Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphony No. 6
Symphony has perhaps justly been described by Alban Berg as “the only
sixth, despite the 'pastoral'”.
of the Vienna Opera, arguably the world's most prestigious musical post,
Mahler was a very busy man, with little time for composing. Far from being
ground down by his work, he revelled in the challenges - both artistic
and political - and enjoyed vigorous activities like swimming and walking
high in the mountains. Following his appointment in 1898, he bought some
land at Maiernigg am Würthersee, on which he built a chalet
with a separate lakeside “composing hut”. Here he spent many summers, recharging
his batteries and pouring his creative energies into his own music. The
Symphony was started in 1903, and substantially completed in 1904,
a particularly happy time spent with his wife Alma and their two infant
daughters. No-one knows for sure how the fruit of such a serene summer
was music of such bitter pessimism.
must be like the World!” proclaimed Mahler, and justified it with eleven
stupendous works, in each setting himself a new challenge (the Brandenburg
Concertos are a striking analogy). The first four symphonies all involved
a literal text. No. 1 had a symbiotic relationship to the Wayfarer
songs. In Nos. 2 - 4, which drew both text and inspiration
from Wunderhorn poems, he used programmatic “scaffolding” to help
him build his unprecedented structures, However, the dependence progressively
lessened - Mahler was learning his trade. The Fifth Symphony was
a new and radical departure - wholly instrumental, “absolute” music with
a daring, innovative, brilliantly integrated structure. Now fully matured,
he was ready to face his greatest challenge yet - to compose a symphony
which would be his most avant garde, yet within the constraints of a classical
just one of the dualities which pepper Mahler's music. Dualities make conflicts,
and conflicts make drama. His aim was to take the classical symphonic structure
- sonata, ternary form dance, variation form slow movement, sonata - and
use it to bind dangerously explosive materials. The first movement's
literal exposition repeat is part of this duality between transparently
classical sonata structure and intensely psychotic material - drama at
once bound and unbridled. Similarly, the scherzo's extended ternary structure
is under threat from the strain imposed by a venomous danse macabre
(some “joke”!). Considering Mahler's mastery it is puzzling that he could
not settle the order of the inner movements. Sir Simon Rattle recently
concluded that the Andante should come first. Others disagree. The jury
is still out.
movement opens “allegro energico, ma non troppo”, which presumably means
not too fast, as Mahler would never expect less than maximum energy.
But how fast? The bass-heavy tramping is dogged, world-weary, but the biting
upward thrusts and incisive whirling of the strings betray a flashing resistance
to subjugation. The ambivalent mood of “abject defiance” is interrupted
by a pounding “left, left, left-right-left” on tympani dragging a triad
from major to minor, a crucial motif leading to a shocking transformation
of the march theme. It sounds so poised and refined! - hellfire and brimstone
have become a chorale from heaven, as if the spirit of Bach, disapproving,
had influenced Mahler's hand. Before we can recover, Mahler launches his
second subject, a mirror image of the first, flying as free as the former
plodded in bondage, and just as ambivalent with an embedded subtext based
on the first subject.
creeping in with a couple of baleful downward swoops, is less complex and
extensive than the materials suggest. A hammering climax, xylophone and
woodwind shrilling, suddenly yields to the movement's emotional core, a
serene oasis recalling that earlier “refined” bit, but now bathed in an
impressionistic colour owing as much to Mahler's scintillating dissonances
as to his orchestration. Distant cowbells evoke a mood of mountain reverie,
all too soon broken by a bustling, alarmingly classical modulating sequence,
running inexorably into the braying recapitulation.
strays a little from his classical path, varying the reprise, notably spinning
out the second subject wistfully, fading gradually into a bible-black silence.
The coda, one of Mahler's great transitions, starts off dominated by the
miry march, but ends with the second subject soaring joyfully - this
is the symphony's moment of triumph!
that this has cleared the air is immediately quashed - the scherzo is like
something from everyone's worst nightmare - and the effect is cumulative,
building in intensity as the themes evolve. It opens with that same grim
stamping, now in triple time, quickly climaxing with a reappearance of
the first movement's xylophone/woodwind shrilling, now shrieking with manic
ferocity. Mahler likened the trio music to the stumblings of very young
children at play, intended, surely, to suggest the asymmetry - things get
a bit too wild to be children at play! The colours are fantastic,
due not least to Mahler's wonderfully original percussion, whose effects
are often deliberately crude, in keeping with the savagery of the music,
which finally subsides, exhausted ...
emerge, it would seem, on the tranquil slopes of an Austrian mountainside!
The andante moderato is often played deadslowissimo (or slower!)
by performers anxious to milk its serenity, which, allied to a rather four-square
main theme and the repetition of a five-note motif, can easily make it
sound mechanical. At the right tempo, the “rocking” nature of many of the
phrases starts to lilt. This classical set of variations (just like Haydn,
only bigger), is a brilliant amplification of the first movement's device,
forming an oasis within the context of the whole work.
the imposing edifice of the 30 minute finale – “allegro moderato”(!). What
an incredible piece of music this is, like the finale of Beethoven's Seventh,
full of wild, rampaging energy that is nevertheless bound by the discipline
of a strict form. The shadow of Bach again looms, perhaps less than obviously.
The overlaid parts are polyphonic, but in spite of the immense weight of
the sound remain sharply etched in the texture. Only the (ad lib.) tubular
bells in the introduction swirl like a brief miasma in the pre-dawn of
the day of battle. The main impression, most evident to a first-time (i.e.
shell-shocked) audience, is the cinematographic sweep of the epic drama
that unfurls, with barely a let-up, right through its colossal span. Don't
be surprised if you spot Indiana Jones among the percussion!
figures in my Top Ten Most Impressive Bits Of Music. Jack Diether described
it as “haunted by the ghosts of themes past and yet to come”, an evocative
phrase pinpointing its significance within the movement's framework - like
a cauldron into which Mahler pours his ingredients, to brew before emerging,
transformed, onto the battleground of the finale proper.
a vast, complex movement, especially one so crammed with event, the conductor
has somehow to elucidate the structure, the extended sonata form that distinguishes
this from a half-hour riot. The tripartite nature of the development and
the telescoped recapitulation were features which Mahler signposted using
dramatic devices, the infamous Hammer Blows being the most obvious. Mahler
withdrew the third and final of these “three blows of Fate” for fear of
tempting that implacable deity (in vain, as it happened), and by his superstition
sacrificed part of a key structural device. The Hammer Blow is described
as “a short, sharp, extremely powerful effect, un-metallic
in character, like the stroke of an axe”, an effect yet to be realised
in performance, 90 years on.
the gloom of the introduction, the music drags itself into a sombre, pitch-black
dirge, from which grows a long multiple crescendo culminating in the exposition
proper - a bold, dynamic march. The recapitulation is identified by a full
restatement of this march, sounding bruised and beset by screeching furies,
cracks appearing between its phrases. Here defeat becomes inevitable, heralded
by a cruelly intensified resurgence of the first movement's parade-ground
rhythm and the accompanying fateful major-to-minor triad.
other musical work end in such utter abjection? The long, stark coda is
still shocking, solo brass crawling over one another like the wounded and
dying of the music's imaginary battleground, descending into deathly darkness,
and a final, appalling shriek of agony, the fateful triad now shorn of
any trace of the major, crushed under the terrible weight of that brutal,
encountered this work as a youth, not long inflamed by Mahler's unique
sound-worlds, quite by accident. At a Bradford concert, Barbirolli had
to substitute the Sixth in place of the Resurrection. I knew
nothing of the Sixth (had it been a film, I wouldn't have been allowed
in!), and the drily analytical programme note did little to prepare me.
By the end, I was shattered. Never before or since has music had such a
profound effect, both mental and physical, on me. I left the hall feeling
utterly drained, but also curiously elated. That, I am sure, is
the mark of truly great music.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.