Program Notes: Mahler’s Symphony for Alma
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in A minor, “Tragic:”
World Premiere May 27, 1906; Essen, Germany (79 minutes)
- Gustav Mahler is best known for his gigantic, cosmic symphonies.
- He also composed songs on a symphonic scale.
- Mahler employed an enormous orchestra, often including unusual instruments like cowbells.
- Although he was a tonal composer, Mahler’s chromatic harmonies stretched the boundaries of traditional tonality.
- His music is intensely emotional, varying from cheerful to contemplative.
Mahler was the last of the great Austro-German, post-romantic symphonists and arguably the most influential orchestral composer of the 20th century. His orchestral legacy consists of nine splendid symphonies and an unfinished Tenth, of which he completed only an Adagio before his passing at the age of 50 from heart disease. He also composed numerous songs and orchestral song cycles. These larger, texted works are inextricably linked to his symphonies as Mahler loved literature, particularly poetry. Several authors inspired him repeatedly during his career such as the poet Friedrich Ruckert and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
The Sixth Symphony is part of a trilogy that leans more toward absolute music without reliance on external sources of inspiration. Mahler’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh symphonies, composed between 1901 and 1905, are strictly instrumental works, whereas the Second, Third, Fourth and Eighth all call for vocal soloists and some for chorus. The Sixth Symphony is not overtly programmatic. Rather, it addresses in conceptual terms the broad psychological range from hope to more challenging emotions.
Two musical memories of this symphony remain with the listener long after departure from the concert hall. One is a single chord, brilliantly declaimed by the trumpets, fortissimo, in A major; then abruptly fading to serious oboes, pianissimo, in A minor. This is the “fate” motif of the symphony. The percussive pattern associated with it recurs in two of the three succeeding movements. The other vivid, aural memory in the Sixth Symphony is the hammer blows in the finale. Both instances intensify the sense of fate that permeates this music. Each delivers its particular power in a different way.
Beginning with the opening notes, Mahler favored march movements to commence his symphonies, frequently returning to the march rhythm in a later movement. The Sixth provides a characteristic and fine example with a strong emphasis on brass and percussion highlighting the military character of the march. At more than 20 minutes, the opening Heftig, aber markig (vehement but with plenty of vigor) is an imposing start, grand enough to encompass a wealth of melodic ideas.
Of special note is the whimsical and elusive second theme, in F major, which Mahler told Alma was his attempt to characterize her in music. “Whether I’ve succeeded or not I don’t know, but you shall have to put up with it!” he said to her. The Alma theme is followed by an unusual section featuring xylophone, the sole use of that instrument in all of Mahler’s music. Another evocative episode in this first movement is the introduction of cowbells, which Mahler described as “the last earthly sounds heard from the valley far below by the departing spirit on the mountaintop.”
Both in the concert hall and on recordings, the Scherzo sometimes precedes the Andante of the Sixth Symphony because Mahler changed his mind more than once concerning the order of the inner movements. Music Director Courtney Lewis has chosen to place the Andante first. The movement is remote in mood and temperament, a far cry from the march of fate introduced in the first movement. By placing it in E-flat major, a distant tonality from the home key of A minor, Mahler subtly emphasizes that spiritual difference. Cowbells, horn calls, a splendid English horn solo and a woodwind chorale all help to release the tension generated by the rest of the symphony. Like an island, it remains impervious to the themes and motifs so dominant in the other movements. It is followed by a thunderous Scherzo. Marked Wuchtig (vigorous; powerful), it booms with strong brass and pounding percussion, underscoring the profound spirit that dominates most of the symphony.
For his finale, Mahler returns to the enormous proportions of his opening with a massive movement taking more than half an hour. The Allegro moderato overflows with big themes: one each for violins, tuba, lower woodwind and horns. The hammer blows, delivered as low thuds by the unpitched bass drum, occur at the end of Mahler’s two development sections. Originally, there were three hammer blows, but Mahler was superstitious and feared that three was an unlucky number for blows of fate. He cut the third hammer blow following the premiere in Essen, Germany, on May 27, 1906. Some conductors choose to restore the third hammer blow in performance. It occurs at a climactic point in the finale where the second return of the introduction music is cut short by the fate motif. Overall, the journey of Mahler’s Sixth is a colossal one, and its quality of fate has the capacity to move us if not to tears, then still touching a place deep within our hearts.
Symphony No. 6 in A minor, “Tragic”
Born July 7, 1860, in Kalischt, Bohemia | Died May 18, 1911, in Vienna, Austria
Mahler’s Sixth is the only one of his 10 symphonies whose conclusion is in minor mode. Mahler acknowledged that his Sixth was a very difficult symphony to conduct because of its emotional power. Incredibly, it was never heard in the United States until 1947, more than four decades after its premiere. Now, in the third decade of the 21st century, the Sixth is reappearing on symphonic programs with greater frequency.
The Sixth Symphony was misunderstood during Mahler’s lifetime, enjoying fewer performances than any other work he completed. Even in Amsterdam, where his music was admired by the public and championed by the celebrated conductor Willem Mengelberg, the Sixth remained unperformed during Mahler’s lifetime.
Mahler himself was always deeply moved by the power of his own music in this symphony. However, there is also a significant element of mystery and enigma associated with the Sixth. To his biographer Richard Specht he wrote:
“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.”
Even with these prophetic words, and several generations of Mahler lovers have devoured the Sixth along with his other works, Mahler wrought extensive and frequent revisions on the Sixth as with all his middle symphonies.
Mahler’s Contemporaries on the Sixth Symphony
In addition to critics, friends, colleagues and family members all wrote about Mahler, recording their impressions of his personality along with their assessment of his originality and genius.
Mahler was a methodical taskmaster, always listening and tweaking details in the score. Klaus Pringsheim, a volunteer chorus-master at the Vienna Court Opera Theatre in 1906, accompanied Mahler on some of his trips to conduct in other cities. His recollections are quoted in Mahler: His Life, Work and World, by Kurt and Herta Blaukopf:
“If the word ‘self-dissatisfaction’ does not exist, it ought to be invented to describe Mahler’s special manner of working when conducting an orchestra in rehearsal. It was often more a question of trying the music out, rather than rehearsing it in the normal sense of the word; right up to the last rehearsal before a premiere he used to make alterations and improvements and keep trying new solutions…I still remember sitting with other musicians – among others the pianist Ossip Gabrilovitch…listening to the rehearsals of the Sixth, and I could still point to this or that spot in the score which was altered on the advice of that 22-year-old [assistant conductor] who came from Vienna…(He had another function at that time; he was allowed to ‘conduct’ the off-stage cow-bells). Mahler was always concerned above all with the attainment of the maximum clarity. This was more important to him than coloring and charm of sound.”
The composer’s valiant and noble spirit comes through in this music more powerfully than any other of the purely instrumental symphonies, giving us what Michael Kennedy has called “Mahler’s most perfect reconciliation of form and matter.”
Instrumentation: The score calls for an enormous orchestra comprising piccolo, four flutes (third and fourth also doubling piccolo), four oboes (third and fourth doubling English horn), English horn, clarinets in D and E-flat, three clarinets in A and B-flat, bass clarinet, four bassoons, contrabassoon, eight horns, six trumpets, three trombones, bass trombone, bass tuba, two sets of timpani, glockenspiel, cowbells, low-pitched bells, wire brush, hammer, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, bass drum, snare drum, two harps, celesta and strings.
Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2023