Around 1903, Mahler began taking conducting trips—often in connection with performances of his own works—that resulted in absences from his post as director of the Court Opera in Vienna. The anti-Semitic press capitalized on these sabbaticals in order to stir up ill will against the composer; journalists similarly exploited any disagreements between Mahler and his singers. By the spring of 1907, these truancies and opera house “scandals” had severely strained the composer’s relationship with his employers, and Mahler secured a position with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Prince Alfred of Montenuovo (1854-1927), who oversaw the Hapsburg court theaters, therefore accepted his resignation in June of the same year
Because the composer’s American commitments did not begin until January of 1908, the Mahlers elected to summer in Maiernigg as usual. Just prior to leaving Vienna for this Southern-Austrian retreat, however, their younger daughter Anna Justine—affectionately called “Gucki”—fell ill with scarlet fever. The family consequently delayed departure until she fully recovered. Even though the Mahlers separated her from her sister during this period of convalescence, the older child Maria Anna—or “Putzi”—contracted the same disease shortly after arriving in Maiernigg. Diphtheria also set in, and despite a tracheotomy, the four-year old died on 12 July 1907.
The loss of their oldest daughter understandably upset Mahler and his wife Alma greatly. In fact, the severity of the latter’s distress prompted the summoning of a doctor, who examined Mahler as well as his wife. This physician discovered that the composer was suffering from a heart condition—likely caused by a streptococcal infection he caught during his youth—that involved rheumatic mitral valves.
According to Alma’s 1940 memoirs, “Well, you have no cause to be proud of a heart like that,”[Doctor Blumenthal] said in that cheery tone doctors frequently adopt after diagnosing a fatal disease. This verdict marked the beginning of the end for Mahler.
Scholars generally believe that Mahler composed very little new music in the wake of this misfortune. When he resumed work in the summer of 1908—in Europe, where he would continue to spend the months during which conducting duties did not require his presence in New York—he concentrated on Das Lied von der Erde [Song of the Earth]. Designated as “eine Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester” [“A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra”], this cycle of six songs sets poems from Hans Bethge’s free adaptations of ancient Chinese poetry published in 1907 as Die chinesische Flöte [The Chinese Flute]. The texts, which Mahler modified unreservedly, exhibit an appreciation of nature, a love of life, and especially an awareness of human mortality; Alma’s memoirs describe them as possessing an “infinite melancholy [that] answered to [Mahler’s] own.” Das Lied von der Erde thus articulates the tragedy the composer experienced in 1907, as well as a vision of the future shaped by his health concerns.
But critics and biographers also interpreted Symphony no. 9 as some kind of “farewell” when it premiered in Vienna on June 26, 1912. Although Mahler may have sketched portions of the work in 1908—the same period he was focusing on Das Lied von der Erde—the bulk of composition occurred during the summer of 1909 at Toblach (or Dobbiaco) on the Austrian/Italian border, and his state of mind at this time remains unclear. Letters the composer penned to Alma between June and July indicate good spirits; earlier that year, Mahler had even written to conductor and friend Bruno Walter (1876-1962) that “I have more thirst for life than ever, and find the ‘habits of existence’ sweeter than ever.” Nevertheless, he still lingered under the shadow of death. Upon the advice of his doctor, the composer had curtailed the hiking and other physical activity he had formerly enjoyed in order to avoid aggravating his heart condition. More significantly, Mahler purchased burial plots at the Grinzing Cemetery outside Vienna, where he arranged to have Maria’s remains relocated in July 1907.
Even the numbering of the Ninth Symphony carried baleful connotations that troubled the composer. In her memoirs, Alma explains that her husband affixed the label “symphony” to Das Lied von der Erde as a subtitle because. . . in his dread, he wished to dodge a Ninth Symphony, as neither Beethoven nor Bruckner had reached a Tenth. At first he wrote Das Lied von der Erde as the Ninth, but crossed the number out. When he was later writing his next symphony, which he called the Ninth, he said to me: “Of course, it’s actually the Tenth, because Das Lied von der Erde was really the Ninth.”
Finally, when he was composing the Tenth, he said, “Now the danger is past. . . .”. Beethoven died after his Ninth Symphony and Bruckner before finishing his Ninth; hence it was a superstition of Mahler’s that no great writer of symphonies got beyond his Ninth. Unfortunately, Mahler’s belief in the “jinx” of a Ninth Symphony proved correct—at least in his case. As the same passage of Alma’s memoirs state: “he did not live to see the Ninth performed, or to finish the Tenth.” While in New York for conducting engagements during February of 1911, Mahler contracted strep throat. With the discovery of penicillin nearly two decades away, the infection further weakened his already compromised heart, resulting in endocarditis. Aware of the composer’s terminal condition, the family returned to Europe, and Mahler succumbed to his illness in Vienna on 18 May 1911. His remains now lie in Grinzing Cemetery, alongside those of his daughter Maria.
Those who attended the first performance of Symphony no. 9 just over a year later heard the piece in light of its author’s demise. That many received the work as a musical utterance of farewell and death reflects the circumstances of the composition’s premiere. Yet the music of the Ninth Symphony facilitates this reading. The symphony both begins and ends with large slow movements. Moreover, the music contrasts harmonic stasis with forward motion; it also strives for closure without attaining it, at least not in the manner of traditional harmony. Finally, allusions to other pieces abound, and many of the referenced compositions— Das Lied von der Erde; Kindertotenlieder [Songs on the Death of Children]; Symphony no. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection”; and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26 in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, “Das Lebewohl” [“The Farewell”]—evoke leave-taking or the grave. These features only encourage listeners to decode Symphony no. 9 as Mahler’s “goodbye,” even if the composer did not intend the work as such.