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Mahler: Symphony No. 6

Mahler: Symphony No. 6


1264 words
program notes by Chris Myers

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Copyright © 2017 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Unauthorized distribution or reproduction prohibited.

Symphony No. 6 “Tragic” in A minor
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
piccolo, 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th doubling English horn), English horn, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, 2 harps, violins, violas, cellos, basses

Composed 1903-04 (rev. 1906). First performance: 27 May 1906, Stadtischer Saalbau, Essen, Germany. Combined Orchestras of Essen and Utrecht, cond. Gustav Mahler.

I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo
II. Andante moderato
III. Scherzo. Wuchtig
IV. Finale: Allegro moderato

By 1902, Gustav Mahler’s career was at a high point with his success as conductor of the Vienna Court Opera. He had recently married Alma Schindler, who gave birth to their first daughter a few months later. A second daughter followed in 1904. He was as happy as he would ever be.

It may seem strange, then, that this period also saw the composition of the two most despair-filled pieces in Mahler’s output– the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) and the Sixth Symphony. Mahler wasn’t just any composer, though. He was the ultimate Romantic: an emotional, superstitious genius who found purpose in battling his own demons to bring a glimpse of the divine into our world. Alma was truly his soulmate in this regard, believing wholeheartedly in her husband’s mission to address the great philosophical and cosmic questions through music.

It’s not hard to imagine Mahler seeing this idyllic time in his life as a safe opportunity to confront his fears on becoming a father and to prepare himself emotionally for the tragedies that might befall him and his growing family. He later admitted as much with Kindertotenlieder, writing, “I put myself in the position as though a child of mine had died; when I had actually lost a daughter, I could no longer have written the songs.”

Whatever his inspiration, Alma claimed to have recognized the Sixth Symphony as a portent when he first played the piano score for her. They both wept, she said, as they pondered the terrible vision Mahler had been granted. “No work flowed so directly from his heart,” she later wrote. “The Sixth is his most personal work, and a prophetic one, as well.” For Alma, the word “prophetic” wasn’t metaphor. Her husband’s genius allowed him to see beyond the constraints of time through his art. She believed his melancholic character arose from the realization that he was powerless to alter the course of destiny foretold in these visions.

The most significant of these visions were the symphony’s “hammer blows”. These were written for a unique instrument conceived by Mahler specifically for this score. While he was vague on the details, he said that the sound should be a “short, powerful but dull-sounding blow of non-metallic character, like the fall of an ax.” Alma believed that these moments represented crushing blows of fate dealt against the piece’s hero, and she was deeply unsettled by them, convinced that Mahler was tempting the universe to visit tragedy upon their family. At her request, he removed the final blow when revising the piece.

Until her death, she believed that these hammer blows represented prophetic visions of the three great tragedies that would strike their family. The first was the death of their oldest daughter a year after the symphony’s premiere. Months later, Mahler was forced to resign as conductor of the Vienna Opera— the second blow. The third blow, which she so earnestly begged him to remove from the score, was the diagnosis of the fatal heart condition that would eventually kill him.

While much of what we know about the creation of this work is due to her insider view, Alma Mahler’s recollections should be taken with a grain of salt. She tended to take an even more mystic view of her husband’s music than he did. She also had a habit of adjusting memories to fit her preferred narrative. For instance, she claimed that the Scherzo was inspired by watching their two daughters running about together on the beach, which isn’t likely, as they were a newborn and one-year-old at the time.

Despite the grandeur of its subject and the significant mythology that has grown up around it, the Sixth Symphony is Mahler’s most conventional in terms of form. It is his only symphony originally structured in the traditional four-movement structure with concentric tonality (ending in the same key it begins). However, the sheer scope pushes this structure to the limit.

Additionally, there is some controversy regarding the appropriate order of movements. Mahler originally composed and published the piece with the Scherzo preceding the slow movement, but shortly before the premiere, he switched to the more traditional Andante-Scherzo order typical of symphonies since Beethoven and before, bringing the piece even more in line with symphonic convention. Although he retained this order in performances and revised the published score to reflect the change, Alma inexplicably told one conductor after his death to use the original Scherzo-Andante order. Conductors have advocated both sides of the question ever since. In tonight's performance, you will hear the slow movement first, as Mahler conducted it at every performance during his lifetime.

The first movement is in traditional sonata form. Martial music opens the piece and juxtaposes A major against A minor. This march gives way to a soaring theme in the flutes and violins. Alma claimed that Mahler meant for this melody to represent her, and it suffuses the most joyful moments of the symphony. It is in the conflict between these two themes— the march of fate and Alma’s love— that the symphony’s drama emerges.

This striking opening movement is followed by the delicate melodies of the Andante, frequently interpreted as a more extensive portrait of Alma and a tribute to the Mahlers’ love. The subsequent Scherzo appears with a restless return of martial music. An “old-fashioned” (Mahler’s term) middle section presents an adorably childlike dance in constantly shifting rhythm and meter.

In the finale, fear and despair can no longer be restrained. The music begins to struggle against itself. Themes from prior movements appear, subjected to dramatic shifts of mood, tempo, and character. The music builds in intensity, fighting to overcome despair until it is cut down twice by hammer blows. It builds again to a third such climax, but we are met instead with sudden stillness. The militaristic motives return. This time, the music is unable to force the minor-key harmonies back to major. Despite heroic efforts, the battle is lost. Joy succumbs to A-minor despair and the triumph of fate.

It has become customary to speak of Mahler’s Sixth as “hopeless” and “dark” (Walter Bruno’s words) or “nihilist” (Wilhelm Furtwängler’s description). It’s true that the piece ends tragically, but to view an entire work through the lens of its conclusion is to ignore the drama. Early audiences, familiar with Mahler’s previous symphonies, surely expected a similarly triumphant celebration of the human spirit. The heartbreaking downfall of the finale no doubt came as a shock, adding to its emotionally devastating impact.

This symphony fights a committed battle against the forces of fate, embracing love when it appears, reveling in the beauty encountered along the way, and refusing to give up hope so long as it has breath. The stakes are high, and at no point is tragedy a foregone conclusion. Like life itself, the Sixth Symphony has moments of transcendent beauty, pure joy, and deep sorrow. The beauty and drama lie in the struggle. And like life itself, the outcome is far from certain until the final moment.

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