Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor 

GUSTAV MAHLER

BORN: July 7, 1860. Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)

DIED: May 18, 1911. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: During the summers of 1903 and 1904, with orchestration being completed on May 1, 1905 

WORLD PREMIERE: May 27, 1906. Mahler led the Vienna Philharmonic. He later revised the work in various ways; the present performances follow the score of the Critical Complete Edition of the International Mahler Society, Vienna, which claims to embody the composer’s final decisions

US PREMIERE: December 11, 1947. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony 

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—May 1974. Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2011. Michael Tilson Thomas led 

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes and 3 piccolos (2 of the latter doubling 3rd and 4th flutes), 4 oboes and 3 English horns (2 of the latter doubling 3rd and 4th oboes), high clarinets in D and E-flat, 3 clarinets in A and B-flat, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons and contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones and bass trombone, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum (doubled), cymbals, triangle, rattle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, cowbells, low-pitched bells, switch (a bundle of birch twigs, used to beat the shell of the bass drum), hammer, xylophone, two harps, celesta (doubled if possible), and strings

DURATION: About 80 mins

THE BACKSTORY In the summers of 1903 and 1904, Mahler was as happy as ever in his life. Yet it was then he wrote his darkest music, the Sixth Symphony (which he himself may or may not have called the “Tragic,” though others certainly have) and the two final songs of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children).     

His wife Alma was understandably appalled by the obsession with the deaths of children on the part of a new father of two healthy daughters, and when their eldest daughter Maria died of diphtheria in the summer of 1907, Alma was sure that her husband had tempted providence. Mahler himself saw it differently. He was convinced that an artist has the power to intuit, even to experience, 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 hammerblows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” The summer of 1907 brought him three such blows: Maria’s death, the discovery of his own severe heart disease, and the bitter end of his directorship of the Vienna Opera. Again, as Alma would have it, the Sixth Symphony was autobiography, written ahead of time.     

Was Mahler writing about himself? Was he writing about the apocalypse of 1914? About Auschwitz and Babi Yar? Was he just writing a symphony? The Sixth Symphony is a work imbued with a tragic vision. And, where Mahler’s other symphonies end in triumph or exaltation or joyous exuberance, in quiet bliss, or, at their darkest, in resignation and acceptance, the Sixth is unique in its tragic, minor-key conclusion.    

THE MUSIC  Mahler begins with a grim march (Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Vehement, but vigorous). We feel the tramp before we hear the band, but it takes only five measures of fierce crescendo before the music is hugely present. Then, over a diminishing snare drum roll, two timpanists beat a left . . . left . . . left-right-left march cadence. Over that, three trumpeters sound a chord of A major. They too make a diminuendo, and halfway 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. “Fate” or “tragedy”—no words say it as surely as the music. A complete swing-about in mood comes with a fervent melody that Alma said was intended to represent her. 

 “Alma,” in tender decrescendo, brings the exposition to a close. For a long time, the marchers dominate the development. Then Mahler withdraws to mountain heights. Celesta and divided violins play mysterious chord sequences, beautifully blurred by the sound of distant cowbells. “The last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks,” Mahler said. The awakening from this vision is sudden and unkind. “Alma” reappears in due course, and in fact the movement ends with “herself” in a gesture of unbridled triumph.     

Sharing motivic material with the first movement, the Scherzo too begins with stabbing detached low A’s, and it is in A minor. But where in the first movement those low A’s provided a grimly regular one-two-three-four framework, here rhythmic dissension reigns from the beginning. The trio, which comes around twice, is of an extreme metrical irregularity and in that sense one of Mahler’s most forward-looking pages. Alma Mahler heard in it “the arrhythmical play of little children.”     

After this music of disintegration and suppressed violence, the Andante moderato is balm. The inspired melody is a marvel of subtle phrasing, magically scored, with dabs of wind color finely setting this or that point on the melodic curve into higher relief. Here is music full of Mahlerian major-minor ambiguities. The movement as a whole is of surprising harmonic sweep, its climax placed in faraway, luminous E major, and for that arrival Mahler brings back the mysterious sound of the cowbells. 

Mahler’s final intentions concerning the order of these two middle movements are not entirely clear. The autograph puts the Scherzo before the Andante, as does the first printing, which preceded the first performance. For that performance, however, as well as for the second edition, Mahler reversed this order. One reads consistently that he eventually wished the original order restored, and Erwin Ratz in his brief editorial report for the Critical Edition simply states this as a fact, but there is no hard and direct evidence for it. Musically, the case for having the Scherzo precede the Andante is strong and threefold. One: The Scherzo’s impact as a kind of parody of the first movement is greater if it follows that movement immediately. Two: The respite provided by the Andante is more telling when it is offered after the double impact of the first and second movements and just before the emotionally taxing finale. Three: The key relationships (whose impact we all feel even if we cannot put a name to it) are more effective.     

With this we come to the Finale (Allegro moderato—Allegro energico). This last movement is not much longer than the first; but, longer than the second and third movements together, it feels big—and it is meant to. The Finale of the Sixth Symphony surpasses the earlier movements in richness of musical event and in the oppressiveness of the emotional substance it lays upon the listener. 

From the thud of a low C there arises an encompassing swirl of strangely luminous dust—harp glissandos, a woodwind chord, chains of trills on muted strings. It is terrifying because it is alien, and it is alien because with one exception, everything in the symphony thus far has been lucidly and sharply defined. 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 detach themselves from this nebula to declaim a wide-ranging phrase of impassioned recitative, which, in its descent, collides with a specter we have not met in some time—the major chord that turns to minor (trumpets and trombones together this time) and the drummers with their fierce marching cadence. And as this recedes, the low strings come slowly to rest on a low A.     

These sixteen measures, not much more than half a minute of music, also define the Finale’s harmonic task. The primacy of the symphony’s central key, A minor, must be re-established. Mahler’s finale is a design not only of great breadth, but of astonishing originality. Its formal point of reference is the familiar sonata plan of introduction, the exposition of material, its development, its restatement or recapitulation, and coda. This is, however, realized in a totally original way. The introduction, itself a complex sequence of events of which the nebula-plus-“fate”-chord is but the first, reappears, always varied, its components redistributed, at each major juncture of the movement.     

Let me describe the piece in another way. From the introduction, the music gradually breaks through once again to 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 hammer-blow coincided with the A major “fate” chord at the last appearance of the introductory dust-storm, but he eliminated it in his revision and probably did not restore it. The irrepressibility of that monstrous introduction is enough. On its last appearance, this begins in A minor, and the “fate” chord is the last A major that we hear. Over a long drum roll that relentlessly glues the music to A minor, trombones and tuba stammer fragments of funeral music. The symphony comes to a halt, 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.—Michael Steinberg   

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in July 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall. 

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony in a Grammy award-winning disc (SFS Media)

(September 2019)