Jakub Hrůša reflects on the existential grace of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony

Gustav Mahler has long been a central figure in Jakub Hrůša’s musical life, including a 2021 recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 4 with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on the Accentus Music.

So when he was discussing his upcoming program with Cristina Rocca, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s vice president of artistic planning, it was not surprising the work of the Austro-Bohemian composer emerged. “It was very natural for them to say, ‘OK, let’s do some Mahler together,’ because they knew that he is one of the composers I love most,” he said. “And I’m not alone, I know that.”

Rocca suggested Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, written in in 1908-09 and the composer’s final completed symphony. In a 2016 survey of conductors by BBC Music Magazine, this work was named the fourth greatest symphony of all time. “How could I not celebrate doing it?” Hrůša said. “It’s such amazing task to do, so I feel privileged. I said, yes, of course.”

Tackling such a profound, large-scale work as a guest conductor differs from working with an orchestra regularly as music director. But Hrůša knows something of the orchestra’s style and approach from past visits, and he believes he and the musicians have a good working relationship. “I’m looking forward to it, and one has to be open to discovering many deeper things on the way,” he said.

Hrůša offered these thoughts about Mahler and his towering Symphony No. 9:

“This piece is not too different from Mahler as a composer in general. I feel Mahler has gained so much appreciation and popularity and has made a profound impact on all us, because, without too much of a generalization, there’s everything in his music, which can connect to any person on the planet if only that person is willing open themselves to this piece of art. Like Mahler himself said and many commentators have said, his music is a like a cosmos, a universe. There’s everything — all aspects of life.

“But, of course, the older he got, and this is the last one [symphony] he finished, the more existential and the more personal and the more profound he got and the more effective in expressing all that mirroring of life. This existential aspect was supported or surrounded by his inescapable and true feeling of the limitedness of his life. He knew that he wouldn’t live much longer. So [there are] these thoughts about the meaning of life, about one’s purpose, about what comes after, about the tensions and beauties of it.

“I think it is one of the most personal and deepest pieces of symphonic music ever written. At the same time, it’s almost easier to conductor Mahler 9 than some of his earlier symphonies, like 5 or 6, even 2 or 3, which are very popular, and I’ve done many times with pleasure. At the very end of his life, Mahler achieved not only a successful communication of these deep issues, messages and atmospheres, but also he did it with much more clarity than before. So this piece is much more monolithic. You can create much more of a feeling of the whole. There’s a huge arc over the whole piece, with very strong four characters in four movements. There is an incredible feeling of strength of form in it.

“It really belongs to the best pieces of classical beauty in the whole canon of Western music. There is incredible wisdom in that piece. And as many observers and performers have said before, the very last page of that symphony, the last several minutes — even if the previous of beauties and qualities of the piece were different than they are — it would already make the piece amongst the most extraordinary in the whole experience of music. That description of what it feels like to slowly abandon life or lose connection to earthly life — there is nothing like it anywhere else. It is completely unique, and I think no one can repeat it ever.”