On the centennial of Mahler's Ninth, a look at the embedded Strauss waltz
One hundred years ago -- June 26, 1912 -- Bruno Walter conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the posthumous premiere of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9.
To mark this important anniversary, I think we should all find 90 minutes somehow and lose ourselves today in this music, which so profoundly sums up the composer's art and soul. A live performance may not be possible to find on the actual bicentennial date, but there is no shortage of excellent recordings.
The obvious one to seek out on such an occasion is ...
the one made live in 1938 with Walter leading the Vienna Philharmonic -- talk about a historic document. It was the first recording of the piece; it gives us a taste of what the 1912 premiere must have sounded like; and, chillingly, it documents a world that was about to be shattered a couple months later by the Nazis' move into Austria.
One element in Mahler's Ninth that has always fascinated me is the allusion in the first movement to a Johann Strauss waltz, "Freut Euch des Lebens," known in English as "Enjoy Life." Something about the work -- one theme in particular -- clearly meant much to Mahler.
Most people think of the Ninth as Mahler's farewell to life, not his determination to enjoy it. That darker view is probably the result of over-romanticism. The composer's most industrious biographer, Henry-Louis de la Grange, argues persuasively that Mahler was far from despondent and death-obsessed in his last years.
However you interpret the Ninth, the presence of those references to "Enjoy Life" adds one more incredibly poignant layer to this profound symphony.
Thanks to YouTube and an uploader identified as "mjd66," here's an audio tour of the connection between that uplifting Viennese waltz and the bittersweet opening movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 9, which was heard for the first time a century ago: