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The fourth and final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is, without doubt, one of the great finales in the history of symphonic music. Its slow, majestic demeanor describes a farewell to life that is profound at the beginning and becomes ethereal as the movement draws its last breath. Recently, listening to this piece brought to mind two questions for which I am not sure there are hard and fast answers.  It is even possible that there are no answers, a prospect that may reinforce their importance.

Every measure of this masterpiece is filled with almost magical musical materials that force me as theorist to ponder why it is that some music seems to be saying something important while other well-crafted pieces I have encountered seem to utter very eloquent but vapid musical narratives, what Shakespeare called much ado about nothing.

The second question concerns the ability of the music to transcend this level of importance and rise to some exalted place that seems to be the very apotheosis of the entire score. There are four such measures that appear on p. 170 of the orchestral score (mm.5-8) that haunt me every time I hear them. They seem to be the distilled essence of the entire symphony and utter some special truth about the human spirit for which I have no words. Marked dolcissimo, this passage’s poignant affect has never faltered since I first heard it as an undergraduate a half century ago.

I have spent my entire professional career investigating the structure of musical masterpieces and attempting to transmit my findings to my students and colleagues, but I have never attempted to answer philosophical questions such as these. I have studied the linear and harmonic elements of this musical fragment that lasts just thirty seconds until I was blue in the face and I am still no closer to an answer than I was when I started. All of which begs the question, “When you are confronted by magic is it in your best interest to know how the trick is done?” I am almost ready to conclude that the answer to that question is “no,” for child-like wonder may be a precious gift to be cherished and preserved, especially by theorists in their golden years.