When the conductor Christoph Eschenbach, today’s most prominent interpreter of Mahler, was asked whether he, like Bernstein before him, believed that the opening of the Ninth Symphony echoed Mahler’s irregular heartbeat, he did not hesitate for a moment before replying “Absolutely!” Eschenbach came to know Mahler’s works for the first time in the early 1960s during his childhood in Schleswig, which was occupied by the Germans, and again later on in East Germany where Mahler’s works were forbidden. After Mahler’s works were again permitted, they remained a kind of “no man’s land.” “It was hard to talk to Bernstein about Mahler,” says Eschenbach, who was with him in his first years as a conductor, “but it wasn’t necessary. It was enough to see him conduct, and all the right feelings would come through.”
Since Beethoven, the number nine has been fraught with fear of what follows; important composers were afraid to compose more than nine symphonies. Bruckner and Mahler tried to be clever and gave symphonic works other names such as “Song of the Earth” which is nothing if not a symphony.
Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 shows a way out and not just because of the heartbeat in the first movement. Its unique structure embraces two slow movements with two fast movements; the three-note quote from Beethoven’s “Farewell Sonata” symbolizes not only the end of creation but the end of the era of romantic symphonies in the distinctly central European tradition, making this work a significant landmark in the history of Western music. And perhaps most importantly, it is one of Mahler’s most exciting works.