On Friday 1st December, Gothenburg Symphony streams its performance of Mahler’s mighty Sixth Symphony with conductor Christoph Eschenbach. In this instalment of the At Home Guide, we introduce you to the symphony that has come to be known as the “Tragic”.

Photo of Gustav Mahler by Moriz Nähr
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

A tragic story?

It has been described as “the first nihilist work in the history of music” by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Mahler’s friend Bruno Walter refused to conduct the piece, claiming that it “ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul.” At the 1906 première, the Essen audience barely knew how to react to the work. No one disputes that the picture presented by the Sixth is largely one of woe: from the martial rhythms that open the first movement to the doom-laden crashes that close the fourth, the emotional register is dominated by dread. Some have said the perceived brutality of moments in the symphony can be seen as an eerie anticipation of the storm clouds of war gathering over Europe, and it seems that the composer’s wife, Alma, had a sense of this when he first played the piece to her on the piano, as she remembered: “Of all his works this was the most personal... We were both in tears... so deeply did we feel this music and the sinister premonitions it disclosed.”

Yet despite the largely gloomy sentiment of the work, it might not wholly be deserving of the “Tragic” nickname that was attached to it (it’s unclear whether Mahler himself added this subtitle or not). The work oscillates between major and minor keys, suggesting a continual conflict between positive and negative emotions. Meanwhile, the first movement contains themes of palpable romance, which supposedly relate to Alma. The pair had married in 1902, two years before Mahler finished the work, and their second daughter was born while he was composing the piece. If things were going so well in the composer’s life, why is does the piece feel so overwhelmingly gloomy? Such points would seem to disprove any autobiographical reading of the Sixth.

Orchestral manoeuvres

Gustav Mahler in 1909
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

A much-discussed contention with Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is the order in which its four movements should be played. Specifically, the controversy surrounds the matter of which out of the Scherzo and Andante movements should come second in the scheme of the piece. Originally, Mahler intended the Scherzo to come second, after the Allegro and before the Andante. At the Essen première which he conducted, however, he changed his mind and had the Scherzo placed after the Andante. Mahler’s indecision over the order of these movements speaks to his anxieties over the public reception of his work. He had made a huge name for himself and built a horde of fans over the course of the 1890s, but he still took negative criticism strongly to heart. His decision to swap around the movements may well have been a result of such anxieties.

Though Mahler made sure that an erratum, specifying the Andante—Scherzo ordering, was placed into all copies of the first published edition of the symphony, the seeds of confusion seemed to already have been sown. Eight years after her husband’s death, Alma suggested to the conductor Wilhelm Mengelberg that it should be played Scherzo—Andante. This ordering was repeated in a 1963 critical edition of the work by the music theorist Erwin Ratz. He believed that Mahler had “changed his mind a second time” about the ordering before his death, and his critical edition was highly influential in the history of the work’s performance. However, the musicologist cited no documentary evidence, so we cannot be sure of this interpretation.  

More cowbell!

As a child growing up in rural Bohemia, Mahler had walked along the mountain paths near his home. Undoubtedly during these walks, the distant ringing of cowbells would never have been far from his hearing. Despite its overarching fatalism, there are moments of pastoral poise in the Sixth Symphony that relate directly to these bucolic childhood scenes. Mahler introduces cowbells both on and offstage in the first, third and fourth movements, suggesting a countryside counterpoint to the angst-filled scenes in much of the rest of the symphony. These are particularly notable in the middle part of the first movement, a section which Mahler claimed reflected the “last earthly sounds heard from the valley below by the departing spirit on the mountain top”. Moreover, he specified that the percussion instruments “should be played with discretion – so as to produce a realistic impression of a grazing herd of cattle, coming from a distance.” The soft, mysterious sounds of the celesta and harp are also used to add extra textural depth to such passages.

Absolutely hammered

Alma with the Mahler's children Maria and Anna
© Wikimedia Commons | Public domain

Another famous feature of the Sixth Symphony are the ear-splitting thumps that punctuate the climactic moments of the fourth movement. In these points, the composer called for a Hammerschlag (hammer blow), which should be “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)”. In these moments, the percussionist strikes an object – usually a crate or barrel that they’ve improvised themselves – with a large mallet, creating a fear-inducing percussive sound. But what was the purpose of such a novel device? Many commentators have linked the hammer blows with the notion of fate, a force which Mahler considered as having a powerful effect over people’s lives. This association of the hammer blows with fate stems largely from Alma, who said that the strikes of the hammer represent the blows of fate hitting a hero, “the third of which fells him like a tree”. Critics have also linked a prominent motif in the trumpets and oboes of the first movement to fate, adding to the overall fatalistic aura.

The hammer blows, however, are another detail over which the anxious Mahler agonised – and perhaps with good reason, if some accounts are to be believed. Initially he planned for five of the earth-shattering hits, then he decided on three. Then, some critics believe, his superstitious nature got the better of him, and he deleted one of the blows in order to avoid the “blows of fate” being felt in his own life. Eerily, three events occurred the following year that really did rock the composer’s world: his eldest daughter died, he was forced to resign from his directorship at the Vienna State Opera and he was diagnosed with the heart condition that would eventually kill him. Nowadays, the piece is performed variously with two or three hammer blows, depending on the sensibilities of the conductor. At any rate, it’s certain that an interpreter of this epic piece, with both its bucolic retreats and moments of fatalistic conflict, should always bear in mind Mahler’s words, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

Gothenburg Symphony’s performance of Mahler’s Sixth will stream at this address. 

To watch video performances of Mahler’s work on demand, go here.