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Symphony No. 6

The Sixth Symphony is arguably Mahler's darkest, most emotionally fraught work, and the only one of his symphonies to end forcefully in the minor mode with no hint of relief. Within the storm, though, Mahler gives a glimpse of idyllic Austrian country life, cowbells heard clanging in the distance.

Gustav Mahler was born in Kalischt (Kaliště), near the Moravian border of Bohemia, on July 7, 1860, and died in Vienna on May 18, 1911. He composed the Sixth Symphony during the summers of 1903 and 1904, completing the orchestration on May 1, 1905. He led a reading rehearsal with the Vienna Philharmonic in March 1906 and conducted the first public performance on May 27, 1906, in Essen (later revising the work in various ways).

Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 is scored for 4 flutes and piccolo (3rd and 4th flutes doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th doubling English horn), 3 clarinets with high clarinet (D and E-flat) and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons and contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, cowbells, low-pitched bells, rattle, triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, snare drum, birch brush, bass drum, hammer), 2 harps, celesta (doubled if possible), and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 80 minutes long.

We have a tendency, ex post facto, to think of Mahler as a death-obsessed neurotic, virtually incapable of living in the real world but rather pouring out his anguish, longing, and intimations of mortality in his work. To a considerable extent these views derive from Alma Mahler’s memoirs, which are an indispensable source but must be used with extreme caution, since she had every reason to build up her own role in “sustaining” the composer through his tribulations. Until his heart lesion was discovered in 1907, Mahler maintained a vigorous summer regimen of swimming, hiking, and mountain climbing, activities put in the service of generating and working out his musical ideas. Alma recalled that the summers of 1903 and 1904, during which he composed the Sixth Symphony, were emotionally untroubled. Only one thing upset her—or so she remembered years later: in both summers Mahler set to music some poems by Friedrich Rückert dealing with the death of children. The result, of course, was Mahler’s great song cycle Kindertotenlieder, which was conceived and composed at the same time as the Sixth Symphony and which, in retrospect, Alma Mahler felt tempted fate. She claimed similar foreboding upon hearing the completed symphony.

The last movement of the Sixth Symphony contained, at three decisive points, a single powerful stroke with a hammer, the instrument being introduced into the score of the symphony solely for these three strokes. According to Alma, the composer described the movement, with its hammer strokes, as “the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” With the hindsight of one writing her memoirs, Alma saw three “hammer strokes” that struck Mahler himself in the year 1907 (though her description of the events, which has been followed by most writers, telescopes the time span and gives the impression that the blows came directly one after the other): (1) his resignation from the Vienna Opera in the face of mounting opposition to his reforms (and the strong thread of anti-Semitism in the city’s cultural life); (2) the sudden and devastating death of his elder daughter Maria, at age four-and-a-half, from scarlet fever and diphtheria; and (3) the discovery of his own serious heart condition—the blow that “felled him.” Still, though Alma Mahler may not have reacted with foreboding when she first heard the music, the composer after 1907 came to be superstitiously afraid of the three hammer strokes, and eventually removed the last, “mortal” blow. As the score is printed in the critical edition of Mahler’s works, there are only two such strokes, though many conductors choose to reinstate the missing one.

The hammer blows presented a problem at the first performance. During the rehearsals it was discovered that they could not be heard to proper effect, and the performers tried striking the hammer against various objects (including a specially constructed drum of Mahler’s own invention) to improve audibility, but none of them seems to have been entirely satisfactory. The score states simply that the hammer blow should be a “short, strong, but dully reverberating stroke of a non-metallic character (like an axe-stroke)”; the problem of creating the appropriate sound is left to the performers.

Alma’s memoirs recall the emotions aroused in the composer as he prepared the orchestra for the first performance of the Sixth, to be held at a festival of the United German Music Society in Essen on May 27, 1906. Apparently one result of his highly wrought-up reaction to the dress rehearsal was that he did not conduct the premiere itself well, fearing to underline the significance of the last movement. The response of the critics was not especially favorable, with complaints in general that Mahler’s undeniable brilliance of orchestral technique had outstripped the content of his work. But two young men with highly educated musical ears were entranced and excited, and they remained devotees of Mahler’s music. Their names were Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

One reason for their enthusiasm is that here Mahler achieves his most successful balance between dramatic self-expression, which is always at the core of his music, and architectural formality. It is, in fact, one of the most striking things about the Sixth that it is at once deeply personal and classically formal. Three of the four movements are in the tonic key of A minor, the only exception being the slow movement.

The sinister opening bars introduce the constantly recurring motives of the steady tramping in the bass and a dotted rhythm. The formal exposition (which is repeated, as in earlier classical symphonies) adds to these motives a melody opening with a downward octave leap and more marching, leading to the first explicit statement of an important “motto” idea, consisting simply of an A major triad that suddenly turns to minor. This major-to-minor motto functions on the smallest scale as a metaphor for the mood of the entire work. A chorale-like theme in the woodwinds, punctuated by light pizzicato strings, leads to F major and the passionate second theme, soaring in the violins and upper woodwinds.

After the repeat of the exposition, the development gets underway with rich contrapuntal interchanges among the various thematic ideas. One of the most poetic passages is the surprising appearance of cowbells playing against soft chords in the celesta and high, triple-piano tremolo chords in the violins. In the score Mahler adds a careful footnote that “the cowbells must be handled very discreetly—in realistic imitation of a grazing herd, high and low-pitched bells resounding from the distance, now all together, now individually.” The first movement ends with the second theme in a temporarily consoling A major.

The two middle movements raise a special question. Mahler originally placed them in the order Scherzo-Andante, which is the order found in the manuscript and used in the first published score. But then, perhaps because he was persuaded that the thematic material of the scherzo was too similar to that of the first movement, he reversed the order of the two movements to Andante-Scherzo, the sequence used for all of the performances Mahler himself conducted and for subsequent printings of the score during his lifetime. But he was not permanently convinced, changing his mind on this point, even during rehearsals. Though the editor of the 1963 critical edition of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, as well as the editors of the 1998 reprint, opted for Mahler’s original conception of Scherzo-Andante, the most recent editor reversed the decision in 2003, saying—on an insert to the score—that the order should be Andante-Scherzo. Since arguments can be made for either sequence, the controversy has become more heated in recent years, and it remains for conductors to choose between the two.

The scherzo opens with an explicit reminiscence of the tramping bass of the opening movement, and follows it with recollections of other material, now occasionally in a slightly parodistic mode (especially the sarcastic trills of the woodwinds). The Trio, marked “Altväterisch” (“in an old-fashioned style”), features the oboe in a charming passage written in irregular rhythms. According to Alma’s memoirs, this section “represented the arhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand.” Here again she found the ending to be ominous and foreboding, dying away enigmatically, as it does, into A minor and silence.

The Andante, in E-flat major, provides the one real passage of consolation in the symphony (significantly, this occurs in the key that is farthest away from A minor), though the melodic material is akin to that of one of the Kindertotenlieder. By placing the Andante here, in third position, Mahler prepares a wonderful contrast for the beginning of the crushing finale.

The slow movement ended softly and lyrically in E-flat; the finale begins in the relative minor of that key, C minor—one of Mahler’s favorite expressive tonal relationships. A soaring violin theme, beginning with a rising octave, mirrors the falling octave of the first-movement theme. In this finale, Mahler establishes on an imposing scale a contrapuntal texture bringing together elements from throughout the symphony, especially the first movement. A development section builds toward a massive climax in D major, but just at the point of arrival the first hammer blow breaks off the cadence and the major mode shifts suddenly to minor for a new and still more urgent development. Building to a passage of pure, almost Palestrinian counterpoint in A, the climactic cadence to D is once again interrupted by a hammer stroke and a deceptive cadence onto B-flat.

Another return to the introduction builds a climax in A major, which bids fair to hold to the triumphant conclusion of the symphony. This is the point where the third and final hammer stroke is called for. Even if it is omitted from a performance, as it is from the critical edition, the point is marked by the thunderous return of the marching timpani figure from the opening movement, following which the only response is a complete collapse, as the brass and woodwinds sound once more the A minor triad—the conclusion of the motto figure—while the heavy timpani march dies away in sullen silence to a soft pizzicato A in the strings.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

The first American performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 was given by Dimitri Mitropoulos with the New York Philharmonic on December 11, 1947.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony were given by Erich Leinsdorf in November 1964.