Mahler’s 6th, one of the most formal of his symphonies, was also discussed as being the most personal. In the first movement alone, the use of cowbells, leitmotif-esque gestures, and beautiful themes (one representing his wife), create the start of a multi-faceted experience. The listener can easily imagine Mahler’s fear of fate juxtaposed with the love for his wife and the solitude of the Swiss countryside. The symphony is sometimes labeled as his Tragic Symphony, an ironic title due to the fact that it was composed during some of the happiest moments of his life. As in much of his work, however, the music seems to foretell the future (in Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”), for example, he finished the work four years beforethe unexpected death of his four-year-old daughter). In the case of the Sixth Symphony, this foretelling is especially apparent during the final movement with three “hammer blows,” each signaling three events of fate.
Going back to the first movement, though, the listener is immediately offered a few distinct motives. Among these are a driving rhythm articulated in the timpani and a “fate” motive based on an A-Major chord turning into an A-minor chord. Also within this exposition comes the theme he wrote for his wife. A bit of trivia about the “Alma theme”: Mahler is quoted as telling his wife “I’ve tried expressing you in a theme. I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded or not, but you’ll have to put up with it.” This seems a noble and loving gesture, except for the fact of a similarity with the melodic line of another piece of music - an aria in Emil Kaiser’s opera Der Trompeter von Sackingen. Mahler had strong ties to Kaiser, as they both conducted at Olomouc in Moravia around the same time; thus, there is a strong chance Mahler was familiar with his music. The words to Kaiser’s aria: “God keep you, it would have been too lovely; God keep you, it was not meant to be.” Could this be a subconscious feeling towards Alma? The entire exposition of the first movement is repeated before drifting into a melancholic section featuring cowbells ringing off stage, perhaps serving as an homage to his summer home in Switzerland. The recapitulation is very similar to the start of the symphony, but ends happily with the Alma theme as if symbolizing love’s momentary dominance over fate.
Following this first movement, Zander chose the Scherzo movement as a follow-up. There is great debate as to which is truly the second movement, the Scherzo or the Andante? Here is what we know: the autograph score puts the Scherzo as the second movement. However, when Mahler began rehearsing the piece for it’s premiere, he decided the Andate movement should go before the Scherzo & released a revised edition with this change. Then, in 1919, Alma Mahler specifically instructed conductor Willem Mengelberg to perform the Scherzo first. He followed her instructions, but other conductors insisted upon the Andante as the second movement. Today, the issue is hotly contested & it can be performed either way.
The Andate movement offers such a different mood than the rest of the symphony. It features soaring melodies & a delicate sense of counterpoint. It’s beauty likens that of the Adagietto of his Symphony No. 5 - an outpouring of emotion & a climax that many cite as one of the most beautiful moments in all of music.
With the last movement comes fate’s hammer blows. Mahler originally wanted these blows to sound “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).” The BPO used a very large lead pipe striking an unknown surface in addition to a simultaneous bass drum strike. Each of these blows, quite overwhelming in sound, represents three blows of fate towards an unnamed hero. Several years after writing the 6th, these blows came loud and strong in Mahler’s life. The first was the loss of his daughter, the second was the loss of his job, and the third was the loss of his health due to a heart condition (a condition that eventually took his life). Mahler’s own paranoia is the intriguing thing about all of this. Apparently, during the premiere of the work, he was very nervous to conduct the third blow & after revising the work, he took out the third blow completely. Perhaps the example of the Kindertotenlieder made him believe in the power of the music to predict his own life’s future. While some orchestras still do leave out this final hammer blow, the BPO allowed it to resonant loud and strong before the orchestra’s fff entrance on a final A-minor chord.
Since this piece has such a rich context and story involved, it is interesting to note that it is one of the least performed of his symphonies. While researching a bit for this post, I noticed that Benjamin Zander originally recorded the symphony in Andante/Scherzo order. Personally, I would have preferred hearing it this way, as the Andante provides just enough time to regroup after the gargantuan Sonata-Allegro movement. The Scherzo would then provide a transition into the finale, while reminding us of several motives from the first movement. As for the performance, it was quite good for a semi-professional orchestra. Some mistakes were glaringly noticeable including several intonation issues, inconsistencies within the violin section, a tuba player whose passages consistently sounded like series of wrong notes, a missed entrance in the cymbals, and a horn section that lacked focus & boldness. The hammer blows were very well done, as was the low string & contrabassoon features. I was quite glad as to how well the lecture at the start of the concert went over. The audience was made up of musicians and non-musicians alike, so hearing the context of the work before it was performed certainly allowed for a greater understanding and appreciation of the this great piece.