Gustav Mahler was Jewish though not religious. Yet he was superstitious. When he began composing his ninth symphony, in 1908, he refused to name it by its number. Many of his artistic heroes—Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner—died before they could finish their ninth symphonies, so Mahler thought he would out-do fate and simply call it by another name. He dubbed it “Das Lied von der Erde,” and its one of his best. But when he began composing his next symphony, his tenth, he thought he had already beaten the orchestral gods and reverted to numerical naming—he called that symphony “Symphony No. 9.”
Alas, he died shortly after.
Now the “Symphony No. 9” is turning 100. The piece had its debut in Vienna in 1912, even though Mahler finished it two years earlier. Having died in 1911, at 50, Mahler never heard it performed. He never will, but it’s a fitting if unsaid tribute that the New York Philharmonic starts the new year with a series of concerts devoted to Mahler’s Brobdingnagian, breathtaking Ninth.
The first performance is tonight, and if you come late, sorry for you: it’s mammoth in lenght, like much of Mahler’s symphonies, clocking in at almost an hour-and-a-half. But if you’re in your seats on time, you won’t be disappointed. Few works can hold your interest like the Ninth, with its hushed sylvan woodwinds being rained down upon by crashing cymbals, drumbeats and horns.
Mahler made no secret of his outsized ambition, saying once, “A symphony must be like the world—it must contain everything.” And it’s fitting that the equally confident, some would say arrogant British composer Thomas Ades shares the bill with him. The Philharmonic debuts Ades’ new symphony, “Polaris,” along with Mahler’s Ninth. Ades’ is a short one—about 13 minutes—but odds are it’ll contain all the brazen ambition that has become Ades’ trademark. Ever since his arrival on the classical world scene in the mid-90s, when he was in his 20s, Ades has been revered and reviled for his occasionally glib comments about the greats who come before him.
When Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, profiled Ades in 1998, he was also about to debut a work alongside a Mahler symphony. Ross asked for his thoughts on Mahler; Ades replied: “Well, I’ve had my things played next to his several times. I’ve been paired with the Mahler Third, the Mahler Fifth, the Mahler Eighth. This one, the Second”—he lowered his voice—“have you noticed that it’s quite insanely loud?”
That isn’t exactly a sharp rebuke, but it wasn’t the beseeching praise you’d expect from a 27-year-old just getting his chance at fame. In any event, I’m not sure Mahler would have taken much offense. Mahler had enough self-regard when he was just starting out, too. He once told the soprano Lilli Lehmann, at a time when his music was not much in favor, “In a hundred years, there will be great folk festivals devoted to my symphonies, in gigantic halls seating twenty to thirty thousand people.”