May 18 was the centenary of the death of Gustav Mahler. He died in 1911 in Vienna, Austria.
On 22 June 1912, four days before the posthumous Viennese premiere of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, Alban Berg wrote to Schoenberg: `I have completely immersed myself in Mahler's IXth, which has appeared in a 4-hand arrangement. This is music no longer of this world. Mysteriously beautiful and magnificent. I shudder at the thought of being able to hear this music on Wednesday. It is a mysterious miracle of nature.'
Having attended several rehearsals, he concluded his observations three days later with further expressions of awe: `It's impossible for me to write about the work itself. Even in the so-called lighter movements (IInd, IIIrd) it represents the deepest, most unfathomable emotion for me.'
In a later, undated letter to his wife Helene -- most probably of November 1912 -- Berg seems to have overcome his reluctance to write about the work. Indeed he gave substance to these vague notions of mysterious miracles and unfathomable emotions by outlining a detailed programme for the first movement:
Once again I played through Mahler's Ninth Symphony. The first movement is the most wonderful that Mahler wrote. It is the expression of tremendous love for this earth, the longing to live upon it in peace, to enjoy nature to its greatest depths -- before death comes. Then [death] does come, inexorably. This whole movement is based on a foreboding of death [Todesahnung]. It makes its presence felt more and more. All earthly dreaming reaches a peak (that's why there are always seemingly new outbursts, intensifications breaking out after the most tender passages). This is strongest naturally at the tremendous moment where this foreboding of death becomes certainty, where in this profound, most anguished desire for life death announces its arrival `mit hoechster Gewalt' [`with greatest force']. Then there are these eerie viola and violin solos and knightly sounds: Death in armour! Against him there is no more rebellion! What comes after this seems to me like resignation. Always with the thoughts of the `hereafter', which appear at the `misterioso' (pages 44-5 [of the four-hand score]) as if in very thin air -- even above the mountains -- indeed, in a rarefied sphere (ether). And once again, for the last time, Mahler turns toward earth -- no longer to battles and deeds, which, as it were, he brushes off (as he did in `[Das] Lied von der Erde' with descending chromatic morendo runs), but rather totally and only to nature. He wants to enjoy whatever treasures earth still offers him for as long as he can. He wants to create for himself a home, far away from all troubles, in the free and thin air of Semmering, to drink this air, this purest earthly air with deeper and deeper breaths -- deeper and deeper breaths so that the heart, this most wonderful heart ever to have beaten among men, widens -- widens more and more -- before it must stop beating.