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Gustav Mahler: The Sixth Symphony

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Gustav Mahler
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The Adagietto from the 5th Symphony | 6th Symphony
The Order of the Middle Movements in the 6th Symphony | 7th Symphony
8th Symphony: Part 1 | 8th Symphony: Part 2 | Das Lied von der Erde
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My Sixth will pose puzzles that only a generation which has already taken in and digested my previous five can dare to solve.

Initially subtitled 'The Tragic'1 by the composer, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No 6 in A minor, is the only one of the composer's symphonies not to end in an upbeat mood. However, it is not all gloom and doom; there are also moments of joy and hope, but ultimately these moments are crushed. The Sixth Symphony is noted in particular for two things - the 'hammer blows' in the Finale and the controversy surrounding the order in which the two middle movements should be performed.

The four movements are:

  • 1st movement: Allegro energico, ma non troppo
  • 2nd movement: Andante moderato
  • 3rd movement: Scherzo: Wuchtig (Heavy)
  • 4th movement: Finale. Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - Allegro energico

Musical Form and Outline

In addition to the usual large orchestra employed in a Mahler symphony, the Sixth also calls for a large drum and a hammer, glockenspiel and cow bells, as well as deep-toned bells, tamtam, xylophone and a celesta. The composer did not use these latter two instruments again after this symphony. Written at a time when the motor car was still a novelty, a cartoon that appeared in a January 1907 issue of the satirical weekly publication Die Muskete, shows Mahler standing by a wooden frame that holds an array of the percussion instruments he has used in his symphonies. In his left hand is a motor horn, attached to a rubber bulb which is under his foot. The caption reads (in English): 'Lord, I have forgotten the [motor] horn. Now I shall have to write another symphony'.

The Hammer Blows

On two occasions in the fourth movement Finale - originally there were three but Mahler later deleted the third one - a loud, non-metallic thud is called for. Mahler described these as being: 'like the stroke of an axe'. In her memoirs, Mahler's widow, Alma, recalls:

In the last movement he described himself and his downfall or, as he later said, that of his hero: 'It is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.' She then goes on: 'He anticipated his own life in music. On him too fell three blows of fate, and the last felled him'.
- Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, 3rd Edition ed. Donald Mitchell, trans. Basil Creighton, John Murray, London 1973, p.70

The execution of the hammer blows in performance was never achieved to Mahler's satisfaction during his lifetime, despite having had an instrument specially constructed for the purpose. At rehearsals it proved inadequate no matter how hard it was hit and although present on the platform at the première, it was not used. Modern performances tend to use a substantial wooden box which is struck with something like a large sledgehammer or a heavy wooden mallet.

Tragic or Tragedy?

Much has been written about a prophetic link between the hammer blows and Mahler's own life. The three personal blows alluded to all occurred later, in 1907 - the first, being ousted from his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera; the second, the death of his elder daughter Maria from scarlet fever and diphtheria; and finally the diagnosis of his own heart condition that would prove fatal only four years later.

But at the time of the symphony's composition, these events are in the future. In the summer of 1904, when the Finale was composed, Mahler held what was arguably the most prestigious post in European Opera, had been married for only two years and was proud father to his second daughter, Anna, born that same summer. So why the apparent gloom? Although ultimately the symphony ends in dark despair, it is not all in that mood.

It is important that we separate Mahler the man from Mahler the musician. He was able to do this himself in any number of ways - for example he would go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the performance of a musical work, that he thought to be inferior, was given its best possible chance in front of the public, despite his personal opinion of it. So a Mahler symphony need in no way be a reflection of his mood at the time of its composition.

Since his student days, Mahler had been familiar with the writings of the philosopher Nietzsche2, a recurrent motif in which is the concept of Romantic Tragedy - a reworking of the classic Greek view of Tragedy as high Art. The idea of a Romantic Hero beset by Tragedy would therefore be an attractive subject to Mahler. Despite the composer's initial title, soon rejected, the 'Tragic' interpretation of this symphony has been added in retrospect by music critics, fuelled at least in part by the anecdotes recorded in Alma Mahler's memoirs.

First Movement

The opening movement is built from two subjects. The first is a pulsing, driving march rhythm in the symphony's home key, A minor. This leads quickly to the motif associated with the symphony's title - a similarly pulsing march rhythm on one of the timpani, and an A major triad3 on three trumpets that cross-fades (ff to pp) to A minor (the C-sharp of the A major scale changing to C-natural) on four oboes (pp to ff). This change from major to minor mode is a characteristic motif of the symphony.

A chorale bridge passage for woodwind leads to the second subject, in F major. This is a lyrical, typically Mahlerian theme, and is often referred to as the 'Alma' theme. Of this, Mahler told his wife:

I have tried to portray you in a theme. I do not know if I have succeeded, but you will just have to put up with it.

At the conclusion of the Alma theme, Mahler takes the unusual step (for Mahler) of putting a repeat sign and restating verbatim his primary subject material.

The two themes are explored extensively during the development part of the movement. There is an interlude in the middle, in which we hear distant cowbells, together with the celesta. Mahler described these as being: 'the last terrestrial sounds penetrating into the remote solitude of the mountain peaks'. This is an environment with which Mahler was very familiar - he loved taking long, solitary hikes into the high mountains of the Austrian countryside. During the cowbells and celesta interlude, the horns and trombones recall the major to minor shift.

In the Coda, as the movement accelerates towards its conclusion, the trumpets and the trombones, supported by the horns shout out the 'Alma' theme in a triumphal A major. But there is a warning that the triumph may not be complete - the onrush is briefly slowed and the major to minor shift re-appears in the trumpets and trombones, before the orchestra, double- and triple-forte, sweeps on to the end.

Second Movement

The second movement is a marvellous piece of undiscovered Mahler, undiscovered that is (as yet) by the 'tune grabbers' of film and television. It is a wonderfully serene slow movement that we would not expect to hear in a symphony subtitled 'The Tragic'. Like the first movement, this one is based upon two themes. The first is a string melody in E-flat major; the second, preceded by a little flute figure, is heard initially on the cor anglais in the key of G minor. These two themes alternate and are continually developed each time they return. They do not reappear in any of the other movements, nor does this movement borrow from the others; it is completely self-contained. The slow tempo is maintained almost unchanged throughout the movement.

There are two contrasting passages - in the first the cowbells and celesta give us a brief echo of the alpine tranquillity from the first movement. The second, in two parts, is marked Misterioso. The first part is a C major passage for the wind instruments moving in parallel, over string arpeggios. A little figure for solo violin creeps in to join them before the second part, in A major, takes over with a repeated figure for the horns over sustained high strings and flutes.

In due course, the movement reaches a sumptuous E major climax with cascading arpeggios in the violins, the cascades being echoed in the flutes, oboes, clarinets and violas. The climax moves to the key of E-flat, subsides and slows into a tranquil Coda, where it is passed down to the lower strings, finally ending on a soft pizzicato E in the double basses.

Third Movement

The third movement is a Scherzo, and on the basis of the composer's earlier symphonies we should expect this to be a Ländler - a waltz-like Austrian country dance - with a central Trio section4. This is no exception, but Mahler rings the changes a little too. The conventional layout of a Scherzo is S-T-S (Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo). In the present movement, Mahler makes this S-T-S'-T'-S"-Coda, where the prime and double-prime superscripts indicate variant forms of the original Scherzo and Trio. The Ländler is different too - here it is a stomping dance, more at home at a Barn Dance than at a Ball, in 3/8-time with the accent being placed on the weak third beat of the bar. The key is A minor, the same as that of the first movement, and the ultimate destination to be reached at the symphony's conclusion.

Alma Mahler claimed that the inspiration for this movement came from the 'un-rhythmic games of their children', although at the time of the Scherzo's composition, only their first child, the ill-fated Maria was born, and she was less than a year old.

HF Redlich (1903-1968), an Austrian musicologist and writer who became Professor of Music at Lancaster University, UK, describes this movement as resembling 'a sinister Hoffmannesque puppet show', a reference to the strange, often sinister or surreal atmosphere created in the stories of ETA Hoffmann5. Certainly there is an uneasy feeling about the whole movement.

The start of the first Trio section in F major is marked Altväterisch, meaning Old-fashioned (literally Old-father-like). A reflection of a faded elegance, it is introduced on the oboe, joined by the clarinet, bassoon and French horn, before being taken up by the strings. Just as the Ländler of the Scherzo is distorted by moving the accent to the weak beat, so the Trio is unsettled by the metre being changed repeatedly between 4/8, 3/8 and 3/4-time.

A typically Mahlerian moment of panic, followed by a downward chromatic slide across the flutes, horns and strings, interrupts the final Scherzo section and brings in the Coda. A solo violin, accompanied by the woodwinds, reminisces on the theme of the Trio - the metre still shifting, now 2/4 to 3/8-time - fading away to end on two accented strokes on the timpani. Alma Mahler described it thus: 'Ominously the childish voices become more and more tragic, and at the end die out in a whimper', adding fuel to the claim that Mahler was tempting fate, and was soon to be repaid by future tragic events.

Fourth Movement

The huge Finale of this large-scale symphony, for which a number of detailed analyses have been published6, is a half-hour composition of immense structural complexity. Compared with say, the second movement of the Second Symphony, where there is universal agreement about the A-B-A structure, the present movement can and has been described analytically in a number of different ways. Although these analyses differ significantly, most musicologists would concur that the movement comprises a number of elemental cycles that recur and divide the movement into large sections.

The music features a number of important compositional elements - a slow Introduction with a motto theme, the interval of an upward leap of a whole octave, principal and subsidiary themes, a chorale motto and the three infamous hammer blows, of which only two are actually sounded. It is the opinion of this Researcher that if the composer were able to revisit the score today, the third hammer blow would undoubtedly be restored. So, depending on your analytical preference, you may consider it as being in say, three sections, each terminated by one of the hammer blows, and the movement concluding with a Coda; alternatively in four sections, each beginning with a variant of the slow Introduction, the fourth section then doubling as the Coda. Note that the section divisions will occur at different places, depending on which analysis you adopt.

The slow Introduction starts with a glissando for the celesta and the harps, followed by the motto theme heard in the first violins in C minor, the opening notes of which are the important octave leap C to C'. A brief climax dies away and leads to a passage in the home key of A minor, in which both the principal and subsidiary themes are born, though not yet fully formed. The passage is led off by the bass tuba, with a little figure that again starts with an octave leap, A to A'. This is followed by a passage marked in the score Schwer (Heavy), which features the chorale motto.

The tempo increases to Allegro energico for the principal theme, a march-like tune in the symphony's home key, A minor. This in turn is followed by the flowing subsidiary theme in D major, introduced by the flutes.

The first return of the slow Introduction, now in D minor, builds in due course to a huge climax, crowned at its peak by the first of the hammer blows. After another cycle of development involving all the compositional elements, comes the second hammer blow - very slightly softer this time - it is marked ff, as compared with the fff of the first one. As the climax subsides, the slow Introduction returns for the third time, once again in the key of C minor, as it was at the very beginning of the movement.

The third and last cycle concludes with a passage in A major that seems as though it might offer some hope, but at the climax it is dashed once again, bringing the final return of the slow Introduction in the inevitable key of A minor - one last instance of the characteristic change from major to minor. The third (albeit missing) hammer blow is delayed until after the start of the Introduction, following which the movement dies away to leave the trombones intoning a slow dirge. With a final, agonised death-throe, the movement and the symphony tragically expires.

Composition and Première

Composed during the summer holidays of 1903 and 1904, the Sixth is Mahler's darkest symphonic work. Although detail is sketchy, it is likely that the two middle movements, the Andante and the Scherzo, together with at least part of the opening Allegro movement, were composed in 1903. Composition of the symphony's long Finale and completion of the first movement occupied part of the summer of 1904.

Mahler's second child, Anna, was born on 15 June, 1904. A week later, Mahler left Alma and his new daughter in Vienna and went alone to Maiernigg, where the Mahlers had a summer villa on the Wörthersee, to start composing. As was often the case, it took a while for the creativity to start flowing, but at the very end of June and during the first ten days of July, he completed the then unfinished song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).

Alma and baby Anna were finally able to join him at Maiernigg on 13 July, which seems to have triggered the opening of the compositional floodgates, for by the end of the summer he had completed not only the Sixth Symphony, but also the two 'Nachtmusik' movements of the Seventh.

At the end of May 1906, the annual music festival of the Allgemeine Deutscher Musikverein, founded for the performance of contemporary music, was held in the industrial town of Essen. The vice-president of the Verein, Max von Schillings, invited Mahler to conduct his Sixth Symphony. Mahler's Third Symphony had received its première at this same festival two years earlier. Mahler accepted the invitation, in part because felt that the festival audience was more likely to approach the symphony with an open mind. Before doing so however, he asked the conductor Willem Mengelberg's opinion as to whether the combined Essen and Utrecht orchestras would be up to the task. The première would take place on Sunday, 27 May, 1906, at 5.30pm.

As he had previously with the Fifth Symphony, in April Mahler asked the Vienna Philharmonic for reading rehearsals, this time three of them, to which they readily agreed.

Knowing the difficulty the work would present, Mahler insisted he would need seven full rehearsals, plus two or three section rehearsals. He arrived by train at Essen on the evening of 20 May, a full week ahead of the concert, to take charge of these rehearsals. There was to be a week's hard work ahead for both he and the orchestra. The giant hammer-blows in the Finale caused particular problems. That first performance included three hammer blows. Mahler described these as three blows of fate, the last of which fells the hero of the movement. Mahler had a huge drum constructed specially to achieve the effect he wanted, but it proved to be inadequate and was not in the end used in the actual performance.

The final rehearsal took place at 11am on the morning of the concert with only a few dissenting voices amid the general applause. Immediately after the rehearsal, they learned that the major of Essen had died that very morning. Out of respect, Richard Strauss conducted Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music before the performance of the Mahler symphony.

At the end of the Finale, the orchestra joined with the audience in giving Mahler a standing ovation, calling the composer back to the podium no less than six times.

The critics' reaction was as usual generally negative, although with more objectivity than they had often shown at previous performances of Mahler's work. The use of the percussion section, a major feature of the Finale, was one obvious target for criticism. Whilst recognising the importance of movements like the Andante, his symphonies were deemed a product of clever orchestration rather than proper melodic development.

Mahler conducted only two further performances of the Sixth Symphony, one in Munich on 8 November, 1906, and another in Vienna on 4 January, 1907. Neither performance attracted critical acceptance. Oskar Fried gave it in a concert in Berlin on 8 October, 1906, getting a mixed reaction from the audience, and as always in Berlin, a savaging from the press.

Mahler never again conducted the symphony.

1By the time the work was completed, Mahler had dropped the title, but it was revived by subsequent commentators.2Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), a German philosopher whose writings had a great influence on many writers and musicians. During the last ten years of his life, Nietzsche suffered severe mental illness. Mahler's attraction to Nietzsche varied during his lifetime - at one point he strongly advised Alma to burn her complete collection of Nietzsche's works.3A basic chord in music, comprising the first, third and fifth notes of the melodic scale.4All the symphonies, except the Eighth, include a Scherzo movement that employs the Ländler as the primary material. The unfinished Tenth has two Scherzo movements, but only the first of these uses the Ländler rhythm.5Ernest Theodor Amadeus (originally Wilhelm) Hoffmann (1776-1822), a Romantic author of fantasy and horror stories, also a music critic and composer. Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker, Delibes's ballet Coppèlia and Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann are all based on his stories. Hoffmann himself wrote a successful opera entitled Undine.6One of the most comprehensive (yet remaining readable) is Norman Del Mar, Mahler's Sixth Symphony - A Study, Ernst Eulenburg, London, 1980.

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