The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 6 in A minor

About the Work

Photo of Gustav Mahler Composer: Gustav Mahler
© Richard Freed

Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Gustav Mahler

Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony in 1903 and 1904, conducted the premiere in Essen on May 27, 1906, and revised the score during the summer of that year and the early part of 1907. The National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work were conducted by Antal Doráti on October 22-24, 1974; the last before the present concerts were conducted by Leonard Slatkin on May 20-22, 1999.

The score calls for 3 piccolos, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 3 English horns, piccolo clarinet, 3 B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals,triangle, gong, glockenspiel, cowbells, deep bells, birch rod, hammer, xylophone, celesta, 4 harps, and strings. Duration, 80 minutes.

Alma Mahler, quoted in the foregoing note on the Kindertotenlieder, did not hesitate to call the Sixth Symphony the most personal of all her husband's compositions, and now, with the advantage of more than a hundred years' rich hindsight, we may understand why it has also been regarded as a "prophetic" work, in both a personal sense and a more broadly artistic one.

Although the Byronic flamboyance of Berlioz and Liszt had been digested in large part by the middle of the nineteenth century, and Tchaikovsky had produced in that century's final quarter "autobiographical" symphonies of such urgency that there were sometimes tagged "confessional," no one could have been prepared for quite such intense self-revelation as Mahler presented, and least of all in a symphony. The intensity seemed to deepen from one work to the next, and Mahler himself was somewhat staggered by the impact of his Sixth-perhaps not merely incidentally, the first symphony he undertook as a married man and a father. "No other work so affected him at first hearing," according to Alma, who noted that he conducted the premiere "almost badly, because he was ashamed of his agitation, and because he was afraid his emotions might get out of hand."

In a formal sense, the Sixth was the most conventional of Mahler's symphonies. It was the first he conceived from the start in the traditional four-movement format and without involving voices. (The Ninth was to be the only other, though the tradition it followed structurally had been established by Tchaikovsky only a decade and a half earlier; the First, originally in five movements, was eventually reduced to four; the Fifth, conversely, is in five movements, the first two of which might be regarded as a grand expansion on the old idea of a symphonic allegro with a slow introduction.) The Sixth was also the first Mahler symphony in which there are neither actual song settings nor direct citations of songs, and the first without an affirmative ending. One might even say it is the only one without an affirmative ending, for there is really as much of affirmation as of lamentation-and perhaps even more-in the final Adagio of the Ninth and the Abschied ("Farewell") that ends the song-symphony Das Lied von der Erde. At one point, in fact, Mahler appended the subtitle "Tragic" to the score of this work.

As Mahler's assistant at the Vienna Opera, Bruno Walter was especially close to him at the time the Sixth Symphony was composed. In his brief biographical reminiscence, Walter wrote that this work is "bleakly pessimistic; it reeks of the bitter cup of life." Perhaps this is not pervasively true of the first three movements, but in the final one, as Walter put it,Something resembling the inexorable strife of "all against all" is translated into music. . . . The mounting tension and climaxes of the last movement resemble, in their grim power, the mountainous waves of a sea that will overwhelm and destroy the ship; the work ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul.

Alma had a bit more to say about the work in her memoir:
After he had drafted the first movement he came down from the wood to tell me he had tried to depict me in a theme. "Whether I've succeeded, I don't know, but you'll have to put up with it." This is the great soaring theme of the first movement. . . . In the third movement he represented the arrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand. Ominously, the childish voices became more and more tragic, and at the end died out in a whisper. 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." Those were his words. Not one of his works came so directly from his inner heart as this one. We both wept that daythe music and what it foretold touch us so deeply. The Sixth is the most completely personal of his works, and a prophetic one also. In the Kindertotenlieder, so also in the Sixth, he anticipated his own life in his music. On him too fall three blows of fate, and the last felled him. But at the time he was serene; he was conscious of the greatness of his work. He was a tree in full leaf and bloom.
The first of Mahler's three blows of fate" came less than a year after the premiere of the Sixth Symphony, when he was forced under pressure to resign from his post as director of the Vienna Opera. Shortly after that came the already noted death of the elder of his two very young daughters, and during that same summer of 1907 Mahler learned of the heart disease that was to end his own life prematurely less than four years later.

Lest it be inferred from what Alma wrote that the entire first movement is simply a musical portrait of her, it should be noted that "the great soaring theme" is but one of the four thematic elements. The symphony opens with the gruff treat of a march, and two themes (the first of which is to reappear at various points in the work as a sort of "Fate" motif) are introduced before the "Alma" theme makes its first appearance. JThese four elements are developed both independently and conjointly, each pulling in its own direction, and at the end of the movement the "Alma" theme itself is transformed into a sort of march, brassy and proclamative, with drums beating.

The Andante, unmentioned in Alma's breif reference, is one of the most poignant of Mahler's charateristically poignant slow movements: an unhurried, dreamlike episode, opening almost as if it were to be a sentimental ballad. (One of the instructions in the score for performing the movement is "altvaeterlisch.") The atmosphere of a bucolic idyll is evoked by the sound of cowbells, which have already been heard in the development section of the first movement and will be heard again in the finale, but the "idyllic" frame is shattered by the sheer intensity which Mahler achieves with his relatively simple means. By way of illustrating the significance of cowbells and other unusual effects in some of Mahler's works (and in this one in particular), Jack Diether, the pre-eminent American Mahler authority of the last century, cited a letter Mahler wrote to a friend in 1879, five years after the death of his younger brother Ernst:
I go to the meadow, where the tinkling of cowbells lulls me to dreaming. . . . Behind me in the village the evening bells chime, and their chorus is borne across to me by a kind breeze. . . . Shadowy memories of my life pass before me, like long-forgotten ghosts of departed happiness. . . . There stands the hurdy-gurdy man, extending his had with his withered hand, and in his discordant music I hear the greeting of Ernst of Swabia. Now Ernst appears suddenly in person, stretching out his arms to me, and when I look closer it is my poor brother. . . . I fear that some day I shall be shattered in the tempest that has so often dealt me cruel blows. . . . I've just come from the meadow, where I was sitting by the hut of Farkas the shepherd, listening to the music of his shawm. Ah, how sad it sounded, and so passionately ecstatic, the folk song he played!
Alma's description of the scherzo might suggest a nostalgic collage of children's games, but it does not even hint at the intricacy or depth of this movement, which is, in the words of the respected British Mahler authority, Deryck Cooke, a "gruesome comedy" of awesome proportions-and in its way as quintessentially Mahlerish as the Adagios of Bruckner's symphonies are representative of that composer. The opening figure bears a certain resemblance to the Viennese song "Ach du lieber Augustin," and indeed in his well documented meeting with Sigmund Freud at Leyden in the last summer of his life (1910) Mahler linked that tune with a painful episode in his own childhood. Ernest Jones reported, in his biography of Freud:

In Mahler's opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.

In the final movement we hear not only the cowbells already introduced in two of the preceding movements, but also intimations of the church bells alluded to in that early letter, and of course the shattering blows predicted in the same passage. This longest and most dramatic portion of the work (and the longest of all Mahler's wholly instrumental finales) is a true grand dénouement in much the same sense as the similarly eruptive finale of the First Symphony. The earlier movements' building toward this conclusion has been so subtle that what is unleashed here has the heightened force of the unexpected. The finale is built in part on thematic elements from the preceding movements, and seems to begin afresh after each of its several episodic sections. The coloring is as fanciful and bizarre as anything Mahler ever attempted. Visions of serenity, signaled by the return of the cowbells, are swept away in a rush of new material. A march figure that seems to be building toward self-confidence is grotesquely swallowed up, only to return mockingly in the form of a brass chorale. The first two hammer blows make for imposing climaxes along this macabre procession; the third, which Mahler deleted in one of his revisions, is heard at the onset of the darkling coda, whose murky gloom is shattered by a single futile outcry before the last flicker of light is extinguished.

While the Sixth Symphony enjoyed numerous performances under Mahler himself and under other conductors as well in the years shortly before and shortly after his death, it was, like most of his other works, given very infrequently from then until the large-scale Mahler revival around the time of his centenary which finally put his symphonies in the so-called standard repertory. The first recordings to be issued of this work-one made in Vienna under F. Charles Adler, another in Rotterdam under Eduard Flipse-found its four movements laid out in the conventional symphonic sequence, with the slow movement in second position and the scherzo in third-but subsequent performances and recordings, based on a "critical edition" published by the International Gustav Mahler Society in 1963, reversed the order of the two inner movements, setting off a a bit of a controversy among musical scholars, and a general feeling on the part of the public that Mahler simply never made up his mind on this question.

When Leonard Slatkin conducted the NSO in performances of this work in May 1999 he had the advantage of research by the musicologist Jerry Bruck, supported and circulated by the Kaplan Foundation, which indicated that Mahler's own decision was for the slow movement to precede the scherzo. What that research made clear, in essence, was simply that, while Mahler originally indicated the scherzo as second movement and had it shown thereas in the published score, once he actually prepared the work for performance he became convinced that the work would be more effective with the slow movement preceding the scherzo. All of his own performances of the Sixth Symphony followed this pattern, as did the subsequent ones under conductors who had known Mahler and understood his wishes. After studying this powerful evidence, Mr. Slatkin decided to observe the sequence Mahler himself consistently decreed.

Mr. Slatkin has also rejected some of the other indications in the 1963 critical edition. Most conspicuously, he has restored the third of the "hammer blows" toward the end of the final movement. Mahler apparently took to heart Richard Strauss's remark that the work was "over-orchestrated," and not only eliminated the third hammer blow but also lightened the texture at various points in preparing his final revision of the score in 1907. In restoring that final hammer blow, Mr. Slatkin has also restored the richer orchestral texture that originally surrounded it.