There is no way Mahler’s last completed symphony, the Ninth, cannot be experienced as valedictory. It was written in 1909-10, after the symphonic song-cycle Das Lied von der Erde (which Mahler had not titled “No. 9” out of morbid superstition). Prior to beginning the symphony, Mahler learned of the heart problem that would prove fatal to him. 

Mahler 9 Minnesota Orchestra

Das Lied von der Erde ends with a protracted “Abschied” (Farewell), and that deeply personal mood continues in the Ninth’s first movement. It is fluid and contemplative, moments of forced radiance contending with passages of fearful mystery. The contemplative mood returns in the final fourth movement, which veers markedly between wistful, faraway memories and climactic bursts of emotion, concluding with a long coda fading gradually away like a dying of the light. 

Mahler famously stated that a symphony should contain the whole world, so the Ninth’s two central movements provide a contrast to the longer outer ones. The second is a lumpy, folklike Ländler (which could be construed as an exaggerated childhood memory); the third, a “Rondo...