The tragic, even nihilistic ending of No. 6 has been seen as unexpected, given that the symphony was composed at what was apparently an exceptionally happy time in Mahler's life: he had married Alma Schindler in 1902, and during the course of the work's composition his second daughter was born.
The symphony is not the most popular Mahler symphony among "general" listeners. However, both Alban Berg and Anton Webern praised it when they first heard it: for Berg it was "the only sixth, despite the 'Pastoral'"; while Webern actually conducted it on more than one occasion.
The status of the work's nickname is problematic. The programme for the work's first Vienna performance (January 4 1907) shows the subtitle Tragische, but this word is not found on the programme for the earlier performance in Munich on November 8 1906. Nor does the word Tragische appear on any of the scores that C.F. Kahnt published (first edition, 1906; revised edition, 1906), or in Richard Specht's officially approved "thematic analysis", or on Alexander Zemlinsky's piano duet transcription (1906). In his Gustav Mahler memoir, Bruno Walter claimed that "Mahler called [the work] his Tragic Symphony", and this is often cited in support of a nickname that many people clearly find congenial. The fact remains, however, that Mahler did not so title the symphony when he composed it; when he first performed it; when he published it; when he allowed Specht to analyse it; or when he allowed Zemlinsky to arrange it. He had, moreover, decisively rejected and disavowed the titles (and programmes) of his earlier symphonies by 1900; and neither the "Lied der Nacht" subtitle of the Seventh Symphony, nor the "Sinfonie der Tausend" of the Eighth, stem from Mahler. For all these reasons, the Tragische nickname is not used in serious works of reference.
As in many other of his compositions, Mahler indicates in several places that extra instruments should be added, including two or more celestas "if possible," "several" triangles at the end of the first movement, doubled snare drum (side drum) in certain passages, and in one place in the fourth movement "several" cymbals. While at the beginning of each movement Mahler calls for 2 harps, at one point in the Andante he calls for "several," and at one point in the Scherzo he writes "4 harps." Often he does not specify a set number, especially in the last movement, simply writing "harps."
Unlike Mahler's second, third, fourth, and eighth symphonies, there are no vocal forces.
The sound of the hammer, which features in the last movement, was stipulated by Mahler to be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an ax)." The sound achieved in the premiere did not quite carry far enough from the stage, and indeed the problem of achieving the proper volume while still remaining dull in resonance remains a challenge to the modern orchestra. Various methods of producing the sound have involved a wooden mallet striking a wooden surface, a sledgehammer striking a wooden box, or a particularly large bass drum, or sometimes simultaneous use of more than one of these methods.
The duration is around 80 minutes.
The first occasion on which the abandoned, original movement order was reverted to seems to have been in 1919, after Alma had sent a telegram to Willem Mengelberg which said "First Scherzo, then Andante". Mengelberg, who had been in close touch with Mahler until the latter's death, and had happily conducted the symphony in the "Andante/Scherzo" arrangement right up to 1916, then switched to the "Scherzo/Andante" order. In this he seems to have been alone: other conductors, such as Oskar Fried and Dimitri Mitropoulos, continued to perform (and eventually record) the work as 'Andante/Scherzo', as per Mahler's own second edition, right up to the early 1960s.
In 1963, however, Erwin Ratz's "Critical Edition" of the Sixth appeared, and in this the Scherzo preceded the Andante. Ratz, however, never offered any support (he did not even cite Alma's telegram) for his assertion that Mahler "changed his mind a second time" at some point before his death; but his editorial decision was questioned by few musicians—and even those who did not accept his "third thoughts" ordering (such as Barbirolli in his acclaimed 1967 recording) could find that their 'Andante/Scherzo' performance would be changed by the record company to "Scherzo/Andante" so as to make their recording agree with the "Critical Edition". The utter lack of documentary or other evidence in support of Ratz's (and Alma's) reverted ordering has caused the most recent Critical Edition to restore the Andante/Scherzo order; however, many conductors continue to perform the Scherzo before the Andante. The matter remains hotly debated, however.
Formally, the symphony is one of Mahler's most outwardly conventional. The form and character of each individual movement are also quite traditional, with a fairly standard sonata form first movement (which even includes an exact repeat of the exposition, most unusual in Mahler), leading to the middle movements, one slow, the other a scherzo, and the finale, also in sonata form, quicker and recapping some previously heard material.
|Dmitri Mitropoulos||Herbert von Karajan|
|John Barbirolli||Georg Solti|
|Claudio Abbado||Jascha Horenstein|
|Simon Rattle||Pierre Boulez|
|Charles Mackerras||Leonard Bernstein|
|Mariss Jansons||Michael Tilson Thomas|
|Lorin Maazel||Benjamin Zander|
|Charles Adler||Bernard Haitink|
|Iván Fischer||Seiji Ozawa|
|Yannick Nézet-Séguin||Klaus Tennstedt|
|Valery Gergiev||Thomas Sanderling|
This motif, which some commentators have linked with fate, reappears in subsequent movements. The first movement also features a soaring melody which the composer's wife, Alma Mahler, claimed was representative of her; this melody is now often known as the "Alma theme". The movement's end marks the happiest point of the symphony with a restatement of the Alma theme.
The andante is a respite from the brutal intensity of the rest of the work. Its main theme is an introspective ten-bar phrase that is technically in E-flat major, though the theme alone can seem major and minor at once. The orchestration is more delicate and reserved in this movement, making it all the more poignant when compared to the driving darkness of the other three.
The scherzo marks a return to the unrelenting march rhythms of the first movement, though in a 'triple-time' metrical context. Its trio (the middle section), marked Altväterisch ('old-fashioned'), is rhythmically irregular (4/8 switching to 3/8 and 3/4) and of a somewhat gentler character. Alma's report, often repeated, that in this movement Mahler "represented the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand" is refuted by the chronology: the movement was composed in the Summer of 1903, when Maria Anna Mahler (born November 1902) was less than a year old, and when Anna Justine (born July 1904) had not even been conceived. All the same, it is widely accepted by contemporary interpretors and conductors and it is usually in this playful-turned-terror-filled manner that this movement is conducted.
The last movement is an extended sonata form, characterized by drastic changes in mood and tempo, the sudden change of glorious soaring melody to deep pounded agony. The movement is punctuated by three hammer blows. Alma quotes her husband as saying that these were three mighty blows of fate befallen by the hero, "the third of which fells him like a tree". She identified these blows with three later events in Gustav Mahler's own life: the death of his eldest daughter Maria Anna Mahler, the diagnosis of an eventually fatal heart condition, and his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera and departure from Vienna. When he revised the work, Mahler removed the last of these three blows for structural reasons, though some modern performances restore it. The piece ends with the same rhythmic motif that first appeared in the first movement, but the chord above it is a simple A minor triad, rather than A major turning into A minor. This ending is one of the most brutal in all music, after the third 'hammer-blow' passage, the music gropes around in darkness and then the horns begin to offer consolation. However after they turn briefly to major they fade away and the final bars erupt ƒƒƒ to hammer home the minor.
It has been suggested by Stephen Johnson that Mahler in his 6th symphony may have "pilfered" music from a piano duet of Carl Maria von Weber.
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.
The only Sixth, despite the Pastoral.
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