Since I first watched that clip of Leonard Bernstein delivering a gorgeous monologue about Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, I’ve wondered about the nature of influence in this case: do I love this piece just because old Lennie convinced me that it was more profound than it really is? Or is the piece actually as brilliant as he made it out to be, just perhaps in a different way? It’s a difficult question and one for which I don’t have any particularly strong answers. The extent to which criticism can impact our perception of a piece of music, especially criticism presented by a speaker as charismatic as Leonard Bernstein, is hard to gauge.
But after spending years listening to and analyzing the piece, I can say for certain that Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is one of the most amazing works of music I’ve ever heard. It is stunning moment after stunning moment, leading up to its famously harrowing ending.
I’ve spent a lot of my time as a composer studying the orchestral repertoire, trying to understand how the orchestra as a medium and form works. I have heard very few pieces of music that come even close to the mastery of the orchestral expression as Mahler’s Ninth. There are many great composers of orchestral music throughout the twentieth century, but before we get there, I would like to spend a fair amount of time looking at Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
If you would like to follow along with the score, there’s a score video available on Youtube, and a public-domain score available on IMSLP. As far as recordings to look for, Abbado’s is for me the gold standard, though you couldn’t go wrong with Karajan or Boulez here too (Boulez is much less histrionic, though he takes the first movement a bit too slow for my tastes). I’m not a huge fan of Bernstein’s recordings: they can be a bit too virtuosic and aren’t particularly useful if you want a recording that is clear and precise.