Mahler Symphony No. 6

'For me, a symphony means the creation of an entire world with every possible tool from the techniques available to me', Mahler declared to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner in 1895. Mahler’s first four symphonies were brightly coloured worlds in which he included military marches, funeral marches, the sounds of Nature, folk music, gypsy tunes and his own Wunderhorn songs; their use was considered banal and trivial and he was often reproached for this. We may observe a certain reticence in his use of 'every possible tool' in the following three symphonies. There are no more vocal parts, the warm orchestral sound and Wunderhorn Romanticism has given way to a sharply etched contrapuntal style; the earlier banal and trivial elements have begun to fade into the background. Mahler on his Fifth Symphony: 'Romanticism and mystery are no longer to be found. The only thing that counts is the expression of unheard-of strength, Man in all his glory at the summit of his existence'. Mahler completed his Sixth Symphony in A minor, the Tragic (according to Bruno Walter, the name originated with Mahler himself) in 1904; the above words also apply to it, with the difference that Man in all his glory, despite his unheard-of strength, is ultimately destroyed by Fate.

Mahler’s wife Alma wrote in her not always reliable memoirs that Mahler’s Sixth was his most personal work, referring to various biographical aspects of the piece. 'When he had sketched out the first movement he came home and said to me "I have tried to capture you in a theme, I don’t know whether I have succeeded, but you will have to deal with it”.' She added that he had portrayed the unrhythmical gestures of two children playing in the sand in the third movement, whilst the final movement depicts his downfall — or, as Mahler later said, the downfall of his hero. 'The hero is stricken by Fate three times; the last of these blows fells the hero as a tree is felled.'

The Sixth Symphony has four movements, of which three are thematically related; the Andante is the exception. The first movement is in sonata form; Mahler stated that its exposition should be repeated. The first theme is a grim march, which reaches a climax and then ebbs away in low woodwind trills. The following drum rolls and timpani strokes introduce the idea of tragedy — the Fate theme — that will also return in the other two fast movements. It is tragedy in a nutshell: a chord of A major for the trumpets and oboes is transformed into a chord of A minor, whilst the timbre is altered by marking the trumpets softer and the oboes louder. This transition from major to minor culminates in a short chorale passage for the woodwind. The elegant theme that follows is a portrait of Alma. In the development we hear first the march theme and then the Alma theme, now on the bass tuba; the cowbells are heard in an idyllic interlude, combined with the chorale and the Alma theme on solo horn.

The order of the two central movements cost Mahler much thought. He placed the Andante before the Scherzo at the work’s premiere in Essen on 27 May 1906 and in later performances, although their order is reversed in the autograph and the first edition of the score that was published shortly before the work’s premiere. Mahler made no formal statement about the order of the two movements; it is thanks to advice given to Mengelberg by Alma that Amsterdam long continued to perform the Scherzo followed by the Andante.

The spirit of Mephistopheles rules the Scherzo; it is a denial of everything that represents conventional musical beauty and naturalness. The instruments play at the extremes of their range, creating distortions of their timbre: screeching harmonics in the violins, barking appogiaturas in the horns and shrieking woodwind. The scherzo proper concludes with the return of the Fate motive in the trumpets. The Trio that follows is described by Mahler as altväterisch, old-fashioned, an indication that does not agree with Alma’s description of two children playing haphazardly. It is almost an archaic minuet, in which bars of three and four beats alternate and give the music a somewhat stiff character; it is more an image of an older couple dancing a minuet that they can no longer remember well, rather than of children playing. Both the scherzo and the trio are repeated. Shreds of the minuet theme reappear in the coda, accompanied each time one tone lower by the Fate theme on the flutes and trumpets.

The Andante opens with an extended first theme in E flat major on the violins. The Fate theme with its transition from major to minor does not appear in this movement, although Mahler seems to subject the theme almost systematically to every possible gradation between the two. Not only the third, but the second, sixth and seventh are also flattened. A childlike 5-note theme in the flute, soon to become omnipresent as the music continues, introduces a woodwind passage in which the cor anglais introduces a second theme. Musical continuity is brought to a stop with a violin harmonic; the horn then states the second theme and brings the music to a climax. Mahler brings in the cowbells once more, although the music no longer resembles the Alpine pastorale of the first movement. After a second recapitulation of the first theme on oboe and horn, a wondrous modulation creates the transition to a section marked misterioso; a chorale-like passage in the flutes and clarinets is haloed by fragments of the first theme. The Andante concludes with a recapitulation of the second theme and its following climax. We hear the first theme once more on the bass tuba in the midst of the clanking cowbells.

For the Finale, in which 'the hero is stricken by Fate three times', Mahler had a special hammer built that came with its own sound-chest: the score describes the sound required as 'brief and powerful, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character, like the fall of an axe'. The number of hammer blows is disputed. Originally there were five, and in the first edition of the score there are three; in the second edition of the score that appeared after its premiere and also included Mahler’s alteration of the order of the two central movements, the final hammer blow has been removed. The major / minor conflict of the Fate theme reaches epic proportions in the Finale.

The movement opens with a mysterious introduction — although it should not be termed as such as it will be repeated three times —  during which an ecstatic violin phrase will be interrupted by the tragic motif from the first movement. Fragments of five themes and a complete statement of the chorale then follow in a quieter tempo (Etwas schleppend). The principal themes are the horn melody accompanied by the low bells — it will return in an extended form after the chorale for woodwind and horns — and the subsequent woodwind melody that will return after the hammer blows. A gradual accelerando leads us from the introduction into the Allegro energico and a march based on the above horn theme. The repetitions of the introduction allow us to subdivide this Allegro energico into three sections and a coda. The first section is made up of the march and a more lyrical episode. The hammer blows fall in the second section, which twice interrupt the music’s progression to a redemptive climax in the major key. The third section begins in pastoral mood to the sound of bells and delightful solos for oboe and violin. Victory for the hero seems certain in the triumphal march that follows; this illusion is ended by the final return of the introduction and the Fate theme, where the third and final hammer blow would eventually fall. The last honours are paid to the hero in a coda for trombones, mourning music to match Bruckner’s lament for Wagner in the Adagio of his Seventh Symphony. The sublime ceremonial is brutally interrupted by the Fate theme, now fully in the minor key. The major key is futile.

Marco Nakken
Translation: Peter Lockwood