Yale School of Music

For conductor Peter Oundjian, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 remains the “ultimate expression of one of the greatest geniuses of classical music.”

On Friday, the Yale School of Music’s Philharmonia — led by Oundjian, the ensemble’s principal conductor — will perform this symphony, which stands alone on the program. The symphony, which Mahler began writing at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, was the final symphony he completed before his death in 1911. Friday’s performance will take place in Woolsey Hall.

“The experience of hearing Mahler 9 is something not to be missed,” Oundjian said. “[Mahler is] a creative force that stands in a unique place in the world of classical music. His music is not confined to what we think of as classical expression.”

Scott Leger MUS ’18, who will be playing the first horn part in tonight’s performance, said that “everyone has an active role” in performing this symphony. Leger noted that Mahler 9 is unlike other pieces with more traditional orchestration, in which the string parts remain prominent throughout, with wind solos adding color during specific moments. In Mahler 9, every player has an equal role.

“One way of approaching this piece is knowing that Mahler himself, and his whole life were steeped in dichotomies,” said clarinetist Graeme Steele Johnson MUS ’18.

For example, despite his provincial Bohemian roots, Mahler spent parts of his life living and working in Vienna, as both a composer and a conductor; though he was raised in a Jewish family, he converted to Catholicism after experiencing vicious anti-Semitism.

Mahler’s “obsession” with death is evident in the symphony, Johnson said, both as a philosophical concept and as a reflection on his experiences. Mahler lost one of his two daughters to scarlet fever in 1907, when she was just four years old. Also in 1907, he was diagnosed with the heart disease that eventually caused his death.

Oundjian added that some people interpret the symphony as an expression of Mahler’s consideration of his own impending death. When he wrote the piece, Mahler knew of his heart disease, and the work’s opening — which contains what Oundjian described a “gasping feeling of insecurity” — is often associated with Mahler’s irregular heartbeat.

The symphony can also be understood as a departure from the traditional styles of classical music, Oundjian added.

“This symphony really opened the door for everything that followed in the 20th century,” he said. “[Mahler 9 reaches] the absolute saturation point for traditional harmony.”

Johnson echoed this idea, saying that, by the end of the piece, one realizes that the symphony is more than just an autobiography.

“It’s not just Mahler’s failing heart and farewell to life,” he explained. “It’s also a farewell to tonality, and music as Mahler knew it.”

For Leger, the symphony pushes the style of romanticism to its limits and invites the question of where music will go next.  Leger highlighted the extremes this symphony achieves, including a section at the end of the first movement when nearly 100 musicians play together, immediately followed by a moment performed by just four players.

Oundjian said that the second and third movements both contain satirical elements, citing what he described as “mocking” character markings written into the score, such as “mundane” and “cumbersome.”

He also noted that the second movement includes moments that sound like a ländler — a waltz-like Austrian dance — but that use unconventional choices in tempo and dynamics to distort the style.

Oundjian said that the final moments of the piece include “unraveling threads of sounds that gradually diminish.” While this ending slows toward death, he added, the process is neither negative nor morbid.

“It’s a tender, affectionate, spiritual representation of what it might be like to move on to the next life,” Oundjian said. “I don’t think any composer has ever tried to convey the act of moving through to the next world in such a way.”

In 1910, Mahler conducted the New York Philharmonic in Woolsey Hall.

Julia Carabatsos | julia.carabatsos@yale.edu