Reinterpreting the farewell story of Mahler's ninth symphony: Dialectical synthesis in the modern age

  • Daniel Sheridan


Mahler's Ninth Symphony has most commonly been interpreted as a “farewell story”; specifically Mahler’s farewell to the world and resignation to death. How would this story remain viable to a modern audience, long after Mahler's death? How would a modern audience receive this work? Modern society has increasingly commodified music, particularly the tonal repertoire, exploiting the profitability of music. This challenges the 19th century aesthetic of music as an autonomous art. In Mahler's Ninth Symphony there are numerous binary oppositions, such as simple/complex and sublime/vulgar. I read these oppositions as a dialectic between tonal music as autonomous “art for art's sake” and as a commodity for public consumption. This dialectic is presented in each movement of the symphony, with an attempt at synthesis between autonomous ('high') music and commodified ('low') music. Each attempt fails, with one side of the dialectic overtaking the other. The symphony ends in sombre fashion; dialectical synthesis has shown to be impossible and tonal music acknowledges its lack of autonomy. Thus, the “farewell story” of Mahler's Ninth Symphony may be read by modern culture as a farewell to the notion of tonal music as an autonomous art: tonality be it art or popular music, has accepted its commodity character.  This problematizes traditional distinctions between “high” and “low” culture. Therefore, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony articulates a farewell that need not be mourned.

Author Biography

Daniel Sheridan

Daniel Sheridan completed a B. Mus. degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is currently enrolled in McMaster’s M.A. in Music Criticism program. Among his current projects, Mr. Sheridan is studying the role of the body in conducting and how cultural and social values, relating to the body, shape the conductor’s movements and gestures.