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Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony, a Masterpiece and a Magnificent Farewell

Bettmann/Getty Images
Portrait of Gustav Mahler taken in America in 1909

Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9 was the last symphony the Austrian composer completed before he died.  Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin talks with us about the very human story behind this monumental work, ranked as the 4th greatest symphony of all time in a 2018 BBC Magazine poll of 151 conductors.

Listen to Yannick Nézet-Séguin lead The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony on WRTI 90.1 on Sunday, May 23, 2021 at 1 PM, and on WRTI HD-2 on Monday, May 24 at 7 PM.

Every Mahler symphony is a work of pure genius, says Nézet-Séguin, "but this symphony, I consider, is a real farewell " 

Mahler wrote his 9th symphony in 1908 and 1909, when the composer had suffered several recent blows: his young daughter Anna Maria had died of scarlet fever, and he himself had been diagnosed with heart disease. 

"This is a journey of definitely a man who has lived and also is opening up a lot of doors for modernism in music through that testament," says Nézet-Séguin.

The symphony is a powerful meditation on the human condition: exploring ideas about life and death.

While there is darkness, "there are moments where it's jolly in the middle," he says, pointing to the music that recalls Austrian folk music.   

As the musical journey nears its end, it is both sobering and deeply touching. 

"The last movement, I feel, is Mahler—maybe at his purest— the soul of an old man talking directly to us. There's almost a certain comfort in listening to this symphony. It's a rollercoaster of emotions, but there's always somewhere in a Mahler symphony where we can as individuals find that someone on Earth has understood our feelings." 

Mahler died in 1911. His Symphony No. 9 premiered in 1912.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.