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Mahler's Sixth Symphony - A Matter of Order

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Gustav Mahler
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Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony has four movements. The first and last of these present us with no issue - at least, not one of sequence. However, the order in which the two middle movements, a Scherzo and an Andante, should be performed has been the subject of much argument and debate.


The original version of the score, published before the first performance, placed the Scherzo as the second movement, followed by the Andante. We know for certain that during the rehearsals for the first performance at Essen, Germany in May, 1906, Mahler changed his mind and reversed the order so that the Scherzo followed the Andante. Consequently, he had slips of paper printed for insertion into the concert programme to the effect that the order of the second and third movements would be reversed. After the première, he ordered a new edition of the score to be published in the revised form - at not inconsiderable inconvenience and cost to his publisher. At the première, at both the subsequent performances that Mahler conducted and at the performance later that year in Berlin conducted by Oskar Fried (with Mahler present at both the rehearsals and the performance), this was the order in which the inner movements were performed. That order remained generally the practice of conductors up until 1963.

The Seed of Controversy is Sown

In 1919, a great Mahler festival was planned in Amsterdam, at which all of the composer's works would be performed. The conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelberg, sent a telegram to Mahler's widow Alma, querying the order of the inner movements. Her reply was categorical: 'Erst Scherzo, dann Andante' ('First Scherzo, then Andante'). Accordingly, Mengelberg annotated his conducting score and played the Scherzo before the Andante. He did so not only at the 1919 festival, but again the following year at another Mahler festival in Amsterdam on 6 - 21 May, 1920, held to commemorate 25 years of Mengelberg's conductorship of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

Why did Mengelberg query the movement order in the first place, and why did Alma Mahler respond in the way she did? We shall return to these questions shortly.

Critical Development

In 1955, the International Gustav Mahler Society was established in Vienna at the suggestion of the Vienna Philharmonic Society. Its declared aims were (and remain) to publicise and promote the composer's music to as wide an audience as possible, to found a library in which to house Mahler manuscripts and documents and, using the material collected, to create a Critical Edition of the Complete Works. The Society's first president was Erwin Ratz1 (1898 - 1973), with Mahler's close friend and colleague, the renowned conductor Bruno Walter (1876 - 1962), as Honorary President.

To produce a Critical Edition of any of the symphonies, where they are accessible, the known manuscripts are examined and dated as accurately as possible. They are taken in combination with other documentary evidence to establish a true chronology of all the extant full and part manuscripts. Further, every single note, rest and bar line is examined to correct inadvertent errors that may have been introduced by copyists or by the typesetters of the printed musical scores, including identifying added, missing or wrong notes or accidentals2, or the composer's performance directions. The process is further complicated by the existence of handwritten manuscripts that differ in having additional or missing bars of music - Mahler himself constantly revised many of his symphonies throughout his lifetime. Such, then, is the huge task that faces the team responsible for trying to decide what the composer's final wishes really were.

In due course, in 1963, a new Critical Edition of the Sixth Symphony was published. To general surprise, the editor-in-chief of that edition, the International Gustav Mahler Society's president Erwin Ratz, declared that Mahler's final wishes had been that the correct order of the inner movements should be as he originally planned, ie the Scherzo and then the Andante. Ratz asserted that Mahler had ultimately realised that this order was the only one that made musical sense of the internal structure of the symphony; however, he produced no documentary evidence to support his claim. For more than forty years, this pronouncement by the de facto Mahler authority, the International Gustav Mahler Society, held sway. Although it has been up to individual conductors as to which 'version' we hear in the concert hall, the majority have tended to favour the 1963 Critical Edition, with the Scherzo followed by the Andante.

What is the nature of these two movements?

The Scherzo

In common with nearly all Mahler symphonies, the Sixth includes a Scherzo movement based upon an Austrian country dance, the Ländler, with, in this case, two contrasting Trio sections. The key of the Scherzo is A minor, the same key as the opening first movement. Normally the Scherzo would act as lighter dance movement compared with the musical intensity of the movements before it. In this instance, however, both the Scherzo and its contrasting Trio sections have an uneasy, disquieting feel about them, certainly not providing the expected moment of repose in the symphony's development.

The Andante

The Andante is the slow movement of the symphony and in the tradition of Romantic period works has the sumptuous warmth of a 'Big Tune' melody. That warmth, however, is directed inwards - here is a reflective memory, a fond recollection of pleasures past, a warm summer daydream perhaps. The key is E-flat major - not used in a blaze of confidence, as it will be at both the beginning and the end of the Eighth Symphony, but as a confident belief in the ultimate rightness of things, much in the manner in which that same key is used at the conclusion of the Fourth Symphony.


So why did Willem Mengelberg query the order of the movements back in 1919? We shall almost certainly never know the true reason, but something must have raised a doubt in his mind. It has been suggested that his cousin Rudolf may have shown him the earlier published score with the Scherzo before the Andante. However, Mengelberg had already conducted the symphony a number of times, on each occasion with the Scherzo following the Andante. For whatever reason, and despite having in his possession a conducting score of the symphony that had been regularly hand-corrected by Mahler personally, Mengelberg decided to settle the doubt by asking the late composer's wife.

The critical words of her telegraphed reply on 1 October, 1919, 'Erst Scherzo, dann Andante - herzlichst Alma' ('First Scherzo, then Andante - most cordially Alma'), watered our seed of controversy. On receipt of her telegram, Mengelberg annotated the title page of his conducting score with the statement: 'Nach Mahlers Angabe II erst Scherzo dann III Andante' ('According to Mahler's instruction first II Scherzo then III Andante').

Why was Alma so unequivocal about the order? Alma Mahler's unreliability as regards accuracy in biographical details is well-known. The terseness of her reply to Mengelberg's query suggests that it may have been despatched quickly. Perhaps at the moment of sending it she was remembering her first hearing of the work, probably at the piano with her husband at their holiday villa at Maiernigg, late in the summer of 1904. In any case, it is at odds with her memoirs3, in which she refers to the Scherzo as the third movement. Furthermore, despite attending performances of the symphony over the next half-century, she never voiced any objection to the Andante preceding the Scherzo.


A booklet4, published in 2004 by the Kaplan Foundation with an Introduction by Gilbert Kaplan himself, includes a substantial essay by Jerry Bruck5, in which he examines carefully all the available historical evidence. The only two pieces of evidence to support the Scherzo-Andante case (and they can hardly be considered to be truly independent) are the annotation to Mengelberg's conducting score and Alma Mahler's 1919 telegram.

In 1957, Ratz himself queried the movement order with Alma6. Not until his third attempt did he finally get a reply saying that she had been unwell and that 'The way Mahler played the Sixth in Amsterdam is definitely the right order'. Unfortunately (for both Amsterdam and for Erwin Ratz), at no time did Mahler ever perform the Sixth in that city!

Bruck's conclusion, now supported officially by the International Gustav Mahler Society, is that Ratz was wrong and that the correct order of the inner movements is Andante-Scherzo, just as Mahler had decided a century ago at the Essen rehearsals. The booklet concludes with an essay by Reinhold Kubik, in his capacity as the present editor-in-chief of the Critical Edition, officially endorsing Bruck's findings and placing the blame firmly on Erwin Ratz, asserting that he deliberately falsified, or chose to ignore, evidence where it was not in concurrence with the conclusions of his own musicological theories and studies. Regrettably, and despite his positive attributes, Ratz was not a man to let the facts stand in the way of a good theory.

When Mahler said, 'My Sixth will pose puzzles that only a generation which has already taken in and digested my previous five can dare to solve', little could he have imagined what those puzzles would be.

1An Austrian musicologist and one-time pupil of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. From 1945 until his death, he taught music theory at the Vienna Academy of Music and the Performing Arts. In 1951, he published a major work entitled Einführung in die musikal. Formenlehre (Introduction to Musical Form).2The 'sharp' and 'flat' symbols that appear in a score, other than those at the left-hand side of each stave of music that indicate the key signature.3Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler Memories and Letters, 3rd Edition ed Donald Mitchell, pub John Murray 1973, p70.4The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony, ed Gilbert Kaplan, The Kaplan Foundation, New York, 2004.5Jerry Bruck is a highly-respected recording engineer, writer, broadcaster, lecturer and Mahler devotee. In a career lasting from the early 1960s to the present day, Bruck's many credits include helping to persuade Alma Mahler to lift her ban on any attempt to complete the Tenth Symphony.6Alma Mahler survived her first husband, Gustav, by more than 50 years. She died in New York in 1964.

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