many disagree, but it remains possible to believe that Bruckner at least at some point conceived the adagio itself as a final statement: it has been argued by Michael Steinberg that there came a point in its composition when Bruckner realised that he was not going to complete a fourth movement. Certainly, there is (as with Mahler) an explicit retrospection to earlier works.

The spirit of Wagner and in particular his final opera Parsifal lies heavy on both movements. Without detracting from the general validity of Walter’s judgment about the two men’s relationship with the divine, it seems here no longer to apply. The anguish of the rising minor ninth which begins the adagio in Bruckner’s symphony is suggestive of a soul that has lost sight of its God, a mind (as Rattle has said) in existential crisis. The second main idea may be more consolatory in feeling, but it has a chromatic, indeed Mahlerian cast that suggests a troubled spirit. The similarly-scored rising octave that begins the corresponding movement in Mahler’s symphony is a clear tribute to the earlier work. It is followed by an infinitely sad “Wagner turn” which leads into the Beethoven quotation. All of this conveys a mind that is no longer searching for God, but painfully reconciled to His permanent absence, an impression fortified by the contrasting second idea, a spare, lightly-scored subject conveying a sense of complete isolation, from which even the earlier pain of leave-taking has been bleached.

The Bruckner adagio culminates after some twenty minutes in a huge unresolved dissonance in the brass, after which there is a stunned silence, and a hard-won calm then descends in the coda. There is no parallel to this climax in the finale of Mahler’s ninth symphony. But there is in his tenth: quite the most horrible discord in all music comes at a roughly equivalent point in the first (slow) movement of this work. Elderly people of one’s acquaintance are apt to warn that old age is not for the faint-hearted. Bruckner and Mahler, whatever separate paths led them to it, seem at the end of their symphonic output to have experienced a common moment of horror in confronting the abyss. But maestro Haitink, who has happily lived to be far older than either of them, just conducts the music, with the mixture of passion and objectivity that is his paradoxical and self-effacing genius. Praise be.

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