Mahler’s Musical Farewell

  1. Symphony No. 9
  1. Vasily Petrenko conductor

Vasily Petrenko conducts Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Throughout his entire musical life, Gustav Mahler strove to push the boundaries for what a symphony could contain and what it could express. “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything” he said to his composer colleague Jean Sibelius in 1907, and that grand ambition resulted in one of history’s richest and most unique symphonic productions. In this concert, the Oslo Philharmonic and its Principal Conductor, Vasily Petrenko, present the jewel in the crown of his works − Symphony No. 9 − Mahler’s ultimate symphony and also, his farewell to life.

Both the world of music and our world at large have changed infinitely since Gustav Mahler (1860−1911) uttered those famous words to Jean Sibelius during a trip to Helsinki in 1907. In a time when Sibelius and other composers were concerned with concentrating their expression, form and sound, and others strove to break with the past, Mahler stood at the forefront of the group of composers who wanted to continue pushing the boundaries of the emotional and expressive potential of music. In 1907, Mahler had already composed the work which would prove to be his greatest symphonic achievement, at least in terms of orchestration − his eighth symphony − the “Symphony of a Thousand”. Still, it was with his ninth symphony that he got closest to breaking through the boundaries of what the symphonic form could contain, and what traditional tonality was capable of expressing.

Mahler’s ninth symphony, composed in 1908 and 1909, is made up of the usual division of four movements, and has a tonal progression with more or less traditional patterns, but there the similarities with other works end. From the inside, Mahler breaks up both form and tonality. The first and last movements are not fast, like in the Romantic symphonic tradition, but slow, the last in the extreme. The second movement features the folk dance ländler, one of Mahler’s symphonic trademarks, as a starting point for a unique collection of dances, and in the third movement the composer shows himself to be a master of counterpoint, instrumention, and the burlesque.

Symphony No. 9 is often viewed as a farewell work − personally, musically and humanly. Mahler had recently lost his four-year-old daughter, and had just discovered that he had a serious cardiac disease. The symphony was also the last that Mahler ever completed, and can be said to express the idea of death on many levels. For example, he uses the “farewell” motive from Beethoven’s piano sonata, which is entitled Les Adieux, throughout the whole of the first movement, and the final movement ends with the music dying out incredibly slowly. Nevertheless, the symphony is just as much about life, elevated above death. Mahler wrote in several letters that he was in high spirits, having overcome his emotional crisis. The composer Alban Berg was one who did not interpret the work as an expression of death, but as an extraordinary love of this world: Again, for the last time, Mahler turns towards the world  not for battle or great achievements, but solely towards Nature.

Mahler’s ninth symphony was first performed in Vienna in 1912, with the legendary Bruno Walter conducting.

A long time passed before the Oslo Philharmonic finally performed Mahler’s groundbreaking, demanding Symphony No. 9. It was therefore a momentous occasion when this extraordinary work was finally programmed in Oslo Concert Hall on 29 January 1987. There was a lot of media excitement in Oslo surrounding this concert, not just because of the music, but also because it was conducted by Kent Nagano − an American conductor appearing in the city for the first time, and who at that time was on the brink of a great international career. Nagano appears in Oslo also in our anniversary season, on 5 March 2020.

(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation  from Norwegian: Sarah Osa; In photo: Gustav Mahler with his wife Alma and daugthers Maria and Anna in 1910; Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

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Tickets

  • Adult: 120 - 490 NOK
  • Senior: 120 - 395 NOK
  • Student: 120 - 245 NOK
  • Child: 120 NOK
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