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Mahler—Symphony No. 6

Benjamin Zander

Symphony No.6 in A minor

Allegro energico, ma non troppo;

Scherzo: Wuchtig Andante;

Finale: Allegro moderato


Artists do not necessarily produce happy works when they are happy or sad
ones when their lives are going badly. In the summers of 1903 and 1904, Mahler
was as happy as ever in his life, and, though his gift for misery gets more
attention, he had a great talent for happiness. In March 1902 he had married the
gifted and beautiful Alma Schindler; one daughter was born in November of that
year and another in June 1904. His music was getting more performances and even
seemed to be meeting with more understanding. His work at the Imperial Court
Opera in Vienna, where he had been Director since 1897, was going well. During
these sunny, energy-filled summers - as an immensely busy conductor and
administrator he had to cram his composing into the summer months - Mahler wrote
the darkest music of his life, the Sixth Symphony (which he himself mayor may
not have called the "Tragic") and the two final songs of the
KindertotenUeder (Songs On the Deaths of Children).


Alma Mahler was understandably appalled by the obsession with the deaths of
children on the part of a new father of two healthy daughters, and when the
elder died of diphtheria in the summer of 1907, Alma was sure that her husband
had tempted providence by his composition of those songs. Mahler saw it
differently. He was convinced that an artist has the power to intuit events
before they occur, that in fact he cannot escape the pain of such foreknowledge.
He imagined the Finale of the Sixth Symphony as a scenario in which "the
hero" is assaulted by "three hammer-blows of fate, the last of which
fells him as a tree is felled". The summer of 1907 brought three such
blows: his daughter's death, the discovery of his own severe heart disease, and
the hitter end of his directorship of the Vienna Opera. As Alma insisted, the
Sixth Symphony is Mahler's autobiography, written ahead of time.


Was Mahler writing about himself ? Was he writing about the apocalypse of
1914 ? About Auschwitz? Was he just writing a symphony ? We know from Alma that
Mahler was more engaged by his work on this piece than by any other in his life;
and that at the first performance he was so afraid of the demons that he had
unleashed in s music, that he conducted badly. The Sixth is a work imbued with a
tragic vision. Where Mahler s other symphonies end in triumph, in quiet bliss,
or at their darkest, in resignation and acceptance, and while even KirulermtenLieder
draw to their close with a vision of the children at rest "affrighted by no
storm, protected by the hand of God", the Sixth is unique in its tragic,
minor-key conclusion.


Mahler's ambivalence about extra-musical meaning in his symphonies never went
away. Concerning his First Symphony, he wrote: "I should like to stress
that [it] goes far beyond the love story on which it was based, or rather, which
preceded it in the life of its creator." In that spirit, having suggested
that the Sixth Symphony carries heavy emotional freight and that it has
persistently shown power to provoke intense emotion in its listeners (including
rejection), let us now move on to the work itself.

The Sixth Symphony is one of the most admired and passionately loved symphonies
by those who know their Mahler best (Schcenberg, Webem and Berg at the head of
the parade). Whereas in his other symphonies Mahler explored what Schoenberg
called "fluctuating tonality" and what has come to be known as
"progressive tonality", that is, ending in a key other than the one in
which you began, the Sixth Symphony is anchored firmly in a single key, A minor.
It also has the only first movement after the First Symphony in which the
exposition is repeated. Classical and radical at the same time, the Sixth, even
in its immediate context, stands out as a special work. To Richard Specht, his
first biographer, Mahler predicted accurately that, "My Sixth will propound
riddles whose solution can only be attempted by a generation that has absorbed
and truly digested my first five symphonies."


Mahler's instructions to the conductor for the opening march music are
bilingual - Allegro energico, ma non troppo, to which he adds " Heftig,
aher markig" which one can translate as "vehement but sturdy".
This march is grim: here is a heightening of that pitiless masterpiece of song,
"Revelge" (Reveille) which he had written four years earlier. We feel
the tramping before we rightly hear the hand, but it takes only five measures of
fierce crescendo before the music is hugely present. This powerful paragraph
ends in a decrescendo as abrupt as the crescendo that introduced it, one
managed, however, by the withdrawal of instruments rather than by a reduction in
dynamics. These are formal measures of preparation, their very detachment sets
off all the more effectively the cold horror of what they prepare for.


It is a simple gesture. Against a diminishing snare drum roll, two timpanists
beat a left ...left ...left ...left-right-left march cadence. Over that, three
trumpeters sound a chord of A major. They too make a diminuendo, and half way
down, the chord changes from major to minor (as the trumpets get softer, three
oboes, playing the same notes, make a crescendo). That is all.(See Music Notes
on Page 15 - Figure I )


"Fate" or "tragedy" or "Abandon all hope..." no
words say it as truly as the music itself. Chillingly, the symphony continues as
though this had never happened, with a quiet, chorale-like passage in the
woodwinds.


Upon these few measures there follows a complete swing-about in mood as
violins, seconded in patches by woodwinds, sing a fervent melody which Alma
tells us is intended to represent her. Interrupted briefly by grotesquely
staccato march music, "Alma", in tender decrescendo, brings the
exposition to a close. For a long time, the marchers dominate the development,
and they are more grim than ever. One of Mahler's most beautiful songs is on a
text by Ruckert, in which the poet describes himself as "detached from the
world in which 1 used to waste so much time." Now Mahler puts that world in
its place. He withdraws to mountain heights. Celesta and divided violins play
mysterious chord sequences, blurred by the sound of distant cowbells. "The
last greeting from earth w penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain
peaks",Mahler said.


Some fragments of melody drift aloft, but the major-minor "fate"
sequence scarcely penetrates our awareness. The awakening from this vision is
sudden and cheerfully unkind. Even the opening theme is recapitulated in major,
but not for long: Mahler's major-minor game is played in dead earnest.
"Alma" reappears in due course, and the movement ends with
"herself" in a gesture of unbridled triumph.


Mahler marks the Scherzo "wuchtig" ("weighty" or
"ponderous"). It shares motivic material with the first movement, it
too begins with stabbing detached low A's and it is in A minor. But where in the
first movement the low A's provided a grimly regular one-two-three-four
framework, here rhythmic dissension reigns from the beginning. The basses (and
cellos with them for two measures) scan the repeated A's quite regularly as
ONE-two-three, ONE-two-rhree, but at the same time the timpani insist on
THREE-one-two, THREE-one-two; the resulting metrical tension becomes a permanent
feature of this scherzo.

What you notice first is the similarity to the first movement- the A's and the
forceful presence of a melodic shape that goes A-C-A. (See Music Notes on Page
15 - Figure 2)


This, however, is a grotesque variant of that earlier music, sardonic
commentary with mirthless laughter.

The Trio, which comes first in F major, then in D, is of an extreme metrical
irregularity, and one of Mahler s most forward-looking pages; at the same time,
because of its deliberate, eerily "cute" gestures, Mahler marks it
"altvaterisch" (old-fashioned). Alma Mahler heard in it "the
arhythmical play of little children". Her reading of the coda, in which
this "altvaterisch" music is reintroduced with a sinister cock, crow,
is that "the childish voices become more and more tragic, finally to die
out in a whimper."


After this disintegration and suppressed violence, the Andante is balm. The
first sonorities are like a soothing hand after the insistent woodwinds and high
strings of the Scherzo. Even the key itself, E-flat major, is warmly mellow.
Like "Alma" in the first movement, here is a theme which would be
dangerous if written by anyone else, i.e. "plaid", but as composed by
Mahler, this inspired melody, twenty measures long, is a marvel of subtle
phrasing. It is magically scored, with dabs of woodwind colour setting this or
that point on the melodic curve into higher relief. Upon its return later in the
movement, Mahler, as well as adding a softly soaring counter-melody for muted
violins, has the line trace a path from oboe to bassoon to horn and so on, the
changing colours delicately overlapped.

Here is music full of Mahlerian major-minor ambiguities (twenty bars of an
E-flat major melody bring notes from the world of E-flat

minor and beyond). The movement as a whole is of surprising harmonic sweep, its
climax placed far away, in luminous E-major. For that arrival, Mahler brings
back the sound of the cowbells. Gentle echoes can be heard from the first of the
Kindertorenfeder ("Hail to the World's Joyous Light") and of the
"Heavenly Life" finale of the Fourth Symphony.


With Beethoven, the centre of gravity in symphonies began a decisive shift to
the finale, and here we have an extreme case of "finale symphony". The
last movement is not much longer than the first, though longer than the second
and third movements together. "Big" and "long" are not
synonymous, and in a good performance the finale is the least likely of the four
movements to feel "long". The Finale of the Sixth Symphony surpasses
the earlier movements in richness of musical event and in the oppressiveness
that its emotional substance lays upon the listener. This, remember, is the
movement in which, to cite Mahler's own mixed metaphor, three hammer=blows of
fate fell the hero like a tree.


If I had to pick one passage of Mahler at his greatest, I would probably go
for the first two pages of the finale of the Sixth Symphony. From the thud of a
low C (contrabassoon, eight homs, harps, cellos and basses, reinforced 6y a soft
blow on the bass drum) there arises an encompassing swirl of strangely luminous
dust-harp glissandos, a woodwind chord, chains of trills on muted strings. It is
alien and terrifying, because, with one exception, everything in the Symphony
thus far has been sharply defined, even in the most delicate pianissimo. The
exception is the unearthly episode with the cowbells in the first movement. That
was a beatific moment; this is its inverse, music of enveloping terror. The
first violins, mounted, detach themselves from this nebula with a wide-ranging
phrase of impassioned recitative, which, in its descent, collides with a spectre,
absent for some time - the major chord that turns to minor, and the drummers
with their fierce marching cadence. As this recedes, the low strings come slowly
to rest on a low A.


If you thought that the blaze of triumph in which the first movement ended
promised real victory or that the grotesque apparitions of the Scherzo were
Romantic fondness for the bizarre as spice, now is your moment to reconsider.
These sixteen measures, of not more than half a minute, also define the Finale's
harmonic task. The Andante closed in E-flat major. The Finale begins in its
nearest related key, C minor; the arching phrase, however, is stewed about in
mid-course to A minor, and that is where it makes its cadence. Here is the
Finale in microcosm. The music must now re-establish the

primacy of A minor, the Symphony's central key.


Mahler's Finale is a design of astonishing boldness and originality. Its
formal point of reference is the familiar sonata plan of introduction, the
presentation of material, its development, its restatement or recapitulation,
and coda. This is, however, realized in a totally original way. Thus the
introduction, itself a complex sequence of events of which the
nebula-plus-"fate"-chord is but the first, reappears, its components
redistributed, at each major juncture of the movement, - before the development,
before the recapitulation, and to introduce the coda. Part of the exposition is
recapitulated before the development, and the main recapitulation is, so to
speak, out of its proper order.


Let me describe the piece another way. From the introduction, variegated, but
all slow, the music gradually breaks through once again into the world of
marches. The hero goes forth to conquer, but in the full flood of confidence and
exaltation, a hammer-blow strikes him down. This is literally a hammer-blow, for
which Mahler wants the effect of a "short, powerful, heavy-sounding blow of
non-metallic quality, like the stroke of an ax."* The music gathers energy,
the forward march becomes even more determined, even frenzied in its thrust,
only to be halted again by a second hammer-blow.


In Mahler s original conception, a third blow coincided with the A major
"fate" chord after the last appearance of the introductory dust-storm,
but he eliminated it in his revision. It is possible that around 1910 Mahler
considered restoring the third hammerblow, but since there was no further
edition of the Symphony in his lifetime and no performance after his own in
Vienna in 1907, this never came about. Over a long drum roll chat glues the
music to A minor, trombones and tuba stammer fragments of funeral music. The
Symphony recedes into inaudibility. The final, brutal, tragic gesture is a
sudden blast of A minor - not even the false hope of an A major beginning this
time, and, behind it, the drummers' last grim tattoo.


* on this recording this effect is realised by a blow with a plumber's pipe
on a timpani crate.


© Michael Steinberg 1994


A Note From the Conductor


The Sixth Symphony was first published with the Scherzo as its second
movement, the Andante as its third. However as Mahler rehearsed the orchestra
for the first performance, he reversed the order of these middle movements.
Thereafter it was published twice during his lifetime in the revised order.
Mahler invariably conducted the piece that way and, as far as we know, gave no
indication that he ever wished it otherwise.


No one knows exactly why the composer changed his mind; perhaps he felt the
Scherzo to be too similar in style and dynamism to the first movement, or too
emotionally overpowering in combination with its relentless twenty-two minute
span? He may have felt as well that the juxtaposition of the Andante with the
long slow introduction that opens the monumental finale was unsatisfactory. The
simple reversal, of course, became a solution to both problems, if indeed they
were such to Mahler.


In 1963 a strange phenomenon occurred: the score of the critical edition of
the International Mahler Society was published restoring the original order
(though the parts remain to this day in Mahler's revised order). Since that time
most conductors have followed the original order (Scheao-Andante), assuming that
Mahler must have changed his mind back, as the editor Erwin Ratz suggests,
though there is no hard evidence to support this. Naturally there has been a
fierce controversy amongst scholars on this issue ever since.


Rather than go over the numerous and rather technical arguments on either
side of the case - and there are many fascinating issues of harmonic structure
and form involved here, it seems better [o recognise that there are, in a sense,
two Mahler Sixths - the one that was the original conception of Mahler the
composer and the one that was the result of the revisions of Mahler the
conductor, made in the process of rehearsing and performing the work.


If Mahler had misgivings as to the structural efficacy of the original
version, I do not share [hem. The initial conception is powerful and convincing
and conveys an emotional truth that is different, certainly, from the revised
version, but nevertheless one in which the emotion is held in an effective
aesthetic balance. However, we cannot be unaffected by the knowledge that, as a
result of his practical experience as a conductor in the concert hall, Mahler
reversed the movements and that this was, as far as we know, his final version.
In any case, in the age of digital technology such decisions need not be final.
On this disc the Scherzo is placed before the Andante, however, anyone wishing
to hear the movements in the order in which Mahler conducted them
(Andante-Scherzo) may program them that way.

This crucial reversal of the middle movements is not the only significant
revision Mahler made after the publication of the first score. He reportedly
identified so intensely with his own hero and was so superstitious that he stood
in terror of conducting the dreaded third hammer blow and ultimately suppressed
it from the score, weakening the moment further 6y wholesale reorchestration.
However since Fate cannot any longer be felt to stand threateningly over the
composer, we feel justified in restoring the third hammer blow and with it the
original orchestration.


Benjamin Zander




   


 
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