The Third in Mahler’s Ninth

Melinda Haas
New York City, New York, USA
New York Association for Analytical Psychology

[Note: CD numbering refers to Claudio Abbado, Berliner Philharmoniker 2002 Deutsche Grammophon recording of Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9. Excerpt numbering refers to score rehearsal numbers.]

Perhaps your presence here today indicates a particular interest in music. And perhaps you also have been surprised by the almost total absence of music in Jung’s work. As a representation of culture, as a symbol system, it would seem the perfect vehicle for much of the theory. This paper is an attempt to look at one glorious piece of music through a Jungian lens.

Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, written during the summer of 1909, stands at the beginning edge of a century, at the ending edge of a composer’s life, and at the border between music and culture as it had been built and known over the previous three centuries, and as it would evolve in the course of the twentieth century. The music itself pushes the bounds of the known vis à vis tonality, form, and time. It hurtles into the 20thcentury, stopping short of Mahler’s friend Arnold Schoenberg. In fact, in the last few days of Mahler’s life he grew very anxious about Schoenberg. He worried, “If I go, he will have nobody left.” One wonders if that was a musical worry as well as a financial one.

Mahler experienced himself both at the edges, and as a product of the edges. He was born in 1860 in a small town in Moravia, at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic. His childhood was surrounded by death. As the eldest child he witnessed the death of six brothers, leaving five remaining siblings. Alma Mahler quotes her husband’s self-description: “I am thrice homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian among the Germans, and as a Jew throughout all the world; everywhere an intruder, never welcomed,” (A. Mahler 1940, p. 98). A prescient statement: some forty years later his niece would conduct the women’s inmates’ orchestra before being killed in Auschwitz. He was baptized a Catholic in order to take up his appointment as conductor of the Vienna Opera, but though he was not religiously connected to his heritage, he wore it forever, as the outsider. His self-proclaimed identification with Ahasuerus opens a window into his self-image and his psyche. Jung explains the eternal wanderer this way:

Wotan is a restless wanderer who creates unrest and stirs up strife, now here, now there, and works magic. He was soon changed by Christianity into the devil … In the Middle Ages the role of the restless wanderer was taken over by Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew … The motif of the wanderer who has not accepted Christ was projected on the Jews. (CW 10, §374)

This link between Wotan and Ahasuerus must have provided the archetypal underpinnings that made Mahler one of the greatest conductors of Wagner the world has known. He was a restless wanderer, moving from one conducting post to the next until achieving his goal in Vienna, always stirring up strife and working magic both as conductor and composer.

It is my contention that Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is built upon a multitude of opposites and that the sheer number of those sets seems to depolarize them. It puts us in a field of multiplicity much like the unhinging, illogical aspects of the analytic process. And it puts us in the realm now described by emergent theory and postmodernism. At the beginning of this, the twenty-first century, the model of a set of opposites, one duality that produces a transcendent function, seems to be an oversimplification, and no longer applicable. Since Jung’s discussion of the transcendent function in 1916, the complexity of the twentieth century has imposed its lasting imprint. The deconstruction of the old, causal order took root. Mahler, straddling the edges, used the language of the past to intimate the future. Curiously, one does not hear this premonition in his previous works. The conjunction of personal and world events opened unexplored territory to him. He pushed his own familiar musical language to the edges of order, of permissible, forgivable, acceptable in 1909 Western Europe.

If there is a one “third” that comes out of the Ninth, I would say it might be beauty. But a beauty wrought from ugliness and sarcasm and a life lived as an outsider, constantly worried about money, a life full of illness and death, dashed hopes, betrayal, as well as an intimate connection to nature, the body in motion, the world of ideas, and meaningful relationships with people he chose to be close to. The music that emerges, because it encompasses all of these aspects, is exquisite, transcendent beauty. [CD: Movement 3/10:20 to 4/1:44, Excerpt: Movement 3/meas. 25 after #43 to 4/meas. 12]

Multiplicity and deconstruction produce one another. They are the ruling principles in today’s world. Perhaps because one hundred years ago they were still the exception, Mahler was still able to make unified meaning of the disparate and various parts, by creating a space expansive enough to contain them. I wonder if this music might serve as a model for the containment of multiplicity and emergence of Self through that operation. In listening with this in mind, I believe the music will elucidate Mahler’s time, our time, and a path into the deep innermost parts of the human psyche that vibrate to something profoundly beautiful. In 1935, at Tavistock, Jung spoke of multiplicity as he interpreted a visual image:

This man, then, tries to gather in all the disparate elements into the vessel. The vessel is meant to be the receptacle for his whole being, for all the incompatible units. If he tried to gather them into his ego, it would be an impossible task, because the ego can be identical only with one part at a time. So he indicates by the symbol of the vessel that he is trying to find a container for everything. (CW 18, §408)

And I quote Mahler, “The symphony is the world. It must contain everything within it.” (Greenberg, Disc 4).

That summer of 1909, Mahler had returned from his second season in New York, having conducted both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Clearly he was influenced by the “new world’s” energy, writing to a friend: “[t]he audiences here … are … unsophisticated, hungry for novelty, and in the highest degree eager to learn,” (Martner 1979, pp. 309-10). It is not merely coincidence that the resurgence of interest in Mahler, in the 1970s and especially in the United States, came at a time of unrest and protest, not unlike the time in which he wrote. He had a precocious ability to capture the complexity and energy of the contemporary world, to express the unconventional, and still speak the recognizable language of the past. Pushing into new territory was not, however, a goal, a ding an sich for Mahler. He was not a self-conscious composer, but wrote from a deeply interior place. He wrote, “The need to express myself musically – in symphonic terms – begins only on the plane of obscure feelings, at the gate that opens into the ‘other world.’” (Martner 1979, p. 179)

As with dream interpretation, the circumstances surrounding the creation of this work, the various discourses, find their way into the work, but do not form its total interpretation or meaning. In 1909, the world was a tinder box poised to ignite. Life and death were actively constellated as opposites. The Dual Monarchy of Austria- Hungary was fast becoming ineffectual, no longer able to contain the multiplicity of cultures in its Empire. Anti-Semitism was becoming more politically entrenched in Vienna. Russia and France had formed an uneasy alliance. Even France and England had negotiated an entente, reeling in their centuries-old opposition in the face of the increasingly looming and expanding German Empire. In this same year, two hundred people were killed here in the streets of Barcelona in what is called the “Tragic Week,” as riots erupted, demonstrating against the mobilization of Catalonian troops to fight in Spanish Morocco. In that year a Spanish statesman said, “either we make the revolution from above, or it will be made for us from below,” (Roberts 1999, p158).

Questions were being asked, and answered, of psyche that had until this point been addressed to religion. At the level of personal discourse, Mahler’s beloved daughter had died at the age of four, two summers before. Immediately thereafter he had been diagnosed with a serious heart condition that circumscribed his life, limiting his ability to move freely in his beloved nature. He had finally succumbed to anti-Semitic pressure and resigned his Vienna Opera post, and was once again homeless, wandering to America, emotionally unable to return to the country home where his daughter had died, and where he had composed in previous summers. Whether he was superstitious, or acutely aware of his internal clock, he tried to trick fate. The previous summer, while composing Das Lied von der Erde he refused to call it his Ninth symphony, because neither Beethoven nor Schubert nor Bruckner nor Dvorak lived past their Ninth symphonies. When he approached this symphony he thought he was safe in calling it his Ninth. Not even Mahler could cheat death. He died before finishing his Tenth.

I do not agree with the many Mahler commentators who discuss the Ninth as his ethereal depiction of the afterlife, though he was processing the imminence of his own death. Rather, I am more inclined to David Greene’s comment: “… consciousness of the endness of existence doesn’t diminish ecstasy of a world that is drunk with beauty and life. It creates a new kind of temporal process neither incomplete nor complete.” (Greene 1984, p. 267) To the extent to which Mahler succeeds in holding this tension of the awareness of life and death, he has formed a third, transcending a polarized experience of time. In so doing, this music becomes one of the most profound statements about human possibility and capability that has ever been written. In this, he was fundamentally Jewish, expressing this life, not the next. Alban Berg wrote this in 1912, upon hearing the first performance of the work:

The first movement is the most heavenly thing M ever wrote. It is the expression of an unheard of love for this earth, the longing to live in peace upon her, Nature, still to enjoy her utterly, even to her deepest depths – before Death comes. For it comes irresistibly. This entire movement is based on a presentiment of death. (Hefling 2002, p. 204)

Mahler stands at the far edge but still in his own time, as he strives to create a “human-spiritual amalgam” to use David Tresan’s term. He has not fully espoused contemporary emergence theory, if that is to mean that “the concrete and the symbolic never blend together to form a third.” (Tresan, 1996, p. 411) For Mahler, the physicality of the sensory world is intimately linked with the spiritual. By pairing a flute with a double bass, with nothing in between, he creates the “third,” both as an experience of vast space, and as the delineation of the edges of the sound container. By abruptly changing from raucous and fortissimo to Schattenhaft (shadowy) and barely perceptible, he confronts us with the ‘third’ – a symbol that is able to hold our all too human fear.

He asks us to suspend our comfort with the familiar, inviting us on an uncharted journey through timbre, texture and emotion. The outer movements are slow, surrounding the intense and fast middle movements. We have come to expect a declarative thematic statement at the opening of a first movement. Instead, the symphony opens with a barely perceptible heartbeat, drawing the listener in at an elemental level, pulse as sign of life, and the underpinning of music as it has come before, the prima materia. Slowly the first theme emerges from here. [CD: 1/0:01 to 1:45, Excerpt: Opening to meas. 8 after #2] The Classical and Romantic first movement Sonata form, with an expansive development section, a denouement, and a recapitulation that sews things up nicely, no longer holds. Mahler takes us now into his post-Romantic world: a world of small gestures and multiple climaxes, like the analytic process. The movement is loosely in Rondo Form, ABACADA. The Greek word crusis, or strong point, helps us to better describe the shape of these paths. As with life, the anacrusis collects and builds into the crusis, or crisis. The metacrusis is particularly interesting in this first movement. We expect a long logically devolving decrescendo that balances the slow building of the anacrusis. Instead the music quickly becomes disorganized, disoriented, diffuse, deconstructed – a complete solutio. [CD: 1/9:59 to 11:29, Excerpt: 1/#9 to meas. 9 after #11] And then the process begins again, coagulatio at its most difficult, scooping up the fragments and unintelligible mutterings into something that slowly accumulates meaning, until it becomes recognizable. This is the section marked Schattenhaft, shadowy. [CD: 1/14:00 to 15:24, Excerpt: 1/meas. 12-34 after #13]

Now we must look at the third in more detail. Since the Renaissance, diatonic music had consisted of a clear delineation of Major and Minor keys. In a major chord or scale, the interval of the third is major. It is comprised of two whole steps. In a minor chord or scale, the interval of the third is minor, made up of a whole step plus a half step, so it is smaller, the feeling is less open. We have come to think of one as light/happy, the other as dark/sad. Mahler plays with the two until difference is blurred. He starts a theme in minor, and ends it in major, or as Hefling describes:

[the] first and second themes are bound together as brighter and darker polarities of the same tonic centre … B as the darker counterpart of A: the two thematic areas strongly linked, like the components of a syzygial pair, and throughout the course of the movement they function as paired, interrelated opposites in rondo-like juxtaposition.” [Hefling 1999, pp. 474-475] [CD: 1/1:09 to 2:05, Excerpt: 1/#2 to meas. 12 after #2]

Instead of hearing them now as two distinct keys, the listener finds him/herself in a larger tonal field that contains both. At a simplistic level, we no longer see-saw between happy and sad as polarized. Instead, they are equally held in the field of human emotion. This mixing of major and minor thirds also pushes into the beginnings of chromaticism, thereby threatening the primacy of separateness and hierarchy. The two now function as “paired interrelated opposites” rather than polarized extremities. Thus he forces the opposites not only into tension, but into proximity. Because he makes only slight alterations to the familiar vocabulary, he is able to ask whether these pairs were really so opposed in the first place. [CD: 1/18:57 to 20:03, Excerpt: 1/ meas. 9 before #16 to 9 after #16]

The second movement, marked, Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers, is a folk dance. [CD: 2/0:01 to 0:54, Excerpt: 2/ Meas. 1-30] And what a dance it is! He juxtaposes the rustic Ländler of the country with the sophisticated (Viennese) waltz. The Ländler turns grotesque and the waltz frenzied as he parodies both. As the frenzy breaks off, the hint of a minuet is exposed: the merest suggestion of an orderly time in the past that has been superseded by this present. [CD: 2/3:56 to 5:25, Excerpt: 2/ meas. 19 before #21 to meas. 44 after #21] He mediates between cultures, expressing his German Jewish Slavic heritage, and in so doing, to quote Henry Lea, (Lea 1985, p. 128) he “exemplifies the tragically brief German Jewish symbiosis at its most intense.” It has become a folk dance stripped of its nationality and innocence. In its place is a dance of life with all its contemporary complexities.

The third movement, marked Rondo Burleske (with instruction sehr trotzig: defiant, stubborn), is regarded as Mahler’s most modern utterance. The sheer number of fugal voices piled one on top of the other places us in a world of polytonality, as well as polyphony to the extreme. Hefling describes the movement as “the most syntactically untraditional, contrapuntally complex, and riotously sardonic movement in all Mahler’s oeuvre.” (Hefling 1999, p. 484) He achieves this by swallowing Bach whole, transplanting counterpoint into the twentieth century without the linear evolutional advantage of passing through Classicism and Romanticism. In so doing, he verges on both the postmodern and the emergent. Thus, his biographer Henri de la Grange comments, “Mahler never ventured further into nihilism than here.” (Hefling 1999, pp. 483-4) [CD: 3/3:20 to 4:25, Excerpt: 3/meas. 11 before #33 to meas. 40 after #34]

Each movement is in Rondo form, most unusual for symphonic structure. Inherent in the form is a multiplicity of themes, and comings and goings. What does it mean that Mahler has chosen this form throughout? We are reminded of the other Mahler’s Rapprochement Phase: stating oneself, going away, coming back, checking, going away again, each time a little more daring. It is progressive movement, for each time one leaves one is more separate and individual, and each time one returns, the experience of home is infused with the adventures of the journey.

Taking away a clear tonal center (home), and the reassuring dichotomy of major and minor, pushing form, time and orchestration to the outer edges of the familiar, are all within the natural order of things, if one calls oneself Ahasuerus, the eternal wanderer, because one is completely unmoored. Rondo form inherently provides the touchstone that allows him to keep wandering in this liminal world. These exquisite “A” themes, at one and the same time human and from this “other world,” are the centering and homing function of Mahler’s deepest creative force. They are the clearest cries of a person living life with excruciating awareness of the presence of death.

He started this journey with the heartbeat, and ends without it, creating wider and wider spaces of silence, throwing our sense of time into another orbit. Alma Mahler observed that when her husband was conducting an adagio, if it “seemed to be lost on the audience he slowed the tempo down, rather than quickening it …” Mellers describes his relationship to time at the end of this symphony thus:

… in the last movement of the Ninth, Mahler attains a translucent texture that evokes oriental rather than occidental modes of being … The obsession with Time, by which Europe had been dominated since the Renaissance, begins to dissolve into Asiatic immobility and the process is at once a laceration of spirit and an act of birth. Mahler lingers on those suspended dissonances, his last hold on the life he had lived with all his richly attuned senses … (Mellers 1999, pp. 570-71)

This symphony, then, is a postmodern deconstruction of the old order at every musical level. But still Mahler is able to leave us with a world-creating vessel that holds the fragments. He has chosen chromaticism and the ethereal edge of the orchestra to express the final moments of his last complete symphonic statement. In so doing, he forces us to feel the horror of death as deprivation of our sensory life, as we strain to hear the last notes, hoping they will never end. [CD: 4/20:54 to end, Excerpt: 4/final 39 measures]


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