Celebrating Mahler’s Second Century


Juilliard’s doctoral forums provide an opportunity for students from all degree programs to convene and discuss specific works and topics with those scholars who are defining the state of research on their respective subjects. Since 2011 is the centenary of the death of Austrian symphonist Gustav Mahler—an occasion the Juilliard Orchestra marked on April 15 with a performance of his Ninth Symphony, under the baton of Alan Gilbert—the scholastic community observed the milestone with a forum devoted to the interpretation of that work, led by pre-eminent Mahler scholar James Zychowicz of the University of Chicago. 

The University of Chicago’s James Zychowicz views Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as another step along the composer’s path of innovation to the symphonic genre. 


Zychowicz’s fascinating lecture, “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony: New Approaches and Renewed Conceptions,” strove to dispel some of the popular myths that influence the interpretation of Mahler’s last completed symphony. It also highlighted the composer’s creative process as evidenced by a leaf of the sketches for the work preserved in the Juilliard Manuscript Collection. 

As Zychowicz remarked, “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is laden with meaning, even before the first note sounds.”  Popular mythology dictates a certain degree of superstition around ninth symphonies (Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner were some of Mahler’s predecessors whose final essays in the genre were numbered their ninth). Many Mahler analysts, especially those of past generations, have further given themselves over to reading the specifics of the composer’s biography into his works. 

The earliest conceptions of the symphony, which date from 1907, coincide with the year in which Mahler’s 5-year-old daughter died, he was diagnosed with a congenital heart problem, and he learned about his wife Alma’s infidelities. Zychowicz reminded his audience, however, that throughout the composition of the work, Mahler was not terminally ill, and while the events of that year likely made Mahler aware of his own mortality, interpreting the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony as farewells to life is an overdramatization of reality, especially in light of the fact that the composer was actively working on a new symphony at the time of his death four years later. Zychowicz prefers to view the Ninth as yet another step along the composer’s path of innovation to the symphonic genre, one which would likely have continued had he enjoyed a longer life. 

The Juilliard Manuscript Collection contains a single leaf of the short score to the coda of the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. A short score is, for Mahler, a transitional compositional stage, one which falls between a sketch and a full score draft. A short score usually comprises several staves of music (in this case, four), with indications of instrumentation. The short score is also important, as Zychowicz noted, as it is “explicit in realizing Mahler’s attempt for measure-by-measure continuity.” In other words, the short score starts at the beginning and goes to the end.

It was Mahler’s tendency, however, to alter the organization of a work dramatically between short score and draft score. Whole sections might be deleted or added, or existing sections radically recomposed. The circle with a line through its middle on the upper left corner of the Juilliard sketch indicates that it was itself an inserted page. Thus, the document represents a dynamic and unique perspective into the composer’s creative mind. 

The Juilliard page is of particular interest when compared both to preliminary sketches and to the final score, as Zychowicz said, because it demonstrates “how Mahler manipulated thematic content and enhanced the structure of the music.” The first movement runs almost half an hour in most performances, and the coda serves the important function of dissolving the energy of the movement and shaping the continuity of the themes and motives presented therein. It is important for composers to get their endings right, and this document shows how carefully Mahler attended to detail. 

Zychowicz was invited by Jane Gottlieb, vice president for library and information resources, to publish an article in the March 2011 edition of Notes, the Music Library Association’s journal, which she edits. His contribution, which Gottlieb said should be “required reading for everyone,” is called “Gustav Mahler’s Second Century: Achievements in Scholarship and Challenges for Research.” 

Mahler is in many ways a challenging composer, but also one whose music offers us space to grow into. That, along with his personally enigmatic nature, will undoubtedly secure him a place in the imagination of audiences well into his third and fourth centuries.


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