Mahler Symphony no. 6

This piece has been revisited, and an updated article has been written. Please read it here.  I’ll keep the original article (below) for posterity, but I would suggest reading the new article instead.
performed by the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling
Buckle up. 

My Sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.

-Gustav Mahler, in a letter to Richard Specht
I will be using that quote twice. I am aware of that.
I had all intentions of writing about Mahler’s fourth, since it is one of his more (perhaps most) straightforward, light, accessible symphonies, and it plays well into the association and comparison with Schubert. It’s kind of the end of an important, young era in Mahler’s music. It’s the last in a series of vocal symphonies, the end of the composer’s early period. It’s also one of the most-programmed Mahler pieces. It was when I started writing out the introduction to the fourth and its significance to the second and third symphonies (and even the first) that I kind of abandoned ship on that idea. It is so thematically interconnected with the third, and with the whole general story arc of the first three symphonies that I can’t address it without first dealing with the monstrous third. It’s one of my least familiar symphonies of Mahler’s. Again, I’ve still not done the ninth for various reasons, but I’ve listened to the third and seventh at least a few times, but they are the least familiar to me. It seems illogical to do the fourth before the third, so I decided to make the change from one of Mahler’s most (if not the most) performed symphonies to one of the least: the sixth.
I originally chose the fourth because of its lighter, smaller (relatively speaking; it’s still Mahler) stature and approachability to secure firmly the allusion I was trying to make to Schubert. While the sixth is a modern work (written just over 100 years ago; actually almost exactly 110), it still has quite a number of very standardly ‘classical’ elements to it, and it is exactly this dichotomy between standard and uncommon, classical and modern, and even more concretely between major and minor throughout this piece that characterizes the symphony and make it so fascinating to me. There’s such strong contrast and I don’t quite know how to approach it, but I’ve listened to it so many times these past few weeks that it continues to play through in my head even when I’m not listening. That being said, there are
a few resources that were important to my appreciating and understanding this symphony better. One of which is the following video:
I watched this sometime last year as I was perhaps preparing to attend the performance of Mahler’s fifth, which prompted me to do some research on the piece and was what started this whole Mahler adventure.
(Also, this website was a great help, and provides an extremely detailed play-by-play of the piece. If you want a much more technical discussion of this piece, check it out.)
Something else of note is the fact that the sixth symphony is, in some sense, Mahler’s other second symphony. All of the first four symphonies were lyrical in some sense. The first gets at least part of its inspiration from his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen that he wrote earlier in his career and “Bruder Martin” (perhaps better known as “Frere Jacques”), and symphonies 2-4 have vocal parts for soloists and/or choruses. As someone described it, it is as if Mahler was getting his sea legs in his early symphonies by using his strengths and familiarity with Lieder and song. The fifth was a groundbreaking move for him as a leap forward in the development of what a symphony was, and the sixth is another. Even the first was originally envisioned as a five-movement symphonic poem, but eventually did end up as a traditional four-movement form, making the sixth only his second to be so. It is in many ways both more traditional and less traditional than the fifth.
While he does some very modern things in this piece, he also decides traditionally to stick to some of the very classical conventions of the standard symphonic structure.
It is only suitable that a symphony of this scale and length also has a post of relative magnitude to address it. I can only do a Mahler post every two or three months at the most, and this is my next venture.
I have listened to his sixth many many times, and it is a fascinating yet sill quite difficult piece for me to grasp, partially because of its length.
It was written and mostly finished in 1903-1904, but revised and actually “completed” and premiered in 1906 with the composer conducting (what a privilege to hear Mahler conduct one of his own works!)
Coming at a time when Mahler was theoretically at his happiest, this symphony perhaps should have been more…. Happy. We’ll get to that later. He had married his beloved Alma only a year or so earlier, and his second daughter was born to him during the symphony’s composition.
It is in four movements with the standard structure (the order of which we will get to later), and even contains a very traditional repeat of the exposition in the first movement (except for in Levi’s recording with the Atlanta Symphony, and some others), untraditionally traditional for Mahler. As expected of Mahler, though, the piece is long… It is well over an hour, pushing an hour and a half.
This symphony is often referred to as ‘Tragische’ from the program of the first Vienna performance, in 1907. Thereafter, Mahler never used it, nor did any of the other officially approved guides or scores or transcriptions. Mahler did not approve of the moniker, and he himself never used it. Therefore, as Wikipedia states, “the Tragische nickname is not used in serious works of reference.”
For the symphony that the composer wrote at one of the happiest times in his life, the march of the opening movement feels quite militant, reminding me almost something of Darth Vader’s death march. The faster tempos in some of the recordings make it seem even angrier. It’s strong, powerful, and sets a tone that is not light or delicate. It also makes one wonder, ‘what are we marching toward?’ You’ll find out eventually.
The contrasting melody in the exposition is called the Alma theme,  perhaps first by Alma herself, which makes this arguable (she claimed her husband said it represented her), but it is beautiful nonetheless. On the whole, the first movement is strong and commanding, with foregleams of what is to come. A reader on TalkClassical even said he imagines German soldiers goose stepping to the opening melody. It is exciting, but I would not call it happy or joyous. There is no arguing that it is gripping; that it is. The exposition repeats itself, and a few things to note here are a fate motif (yes, think Tchaikovsky and Beethoven) that shows up in the timpani as well as in the side drum marking the repeat of the exposition. This is a figure that plays into the much of the symphony later. The Alma theme is a key idea in the movement, and represents one of the only positive, hopeful moments in the whole piece. What I find interesting is that it’s introduced and kind of ‘set off’ or punctuated by this statement from the timpani and side drum that will take on even more doomsday-ish gloom in the fourth movement.
The development of this very straightforward sonata-form movement does get hairy and intense, but we do get back to the original material just fine. In fact, you should enjoy the closing of this movement because it decides to end triumphantly on the Alma theme, and it is just about the only exultant, truly positive moment in the whole piece. It’s all downhill from here, I’m afraid. But that one high point is delightful.
Now would be as good a time as any to address the order of the movements. This chart here gives a simple summary of the order that many popular conductors choose for the inner movements. It lists Solti as Scherzo-Andante, but the cycle I have (unless it’s wrong in iTunes) shows that recording (with Chicago) as Andante-Scherzo. Anyway, most of the recordings I have are Scherzo-Andante, the way Mahler had ‘originally’ intended it and published it before he ultimately decided to change the order before the premiere. It could easily be argued that to make such a large decision before the premiere of a work must mean it was important enough to the composer that it should be honored to this day. It could also be passed off as a lapse in judgment (despite the fact that he stuck strongly to that decision for the rest of his life). I personally like the slow movement third. While considered ‘untraditional’ in many senses, it is not a groundbreaking idea to have a slow third movement. Both Beethoven and Bruckner before him had done this in their later symphonies (the ninth of the former and the eighth and ninth of the latter), and Mahler himself had done it in his first and fourth, the only other two of his symphonies up to that point to have had only the standard four movements (the second, third and fifth both having five or more). Again, I prefer the fast-slow order because the first movement and the scherzo seem quite nicely interconnected, while the quiet and beautiful third movement is a fantastic contrast to the almost-overwhelmingly intense and encompassing final movement. That’s another thing about this piece that we’ll get to shortly.
So anyway, we have the second movement as the scherzo. This is clearly familiar territory, but in a more grotesque fashion. I feel Sanderling’s recording here captures more of the darker side of this movement, and maintains that energy. The trio section is marked altväterisch, or old-fashioned, and it is pleasant enough. Elsewhere there are thundering percussion and screaming, bleating horns, and clacking bells and xylophones and all sorts of stuff. It’s a wild scherzo, not even the very German kind of scherzo you’d get from Bruckner. It’s just teetering on being out of control in a way that isn’t fun or enjoyable. But still wonderful music.
The third movement is one of the most simply beautiful, unpretentious, pure, enjoyable passages of anything I’ve ever heard in Mahler’s music. It is not complicated, confusing, difficult to understand, intentionally complex, or challenging. It is clean, moving, and crystal clear. It is lyrical and straightforward. There are themes presented variously by horn, bass clarinet, English horn, and others that suggest a fully-blown idea that one really wishes to hear blossom into a wholly-realized idea, and it almost happens multiple times. We finally get to that climax toward the end of the movement and it is glorious and fulfilling. What a wonderful piece of music that is pure and clear, yet still with a tinge of nostalgia or yearning or hesitating. It is not sad, per se, but never quite reaches a pinnacle of joy. I haven’t looked at the score, but I feel the use of major vs minor keys here adds a bit of nostalgia (or something; sorrow is even too heavy a word) to this movement. Perhaps it is best described as reserved happiness, something Mahler would have been familiar with, I guess. Each solo instrument seems slightly pained, almost weeping, but comforted by the rest of the orchestra. Warm strings soften any sadness and get us through what is one of the lighter moments of this increasingly pessimistic piece.
In contrast with the straightforward, traditional and light nature of the third movement, the fourth is otherworldly from the outset. The orchestration and sounds of the third movement were largely traditional, with the addition of a few less standard instruments like bass clarinet and English horn, but even these aren’t really out of place, especially as beautifully as Mahler has used them. At the opening of the fourth movement, we have celesta and harps that open up with a sort of rippling chill. This sound is almost the sound of what it feels like to get chills. The themes from the first movement come back in familiar but distant echoes of the past, like the parts of your day remixed in a dream.
The thing to take note of at this point is this: we are now into the final movement, but only just a little more than halfway through the symphony (depending on the recording and tempi, obviously). The first movement is longish by most standards, but typical of Mahler at around twenty-something minutes. The inner two, at about 12 and 15 minutes respectively, are not terribly long, and there’s enough to keep our attention that it doesn’t feel like a ton of time has passed as we reach the fourth movement (even though those three movements add up to at least 40 minutes or so). These three movements have brought us a long way, and the dramatic contrasts of the first movement, the danse macabre and splendid beauty of the second and third movements are all behind us. Approaching the fourth movement is like nearing the North Wall in Game of Thrones (the TV show; I haven’t read the books). It is this towering, awe-inspiring, overwhelming mass standing the audience. After all you’ve been through, there’s still this left. This symphony is very end-heavy. That last movement has a ton to say, and it isn’t at all good.
It is as if the first three movements have suggested or danced around the idea of tragedy, flirted with it, thus creating the drama of the first movement and the interesting macabre of the second. The third is a bit of repose, a beautiful soundscape that let’s us think maybe everything will be okay; it’s almost comforting. And then as the fourth movement arises, though the fate motif shows up multiple times in timpani and the expressions express tragedy more directly. It still wants to project (again, perhaps only to me) a resilience, a positive determination, but it’s losing steam fast, and things are getting out of hand. The fate motif from the timpani does remind us that this is probably a losing battle. It hints at what is coming. Although we don’t get the first hammer crash this early, there is still almost an immediate stop put to the singing strings at the beginning.
Seriously, the more one listens to this movement, the more complex texture and detail you discover, and what a difficult piece this must be to realize in performance.
Let’s talk about these hammer blows. Did you pay attention to the way the piece opened? You’ll hear it multiple times throughout this half-hour nightmarish movement, almost like the orchestra tries to regroup and start over again after having been smashed to bits. Remember the chills from celesta and harps.
As the piece careens toward the end, after each blow of the hammer of fate, the orchestra is increasingly deflated. After what feels like what would have been the last of the original five hammer crashes (Mahler was superstitious and felt that actually using three was tempting fate and suggesting his own demise, while the other two of the original five were removed for musical reasons), only a fragment of the original force remains, and even what is left is ground down to a slow, lifeless dirge in the brass before a moment of silence and the final shocking, crushing blow, the last nail in the coffin, as it were, before everything finally dies away. It’s almost like even after the last note has stopped, the silence that ensues is still part of what Mahler wrote. It’s just silence and stillness and emptiness. Nothing is left. How’s that for tragedy?
If you remember from about forty minutes ago in your reading, I made reference to Mahler’s actual second symphony. His sixth here is the second in his middle period of works, and the two really are almost diametric opposites. His second symphony (from what I recall) begins in Cm and ends in C major; it is subtitled ‘Resurrection,’ and it literally sings of the human condition and hope and redemption and glory and all things wonderful. Sometimes it still brings me to tears.
The sixth however, is the opposite. From the get go, we are marching. I asked earlier, ‘to where?’ I find that an interesting question, especially in the context of the idea that Mahler may have known what awaited him (which we’ll discuss in a bit). Everything in this symphony is downhill; it is a catastrophe that unfolds before the listener, the exact opposite of the message Mahler was so moved to share with us in his second symphony.
As for choice of recording, it was difficult to decide. I own and/or have listened to Solti/Chicago, Bernstein x2 (NY and Vienna), Levi/Atlanta, Boulez/Vienna, Chailly/Concertgebouw, Ozawa/Boston, Kubelik/Bavarian, Sanderling/St. Petersburg, Abbado/Lucerne, Haitink/Berlin, and others. It came down to Levi, Boulez, and Sanderling, while I fully admit that I haven’t actually heard all of a few of those mentioned above (mostly apologies to Abbado; I hear that is an excellent recording)…  not that I’m an expert of any kind.
The sound quality of Telarc’s recording with Atlanta I find to be supple and pure and crystal clear. The hammer blows are ear-shattering and thundering and full, perhaps a bit too resonant and hollow to represent an axe hitting wood, but for all intents and purposes, nearly perfect. The only gripe I have with their recording is that Levi did NOT repeat the exposition in the first movement, which I find to be rather important as a statement to the classical-ness of this symphony.
Boulez with the Vienna philharmonic is, I suppose what you would expect of that pairing. One could claim there’s something symbolic about the Viennese playing Mahler, but it is good any way you look at it. The only thing(s)….. Are….
The hammer blows are nothing compared to those in Atlanta, and I do find the tempo of the first movement a bit… Deliberate. Dragging. It has a certain effect, for sure, but I prefer it less so to Levi’s harrowing, strident strong pace.
Then there’s Sanderling, which, if you do a Google search and some reading, shows up in some threads and websites practically as a definitive recording. I am no expert, but have heard many of the 20th and 21st century names in conducting, but this was the first I’ve heard of either of the Sanderlings. Oops. In the interest of full disclosure, I have only listened to this recording in full a few times, but it is searing and powerful and intense, with focus and energy and passion throughout.
What you’ll find in searching for a favorite Mahler 6 is that while it is apparently one of the least-performed Mahler symphonies, it seems to be extremely well-represented on disc, and there are many options for those willing to do a bit of searching.
The other thing one may notice after doing a little bit of searching to find recordings and a lot of listening to make judgments on them (after all, it is a 70+ minute symphony) is that the symphonies I’ve chosen are not out of the ordinary, and that’s what I like about them. What I mean by that is that they are not outside the realms of what the piece should be: they are not extravagant; they are not over the top. As has been stated before (in a UE Mahler interview, by whom I cannot recall), Bernstein tends to “over-gild the lily,” and takes certain liberties that I find unnecessary. Others may love them, or his style, but I find Boulez and Levi and Sanderling to be perfectly neutral, standard, middle of the road recordings (if Boulez isn’t slightly more…. Average). That is not to say they are not inspired performances, but they do not go out of their way to do so at the expense of good taste or musicality. Again, I am not an authority, but I don’t want anything way over the top. A passionate, well-conducted, inspired performance is all I am looking for, something true to the score, without the conductor’s personal agenda slathered over the top. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
I could spend the next six months poring over the score and listening to Kubelik’s much shorter recording times, or Szell’s much faster andante (and I may get around to that in the next few years), but to be perfectly honest, I am very happy with my hometown orchestra’s incredibly clear recording. Well done (again), guys (I also chose them for Mahler’s second). That being said, the Sanderling still wins for its intensity and searing drama, and that repeated exposition like it should be.
The hammer blows are also an interesting aspect of this symphony. I’m not sure how the Atlanta Symphony recording managed their thunderous boom, but I almost feel it was…. Acoustically assisted or something. It’s louder than it is resonating, which makes it seem… Engineered. But I could be wrong. It’s virtually nonexistent in Boulez’s recording, and a recording I watched of Haitink and the Chicago symphony show a chick using a giant mallet to crash down on an octagonal half coffee table half bass drum looking thing, with the drum but seeming to be made of wood. It’s hard to tell exactly what it is, but it has a nice dull resonance to it. That being said, it may be one of the only not-fully-realized performance ideas or sounds in classical music for the past 110 years. It’s an interesting problem, and one I feel like the Mythbusters should address or something.
This discussion of Tragische and the hammer blows and fate motif, etc. leads to an interesting train of thought about expectations. Had people not known of Mahler’s circumstances surrounding the composition of this piece, I don’t know that they would have expected it to be “happy.”
I am not a historian, so I do not quite understand the expectations about this piece or where or when the confusion arose, but it interests me that at least some people expected a  happy symphony, at least relative to songs about dead children or some of his other works. There are moments and glimmers of hope and positivity, as in the commanding, triumphant close of the first movement, and the peaceful, idyllic third movement, but on the whole, it is a beaten, tired, dramatic struggle. My general feelings toward this symphony are just that: drama and struggle.
I shan’t be getting into the “was Mahler happy?” or “what did Mahler want?” arguments, but was he struggling to be happy? Did he have to come to grips with not being miserable? Was it out of character for him? Was he out of place with a wife and family in a beautiful home with a prestigious job and growing success? There’s the argument that he envisioned disasters or tragedies either in his own life or in that of the early 20th century, but I don’t know that I put much stock in the artist in general as oracle or prophet. More likely is that he, like some people tend to be or do, may just have been used to negativity, to a realistic view of the world as opposed to a rosy one, and even in his happiest moments, felt most passionate or inspired by tragedy and catastrophe. He was certainly no stranger to it.
Was he struggling with this idea of happiness? Was he under pressure to write “happy” music? Would his wife or associates have expected him to do so?
I don’t fault the guy for writing the kind of music he wanted to write. I’m not perplexed by the “Tragische” title. It wasn’t Mahler’s, (as with the “symphony of a thousand,” “song of the night” were not his titles either). With those expectations stripped away, viewing the music without preconceived notions of what it is or should be or is supposed to convey, we see that the piece is a long, hard, beautiful, dramatic struggle, an uphill climb that ends, well, maybe tragically, but maybe…. Realistically: that everything ends, and not always happily.
And maybe that’s the appeal of a piece like this. When all the allure is gone, when everything is spelled out word for word, there’s nothing left to the imagination, there’s nothing left for the reader, the listener, the audience to wonder or theorize about, is the magic gone? Part of the curiosity here is not just how those infamous hammer blows should be struck, which order the inner movements should take, but what exactly this piece means. Mahler himself acknowledged this:

My Sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.

That could be what it means to Mahler, which, truly, we shall never know. More importantly, what does it mean to you? Music is subjective, and what it means to you is what matters. What does it make you think? Feel? What does it make you appreciate? Does it frighten you? Are you relieved when you can walk away from the nightmare that the composer has painted, and are you the better for the experience?
All of those things being considered, we see the composer as storyteller, not just writer of music as a profession. It may (or may not) be coincidence that his life was dealt three heavy blows shortly after this piece’s premiere. What is powerful about this piece is that even now, 110 years later, Gustav Mahler is still speaking to us, and we are still learning and enjoying and wondering.
What a piece of music.




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