Revisit: Mahler Symphony no. 6 in Am

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Pierre Boulez

Es gibt doch nur eine VI. trotz der Pastorale.

Alban Berg

The sixth is a collection of questions, an enigma, a knot to be untied by repeated listenings and the development of your own opinion once you’ve come to appreciate this monstrous, towering mass of music.

That being said, at first glance it seems like a simple enough symphony. We spoke just yesterday of Mahler’s fifth and how it was up to that point the most traditional of the composer’s symphonies, but even it had its idiosyncrasies. Today we’ll discuss the next symphony in his output, one that is still more traditional and also more outrageous.

The sixth symphony began to exist in 1903, shortly after the completion of the fifth symphony, at a time when the composer was blissfully happy, or should have been. As discussed in the (new) article on the fifth, Mahler had his position at the Vienna Court Opera, his new bride, and a daughter who’d just been born, with a second to come shortly thereafter. He had success, stability, and things were going really well for him, maybe as well as they would ever go.

There’s a lot to be said here of the tumultuous relationship with and what I deem to be ultimately negative influence of his wife Alma. While she was the love of Mahler’s life, he did place some demands on her, the most famous being that there could only be one composer in the home, and that she was to cease and desist all composing activities, which she at first was agreeable enough to abide by. None of the rest is really pertinent to this symphony, seeing as it all took place after (or in the shadow of) this work’s completion and performance, but she was unfaithful many times over, and I maintain she retells the story of her deceased husband with herself much more at the center of his affairs and work than she may truly have been.

That aside, the work was, and I cannot emphasize this enough, begun and completed in what appeared to have been the happiest time in the composer’s life. The sixth was completed by 1904, revised in 1906, and was premiered on 27 May 1906 in Essen. While in only four movements rather than the previous symphony’s five, it’s still noticeably longer, coming in at around 80 minutes. That’s a big symphony.

As for its form, the work takes on a very traditional structure, with a sonata form movement (with the repeat of the exposition! [unless you’re listening to a recording like Yoel Levi’s with the Atlanta Symphony where they ignore the repeat]), a scherzo, slow movement, and big finale. That’s the first little problem we’ll discuss in this work.

While Mahler was one to go back and revise his symphonies, changing details and refining his work, it was rare that he made large-scale cuts or drastic changes to the work overall. In one revision of this symphony, a few percussion instruments were removed, typical of his small changes. However, there’s a bigger question here.

When the work was first published, the order of the four movements was as follows:

  1. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig.
  2. Scherzo: Wuchtig
  3. Andante moderato
  4. Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico

As simple as this may seem, it was actually still somewhat unconventional to have the scherzo in second place, but it had its precedents, including Beethoven’s ninth, some Bruckner symphonies, and indeed a few of Mahler’s symphonies. After the work was published and even during rehearsals for the premiere, it stayed this way until the composer decided to swap the order of the two inner movements, putting the andante  before the scherzo, and it was thus premiered this way. However, there are many  recordings and performance which still observe the composer’s initial intentions and ignore his later change of heart. In fact, unsold copies of the score had errata slips inserted indicating the composer’s wish to swap the order of the inner movements. Because of first impressions or whatever, it seems the scherzo/andante order has stuck in the majority of performances and recordings, and in my opinion with good reason, but it’s difficult to refute the fact that the composer stated he ultimately wanted the piece performed andante/scherzo. Toward the end of the article, we can discuss the arguments for each. My preference is for the original scherzo/andante, and this is how Boulez and his Vienna bunch read the work.

The next little problem in this symphony is that Tragische title. Whence comes this name? Well, not from the composer. Unlike the Titan for the first symphony, Mahler himself did not ever give this work any kind of name or subtitle, merely referring to it on the score as the sixth symphony. Notably, Titan and all programmatic ideas were removed from that symphony, and Mahler clearly had no intentions of attributing any to this work. It appeared neither on the original C. F. Kahnt edition of the work, nor on the revised edition they published. And yet… in a memoir on the composer, Bruno Walter claims Mahler referred to it as his ‘tragic symphony,’ and it appeared on the program for the first performance in Vienna. So there’s some mystery surrounding this ‘tragic’ symphony, and yet it does seem to have colored everyone’s impression of the work, even though it contains moments, sometimes quite long stretches, of truly gorgeous music.

Those two little head-scratchers aside, we can approach the first movement with some degree of certainty. The work is listed as being in A minor, and thus begins the work with a crunchy, even somewhat menacing march, marked allegro energico, ma non troppo, so ‘energetic, but not too much.’ I said some degree of certainty, and here’s why.

You’ll find wildly varying tempi to begin this work. It’s undeniably a march, with crunching strings that builds to a quick heft and even villainous-sounding darkness. The tempo that Boulez casts in his recording is just on the slow end of what I can consider acceptable. Much slower than that and I feel it begins to drag and lose the actual ‘allegro’ part of the marking. Just about all of Abbado’s readings (here with his Lucerne Orchestra) are pretty standard tempo-wise, and Tennstedt’s phenomenal live reading is a bit faster, but give a listen to Bernstein, Levi, or Kubelik for some breakneck-fast marches, more like a funeral sprint, and I feel these also sacrifice the heaviness of the work for a certain nervous energy. Chailly’s reading with the Concertgebouw is almost laughably slow.

In any case, for a work from a composer who gave such an abundance of performance notes, approaches to that first A minor subject are extremely varied. Take your pick.

While this symphony is likely not the one that people will turn to for illustrating the concepts of sonata form, it’s quite clear. After the march subject comes to a close, there are a few things to look out for. First is a figure in the timpani that many people have come to call the ‘fate’ theme. It looks something like this:

That timpani rhythm, or something very similar to it, is like a knocking at the door. Check it out:

Got it? It’s followed by a little statement from brass and woodwinds before gliding into the gorgeous, wildly different ‘Alma theme,’ which she herself claims represented her. I don’t see why it wouldn’t, but she’s the only authority we have on that, so it should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. It’s the lightest, most carefree thing we hear in just about the entire symphony, broad and lyrical and shimmeringly gorgeous. You can’t miss it.

But listen to what happens when it’s over:

(Each of those videos should start at a specific time. If they don’t, the first one is at 2:46, and the second at 5:24.)

As the ‘Alma theme’ cools off and fades away, we hear the crunchy talon-like heartbeat of the march return, and thus we have gone back to the beginning for the full-on, unmistakable repeat of the exposition. I feel this is an important part of the symphony because by this time, lots of composers wouldn’t write one, and even works that had them were sometimes ignored. Mahler’s inclusion of the exposition repeat not only serves to emphasize the characters of these two contrasting themes, but to underline one of the most traditional approaches in Mahler’s output.

We run through the two themes again, the timpani figure sounding to me like the last few strokes on a drum at the gallows, and once the Alma theme finishes again, we are into the development, where the composer has pretty free reign to take the ideas apart, recombine and twist and turn them like a Rubik’s cube, only to resolve it all at the end. With all this information presented to us, the menacing crunch of the march and the shimmering beauty of Alma, a fate theme, how will the movement end? Listen to find out.

But what comes next isn’t as clear… Scherzo or andante? I’ll make the argument for scherzo/andante because it’s what I prefer and what Boulez apparently preferred. First, if you listen to the opening of the movement, it’s clearly very closely related to the A minor march theme of the first movement, and some consider this a ‘developing variation’ idea, where a musical idea changes or morphs as the piece progresses, but still remains identifiable. Putting these two movements side-by-side makes that relationship all the more clear.

Secondly, the tonal scheme of the scherzo/trio is the same as the first and second themes of the first movement, the first of the two being in A minor, the second in F major. I’ll mention the third reason below, but the only reason, to me, for playing the andante second (and it is a compelling one) is because the composer said so. That should arguably be enough, but there are those of us who hold onto the idea that he was right the first time.

The scherzo, as we said, begins wild and menacing, as the triple-meter version of our opening march. In this three-beat feel, it doesn’t have the square, driving menace of the march, but a kind of terrifying uncontrolled energy. But it the wheels don’t come off yet. What follows, so beautifully, as one would expect in such a seemingly traditional symphony, is the trio. It’s tenderer, delicate, lighter, even a little bit quaint. It’s marked Altväterisch (‘old-fashioned’), and alternates bars of three and four beats, giving it a gentle but also kind of off-kilter rustic sound. The scherzo is made up of these two ideas, also presenting outstandingly strong contrasts in the moods of the two subjects. We have music of such power and intensity juxtaposed with sections of pure, delicate beauty.

After these two movements comes the third, the andante. The last major reason why many people see it more suitable to make this the third movement rather than the second is an extension of the last one I mentioned above, about the scherzo sharing key areas with the first movement. The third movement, in contrast, gives us a key farthest from the ‘home’ key of A minor. The andante is in E flat, and the finale begins in C minor, a roundabout transition to getting back to the symphony’s original key and the key of the finale, A minor. It could be argued, then, that although Mahler himself decided to switch the order of the movements, the tonal structure of the work is still based on the ‘original’ ordering. Now that’s done.

The andante is the longest, broadest space of respite we have in the entire work, but I’d argue we haven’t seen its comparative contrast yet. The first and second movements each have their own self-contained contrast, as we have discussed, the beauty and the beast within each movement. In contrast with that, we have a movement of around 14 minutes that is spacious, at times even bucolic, with cowbells clanging in the background, the sounds echoing off rolling hills, children playing in the sand (even though at the time of this symphony there was only one child and she was too young to be playing in any sand), a vision of happy times, although the movement isn’t without its more poignant minor-mode passages. The work begins to unwind a little bit, echoing, fading out, and ending with final gestures from bass clarinet, contrabassoon, and timpani. It’s a surprisingly dark, unresolved end to what was largely a placid movement.

And then… dramatically, after having been lulled into the now somewhat uneasy slumber of the third movement, the finale begins with a single plucked gesture from bass and glissandi from harp as violins introduce the opening theme of this extended sonata form movement. Listen to the timpani’s rhythm behind the fanfare:

(I’m using Abbado’s recording for reference not only because it’s wonderful, but because it’s a recording of the actual performance itself. You can see the stuff. I still prefer Boulez, by a hair.)

That’s fate. What we have here is a nightmare, like all the bits and pieces of the three prior movements are coming back in our dreams, but in fragments, distorted, in bits and pieces, some Through the Looking Glass memories of the symphony, and we’re only really finally getting to the real tragedy of this work. The previous three movements only hinted at the depths of despair that are found in this finale.

Something that Mahler works with, as we’ve repeatedly discussed in this article, is contrasts. Prosciutto and melon. Chocolate covered pretzels. Salt on your watermelon. The sweetness of one accentuates the saltiness of the other, and vice versa. Mahler takes this to extremes in the finale, with a movement that lasts around a half hour or more. You just have to listen to it, but in this final movement is contained the last head-scratcher of the symphony, the last interpretive hurdle.

Originally there were three hammer blows scored into this work, literal strikes of a large mallet onto some kind of percussive box. Mahler requested that the sound be dull and bassy, resonant but not at all metallic sounding, a thunderous but not crashy thud, as below:

Percussion professionals have constructed all manner of contraptions to make that sound, but they tend to look something like the sturdy wooden box pictured here, crashed down upon with an enormous mallet. It’s a punch to the soul when you hear it live, that sound. It in itself is a hurdle, getting the right acoustic effect.

However, Mahler himself had another big revision in this symphony. How many hammer blows are there?

Well, there were originally three, and we can thank Alma again for characterizing what those three crashes represented in his life: his loss of the Vienna Court Opera position, the loss of their daughter, and the diagnosis of his heart condition, felling him “like a tree.” Well, Mahler wrote this work (and it was premiered) before any of those three things happened, so then you have to ask yourself: do you believe in fate? Do you believe in the poet/artist as prophet?

Well, whether Mahler did or not, his big revision to the finale was to remove the third hammer blow, leaving a deeply disturbing empty stillness in its place. In fact, I was describing this to a fellow concertgoer as perhaps the surprising climax of the symphony, the complete void that’s left, the nothingness where we now expected more tragedy. That was the evening, now almost a year ago, when we were preparing to hear this work live, and after my explaining that powerful life-questioning moment, we attend the performance of the work, and I see, to my surprise, the percussionist walk to the wooden box for a third time.

In the performance I attended, the third hammer blow was restored, an interpretive decision I disagree with, but it’s rare to hear such a thing in the concert hall, so having one more big whack didn’t bother me too much. But after this nearly hour-and-a-half of soul-crushing, intensely powerful music, how does the work end? What wins?

Terror. Cataclysm. Silence. Darkness. The most terrifying void of nothingness, an anticlimactic, hopeless, quiet death that left me literally speechless.

I’d heard many recordings of this symphony in my years of listening to Mahler, from the brisk, ignored repeat (but wonderful playing) of the Atlanta Symphony, Abbado, Solti, brushing over Bernstein and the too-quick Kubelik, chafing at Chailly’s torpid tempo, so I felt I know the piece. Recent very enjoyable recordings of the work I’ve heard include Inbal’s reading with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, as well as David Zinman’s recording with his Tonhalle Orchestra, even if they play the andante before the scherzo.

What I mean to say is… I felt I knew this piece and all its surprises, its turns, its progress, and I’ll say… I think I’ve just about never heard something so powerful, so terrifying in the concert hall. I was very unprepared for how intense this work was to hear live. Here’s the concert review of that evening. A performance of Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw preceded it on the program, setting a truly horrifying, paralyzingly painful mood for Mahler’s questionably tragic symphony.

But you decide. There’s the question of the opening tempo, the truthfulness of Alma’s theme, the order of the inner movements, as well as how the hammer blow is to be executed and how many times. All of those things aside, or explained as I have presented them above, we are left with one of Mahler’s most traditional and yet most daring, most powerful and cutting symphonies to date.

But remember, this work was written before the three ‘hammer blows’ in Mahler’s own life, leaving us with the biggest question of all:

Whence comes the immense tragedy that gushes forth from this intense work? We may never know.

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