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Mahler - Symphony No. 6 (1903-04)

  • 1. Allegro energico, ma non troppo
  • 2. Scherzo. Wuchtig
  • 3. Andante
  • 4. Finale. Allegro moderato - Allegro energico

The Sixth is an extraordinary and highly individual symphony even in Mahler's output of extraordinary and individual works. It is often cited as his most classical symphony in that it returns to a four-movement plan and uses neither solo nor choral voices. Like its neighbours, the Fifth and Seventh, the Sixth Symphony thus seems to return to a more abstract symphonic tradition. But what is said less often, is that it does so not to confirm that tradition, but to wrestle with it. It takes up the legacy of the symphony since Beethoven, of heroic struggle towards some eventual breakthrough and affirmation, but presents the unthinkable - that this struggle might fail, that the symphonic hero might actually be defeated.

The Sixth Symphony sometimes carries the title, The Tragic. Mahler proposed it and then withdrew it, perhaps for the same reason that he withdrew the final and fatal hammer blow from the last movement, because he was, by nature, a superstitious man. But the original title neatly draws attention to the model that this work subverts, Beethoven's Eroica symphony. The hero lives on in Mahler's music, but finds himself in a very different world to Beethoven's. Perhaps the epithet 'Tragic' might be understood in the terms that Friedrich Nietzsche set out in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). The hero of ancient Greek tragedy, Nietzsche argued, must necessarily be destroyed, because tragedy is an enactment of the metaphysical truth that individual forms (represented by the hero) must inevitably perish and be reclaimed by the totality (represented by the chorus).

This may be a more helpful way of thinking about the peculiar nature of the Sixth than the link made repeatedly between the three hammer blows of the Finale and the three blows of fate Mahler was to suffer in the summer of 1907, some three years after he completed the symphony - that is to say, the death of his daughter Maria from scarlet fever, the subsequent diagnosis of his own fatal heart condition and his forced resignation from the Vienna Hofoper. There were, in any case, five hammer blows originally planned for the Finale, and Mahler scrubbed out three of them - the third as part of a revision in 1906 made while he was writing the hugely affirmative Eighth Symphony. And though it is true that in the summer of 1904, in which he wrote the uncompromising Finale to the Sixth, he also wrote the two songs with which he completed his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), he also wrote the two magical movements that were to become the Nachtmusiken of the Seventh Symphony.

The point is, there is no explanation for the unprecedented negativity of the Sixth Symphony to be found in the events of Mahler's life during 1903 and 1904. These were years of great professional success and personal happiness. His production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Hofoper in 1903 (with designs by Alfred Roller) was universally praised; performances of his own music met with rapturous reception in Amsterdam, Basel and further afield. His summers were spent at his imposing new villa at Maiernigg, beautifully situated on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia. In 1904, as he arrived there to begin his holiday, Alma stayed in Vienna to give birth to their second daughter, Anna. It is true that, alone and frustrated by bad weather and a compositional block, Mahler was impatient to make progress. He was also annoyed by the local people, disturbed by the noise of tourists and animals, and generally in a prickly mood. But none of that explains the ending of his Sixth Symphony.

Nor should it. Art is hardly symmetrical with the life of artists, even when they insist it is. The Sixth is certainly a work of 'extreme violence', as Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange suggests, and one that refuses to allow its uncompromising logic to be deflected. The wind and brass are often instructed to play with a harsh tone, melodic lines are painfully stretched across wide, compound intervals and Mahler's acerbic contrapuntal textures allow for little warmth except in the Andante. Much of the music is overdetermined, in its exaggerated and unrelenting march rhythms and in the frequent doublings of its orchestration. Uniquely among Mahler's symphonies, the Sixth ends neither in affirmation nor in transfigured withdrawal. But it is not without yearning for transfiguration; indeed, it is precisely the intensity of that yearning that produces the violent conflict of the Finale.

The sound of cowbells must have seemed an unlikely musical symbol for the heavenly in 1906, yet in Mahler's hands that is how this unusual sonority, imported into the orchestra for the first time, comes to function. Mahler insisted his use of them was symbolic rather than literally pictorial, but one is surely related to the other. Anyone who has walked in the Alps, and stood high up on a mountain looking out over the valley below, will recognise at once the unique sound of the clanking of cowbells across the distance. The sound becomes inseparable from the experience of the bright, clean air of the high mountains. For Mahler, as for Webern after him, this world was not so much a cipher of the heavenly, but a glimpse of its reality. The otherworldly sound of these primitive bells, so foreign to the refined tone of the modern orchestra, thus comes to stand as a mnemonic for paradise, glimpsed from the high edge of the earth. Their gentle but unruly sound breaks into three of the symphony's four movements, but only momentarily. The unremitting logic of the Sixth refuses this intrusion and its motto theme of major to minor, open to closed, allows for no reversal. There is no breakthrough, no redemption and no transfiguration.

The first movement is a march and a decidedly grim one at that. For a start, the music seems to get stuck on its tramping bass line, as if the whole orchestra is marching on the spot. The insistence of this repeated rhythm is combined with melodic lines that are stretched over wide intervals and often heavily doubled to create a hard-edged sound. The uncompromising and forceful opening eventually subsides, but is rounded off by a startling motto theme - three trumpets blaring out a major triad that then falls mournfully into a minor one, over a rhythm punched out in the timpani. A mysterious chorale-like passage in the woodwind provides a transition to the second theme in which, Mahler apparently told his wife Alma, he had tried to capture something of her. Certainly, it is passionate, intense and mercurial, if not theatrically so. The progression of the movement is shaped around the opposition of these two ideas, in which the rather brutal energy of the march seems to get the upper hand, but this is interrupted by an extraordinary and unexpected detour - an episode inter-cut into the main narrative like a dream sequence in a film. The far-off sound of cowbells and the unworldly tones of the orchestra mark this out as one of Mahler's evocations of nature - a distant landscape glimpsed momentarily before being violently interrupted by the unprepared return of the march material. Only at the very end of the movement is there a sense of breakthrough, as A minor gives way to A major in an affirmative ending marked by all eight horns sounding out a lively return of the Alma theme.

The Scherzo is generally played second though there remains disagreement on the question. This was the sequence in the first edition of the score, but at the première in Essen in 1906, Mahler decided to perform the Andante before the Scherzo, an alteration reflected in the second edition of the score. The decision changes the nature of the work to some extent. Heard second, the Scherzo immediately restores the key of A minor, reversing the blaze of the major key heard at the end of the previous movement (a kind of macro-version of the motto theme itself). The Scherzo also brings back the insistent repeated bass notes of the first movement, but the march rhythm is here displaced by a triple metre and constant disruptions by off-beat accents. As a result of the doubling of instruments and Mahler's use of extreme registers, the tone is often deliberately harsh. But, as in the first movement, the principal narrative is intercut with an unprepared Trio episode, a strangely rustic moment which Mahler marks altväterisch (old-fashioned). Where the main Scherzo material is unrelenting in its insistent push forward, this episode seems to have all the time in the world. Such changes of mood and musical voice run through the whole movement, disorientating the listener all the way to the last bars, which simply wind down rather than end.

The Andante is one of Mahler's most lyrical slow movements, beginning as an instrumental 'song without words' like the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony. In the context of the Sixth Symphony as a whole it takes on the character of a reminiscence, a sustained vision of an idyllic landscape but framed between the threatening dark cliffs of the other movements. The principal melody exploits Mahler's technique of dividing the line between the first and second violin sections, creating a sense of one melodic wave riding over the other. The nature of this movement as an idyll is confirmed by the shift from its key of E flat major to Mahler's 'heavenly key' of E major, accompanied by the return of cowbells (this time heard as if close by, not in the distance as they were in the first movement). Twice the music breaks through into E major, but only momentarily. With the fall back to the main key the movement seems to confirm its own air of unreality and its status as a wistful memory, out of time and curiously distant from the rest of the work.

The peacefulness of its ending acts as a foil to the eruption with which the Finale begins. Where the landscape of the previous movement was idyllic, the one into which the listener is suddenly thrown in the Finale is utterly mysterious. As the operatic smoke clears, a violent restatement of the motto theme returns us to the world of the first movement and then falls away to nothingness. What emerges from the silence is the lone voice of a tuba. Disembodied fragments of a march theme appear, but without any energy to galvanise them. Gradually, the elements are assembled into something forward moving but each time it gets going it seems to be ripped up and has to start again. Battle ensues on a massive scale. Just as victory seems to be in sight and a breakthrough might be envisaged, the music is physically and brutally interrupted by a terrifying thud.

This is the first of Mahler's 'hammer blows'. In the score he directed that it should be delivered 'like an axe blow'. In the heroic narrative of the symphonic finale, the hero should pick himself up from this appalling set back and go on to win the day, just as he does in the First Symphony. Mahler's hero does indeed pick himself up but only to be struck down for a second time. Once more, he rises to his feet. At the very moment he seems to be about to win through he is utterly felled by a third blow from which he does not recover. A funereal cortège of four trombones accompanies the tuba to the end. A final, horrifying scream of the motto rings out, fades and is cut off by a single pizzicato in the strings, like a clod of earth hitting the lid of a coffin.

© Julian Johnson