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Mahler (1860-1911) - Symphony No. 6

Mahler's Sixth Symphony has perhaps justly been described by Alban Berg as “the only sixth, despite the 'pastoral'”. 

As Director 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 Sixth 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. 

“A Symphony 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 form. 

This is 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. 

The first 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. 

The development, 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. 

Mahler 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! 

Any hope 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 ... 

... to 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. 

Now to 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! 

The introduction 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. 

In such 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. 

Out of 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. 

Does any 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, pounding rhythm. 

I first 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, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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