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June 26, 2012

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:

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


If I am not mistaken, the 1938 recording was the last one in which the Vienna Philharmonic was led by Arnold Rose, who also had to "choose" the exile (wasn't Walter Barylli the one who replaced him?)

And btw, wikipedia is wrong in that Rose's original last name was Rosenbaum, not Rosenblum. Rose was the leader of the Philharmonic since the 1880s, and was married with one of Mahler's sisters.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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