Gustav Mahler. Photograph by Moriz Nähr. 1907.

Befriending Mahler: Walter’s 1938 Vienna Recording of the Ninth Symphony

“He had the soul of a mystic.” This is how the legendary German conductor Bruno Walter (1876-1962) described Gustav Mahler in a 1950 pre-concert radio interview. The 18-year-old Walter was a rehearsal pianist and vocal coach at the Hamburg Opera when he first met Mahler, who served as the Opera’s chief conductor in the 1890s. Walter spent hours in wide-ranging conversations with Mahler (everything from Schopenhauer, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, to music). Later, Walter wrote, reverently:

I felt as if a higher realm had opened up to me- Mahler, in looks and behavior, struck me as a genius, a demon; life itself had suddenly become romantic. I cannot better describe the elemental power of Mahler’s personality than by saying that is irresistible effect on a young musician was to produce in him…an entirely new attitude to life…I was fascinated to observe how the same intensity, the same spiritual tenseness that had previously filled his rehearsing was now manifested in his conversation. The vehemence with which he objected when I said something that was unsatisfactory to him…his sudden submersion into pensive silence, the kind glance with which he would receive an understanding word on my part, an unexpected, convulsive expression of secret sorrow and, added to all this, the strange irregularity of his walk: his stamping of the feet, sudden halting, rushing ahead again- everything confirmed and strengthened the impression of demoniac obsession.

Bruno Walter became one of the earliest and most dedicated champions of Mahler’s music. Perhaps no conductor worked as intimately with the composer. As a result, Walter’s Mahler recordings carry special historical significance. The first recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (his final completed work) is Walter’s 1938 live concert recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (below). He premiered the work with the same orchestra shortly after Mahler’s death on June 26, 1912. Walter described the Adagio final movement as, “a peaceful farewell; with the conclusion, the clouds dissolve in the blue of heaven.” 

Written in 1908, the same year as Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, Mahler’s Ninth can be heard as a “farewell symphony.” Considered historically, it concludes the great Austrian symphonic arc which began with Haydn and Mozart. In the opening, we hear the halting pulse of an irregular heartbeat, perhaps the rhythmic derivative of “Leb’ wohl!” (“farewell”), which Mahler wrote in the score. Midway through the movement, the arrhythmic heartbeat returns as a chilling fortissimo- an ominous symbol of mortality. But the first movement also gives us some of the most serenely beautiful moments imaginable. Listen to the way time seems to stop in the final bars of the first movement. In a 1912 letter to his wife, composer Alban Berg wrote,

The first movement is the greatest Mahler ever composed. It is the expression of a tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live on it peacefully and to enjoy nature to its deepest depths – before death comes. For death is inevitable. This whole movement is dominated by the presentiment of death, which makes itself known again and again over the movement’s course. It is the culmination of everything on earth and in dreams, with ever more intense eruptions following the most gentle passages, and of course this intensity is strongest in the horrible moment where death becomes a certainty, where, in the middle of the deepest, most poignant longing for life, death makes itself known ‘with the greatest violence.’ Against that, there is no resistance.”

The second movement, an Austrian ländler, can be heard as a nostalgic farewell to bucolic country life. Its innocent final bars seem to want to hold on and not let go. The Rondo-Burleske third movement anticipates the mocking irony of Shostakovich. In many ways, Mahler’s nine symphonies form one continuous, all-encompassing musical drama. Listen to this passage from the opening of the third movement and you’ll hear the spirits of earlier symphonies bubbling up in a breathless dance. (You can almost make out the tense bass line from the First Symphony here. The Fifth Symphony’s grotesque, cackling laughter emerges here. A dizzying march motive from the first movement of the Third Symphony can be heard here. At the end of the final movement, we hear a quote from the fourth song of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder).

“Trembling on a tonal precipice, on the edge of death” is how Leonard Bernstein described the Ninth Symphony, which begins in D major and finds ultimate rest a world away in D-flat major in the final bars. At frightening moments, the music seems to lose its tonal center completely, before pulling itself together and resuming defiantly. The final movement may be the closest thing to a musical death. Its valiant attempts to reach a transfiguring moment of resolution (the kind we hear at the end of the Second, Third, or Eighth Symphonies) ultimately fall short. Instead, it fades away into quiet resignation. In giving up, we find ultimate peace. Eric Bromberger writes,

If the symphonic process is one of building large structures from small bits, Mahler reverses that over the final pages of the Ninth Symphony. This long movement gradually breaks down into component bits, and these in turn dissolve into nothingness as this music seems to move outside time.

Walter’s live recording with the Vienna Philharmonic was made in 1938, just before the Anschluss, the Nazi annexation of Austria:

Additional Recordings

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6 Responses to Befriending Mahler: Walter’s 1938 Vienna Recording of the Ninth Symphony

  1. Sybille Werner June 27, 2016 at 9:38 am #

    The symphony actually was written in 1909, not 1908. And the notion of a mere “farewell symphony’, propagated by Bernstein for instance, runs the danger of taking this literally, failing to take into account the philosophical content of the work. Mahler was saying farewell to mundane things, his spiritual development had taken him to a higher plane. As for the notion of an irregular heartbeat, that is pure fabrication. Mahler suffered from valvular insufficiency, not arrhythmia.

    • Timothy Judd June 27, 2016 at 11:26 am #

      Thank you for your comment, Sybille. I agree that there’s a danger in literal interpretations of music. At the end of the day, in spite of its historical place at the dawn of the 20th century and at the end of Mahler’s life, this deep music goes beyond words. Mahler began work on the Ninth Symphony in 1908 and it was completed in 1909.

      • Sybille Werner June 27, 2016 at 11:33 am #

        Could you please give me the reference for 1908? I have worked extensively on the subject of the Ninth with De La Grange and have not come across a reference to 1908 so far. Thanks.

        • Timothy Judd June 27, 2016 at 11:47 am #

          Universal Edition lists 1908-1910 as the year of composition. Several articles, including Bernstein’s “The Unanswered Question” and Wikipedia (admittedly not always the most credible source) list 1908-09. Regardless of the year, I find the proximity to Ives’ Unanswered Question (which Bernstein brings up) interesting.

  2. Thomas Jöst June 28, 2016 at 7:31 am #

    Great piece, Tim! (By the way, Walter is a relative of mine, so always happy to read about him)

  3. Bruce Donnell July 1, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    It is a wonderful performance and is especially poignant considering when it was recorded, just before the Anschluss. It was the last time the Vienna Philharmonic played Mahler until after the war. Very moving for lots of reasons.

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