|Symphony No. 6|
|by Gustav Mahler|
|Recorded||F. Charles Adler, Vienna Symphony, 1952|
|Date||27 May 1906|
The Symphony No. 6 in A minor by Gustav Mahler is a symphony in four movements, composed in 1903 and 1904, with revisions from 1906. It is sometimes nicknamed the Tragic ("Tragische"), though the origin of the name is unclear.
Mahler conducted the work's first performance at the Saalbau concert hall in Essen on May 27, 1906. Mahler composed the symphony at what was apparently an exceptionally happy time in his life, as he had married Alma Schindler in 1902, and during the course of the work's composition his second daughter was born. This contrasts with the tragic, even nihilistic, ending of No. 6. Both Alban Berg and Anton Webern praised the work when they first heard it. Berg expressed his opinion of the stature of this symphony in a 1908 letter to Webern:
The symphony is scored for large orchestra, consisting of the following:
In addition to very large woodwind and brass sections, Mahler augmented the percussion section with several unusual instruments, including the famous "Mahler hammer". The sound of the hammer, which features in the last movement, was stipulated by Mahler to be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)." The sound achieved in the premiere did not quite carry far enough from the stage, and indeed the problem of achieving the proper volume while still remaining dull in resonance remains a challenge to the modern orchestra. Various methods of producing the sound have involved a wooden mallet striking a wooden surface, a sledgehammer striking a wooden box, or a particularly large bass drum, or sometimes simultaneous use of more than one of these methods. The use of the hammer was commentated ironically by contemporaries, as shown by a caricature from the satirical magazine Die Muskete.
The status of the symphony's nickname is problematic. Mahler did not title the symphony when he composed it, or at its first performance or first publication. When he allowed Richard Specht to analyse the work and Alexander von Zemlinsky to arrange the symphony, he did not authorize any sort of nickname for the symphony. He had, as well, decisively rejected and disavowed the titles (and programmes) of his earlier symphonies by 1900. Only the words "Sechste Sinfonie" appeared on the programme for the performance in Munich on November 8, 1906. Nor does the word Tragische appear on any of the scores that C. F. Kahnt published (first edition, 1906; revised edition, 1906), in Specht's officially approved Thematische Führer ('thematic guide') or on Zemlinsky's piano duet transcription (1906). By contrast, in his Gustav Mahler memoir, Bruno Walter claimed that "Mahler called [the work] his Tragic Symphony". Additionally, the programme for the first Vienna performance (January 4, 1907) refers to the work as "Sechste Sinfonie (Tragische)".
The work is in four movements and has a duration of around 80 minutes. The order of the inner movements has been a matter of controversy (vide infra). The first published edition of the score (C. F. Kahnt, 1906) featured the movements in the following order:
However, Mahler subsequently placed the Andante as the second movement, and this new order of the inner movements was reflected in the second and third published editions of the score, as well as the Essen premiere.
The first three movements are relatively traditional in structure and character, with a standard sonata form first movement (even including an exact repeat of the exposition, unusual in Mahler) leading to the middle movements - one a scherzo-with-trios, the other slow. However, attempts to analyze the vast finale in terms of the sonata archetype have encountered serious difficulties. As Dika Newlin has pointed out:
"it has elements of what is conventionally known as 'sonata form', but the music does not follow a set pattern ... Thus, 'expositional' treatment merges directly into the type of contrapuntal and modulatory writing appropriate to 'elaboration' sections ...; the beginning of the principal theme-group is recapitulated in C minor rather than in A minor, and the C minor chorale theme ... of the exposition is never recapitulated at all"
The first movement, which for the most part has the character of a march, features a motif consisting of an A major triad turning to A minor over a distinctive timpani rhythm. The chords are played by trumpets and oboes when first heard, with the trumpets sounding the loudest in the first chord and the oboes in the second.
This motif reappears in subsequent movements. The first movement also features a soaring melody which the composer's wife, Alma Mahler, claimed represented her. This melody is often called the "Alma theme". A restatement of that theme at the movement's end marks the happiest point of the symphony.
The scherzo marks a return to the unrelenting march rhythms of the first movement, though in a 'triple-time' metrical context.
Its trio (the middle section), marked Altväterisch ('old-fashioned'), is rhythmically irregular (4
8 switching to 3
8 and 3
4) and of a somewhat gentler character.
According to Alma Mahler, in this movement Mahler "represented the arrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand". The chronology of its composition suggests otherwise. The movement was composed in the summer of 1903, when Maria Anna (born November 1902) was less than a year old. Anna Justine was born a year later in July 1904.
The andante provides a respite from the intensity of the rest of the work. Its main theme is an introspective ten-bar phrase in E♭ major, though it frequently touches on the minor mode as well. The orchestration is more delicate and reserved in this movement, making it all the more poignant when compared to the other three.
The last movement is an extended sonata form, characterized by drastic changes in mood and tempo, the sudden change of glorious soaring melody to deep agony.
Alma quoted her husband as saying that these were three mighty blows of fate befallen by the hero, "the third of which fells him like a tree". She identified these blows with three later events in Gustav Mahler's own life: the death of his eldest daughter Maria Anna Mahler, the diagnosis of an eventually fatal heart condition, and his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera and departure from Vienna. When he revised the work, Mahler removed the last of these three hammer strokes so that the music built to a sudden moment of stillness in place of the third blow. Some recordings and performances, notably those of Leonard Bernstein, have restored the third hammer blow. The piece ends with the same rhythmic motif that appeared in the first movement, but the chord above it is a simple A minor triad, rather than A major turning into A minor. After the third 'hammer-blow' passage, the music gropes in darkness and then the trombones and horns begin to offer consolation. However, after they turn briefly to major they fade away and the final bars erupt fff in the minor.
Controversy exists over the order of the two middle movements. Mahler conceived the work as having the scherzo second and the slow movement third, a somewhat unclassical arrangement adumbrated in such earlier large-scale symphonies as Beethoven's No. 9, Bruckner's No. 8 and (unfinished) No. 9, and Mahler's own four-movement No. 1 and No. 4. It was in this arrangement that the symphony was completed (in 1904) and published (in March 1906); and it was with a conducting score in which the scherzo preceded the slow movement that Mahler began rehearsals for the work's first performance, as noted by Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de La Grange:
"Scherzo 2" was undeniably the original order, the one in which Mahler first conceived, composed, and published the Sixth Symphony, and also the one in which he rehearsed the work with two different orchestras before changing his mind at the last minute before the premiere.
Alfred Roller, a close collaborator and colleague of Mahler's in Vienna, communicated in a 2 May 1906 letter to his fiancée Mileva Stojsavljevic, on the Mahlers' reaction to the 1 May 1906 orchestral rehearsal of the work in Vienna, in its original movement order:
Today I was there at noon, but I could not talk much with Alma, since M[ahler] was almost always there, I saw only that the two of them were very happy and satisfied...
During those later May 1906 rehearsals in Essen, however, Mahler decided that the slow movement should precede the scherzo. Klaus Pringsheim, another colleague of Mahler's at the Hofoper, reminisced in a 1920 article on the situation at the Essen rehearsals, on Mahler's state of mind at the time:
Those close to him were well aware of Mahler's "insecurity". Even after the final rehearsal he was still not sure whether or not he had found the right tempo for the Scherzo, and had wondered whether he should invert the order of the second and third movements (which he subsequently did).
Mahler instructed his publishers Christian Friedrich Kahnt to prepare a "second edition" of the work with the movements in that order, and meanwhile to insert errata slips indicating the change of order into all unsold copies of the existing edition. Mahler conducted the 27 May 1906 public premiere, and his other two subsequent performances of the Sixth Symphony, in November 1906 (Munich) and 4 January 1907 (Vienna) with his revised order of the inner movements. In the period immediately after Mahler's death, scholars such as Paul Bekker, Ernst Decsey, Richard Specht, and Paul Stefan published studies with reference to the Sixth Symphony in Mahler's second edition with the Andante/Scherzo order.
One of the first occasions after Mahler's death where the conductor reverted to the original movement order is in 1919/1920, after an inquiry in the autumn of 1919 from Willem Mengelberg to Alma Mahler in preparation for the May 1920 Mahler Festival in Amsterdam of the complete symphonies, regarding the order of the inner movements of the Sixth Symphony. In a telegram dated 1 October 1919, Alma responded to Mengelberg:
Erst Scherzo dann Andante herzlichst Alma ("First Scherzo then Andante affectionately Alma")
Mengelberg, who had been in close touch with Mahler until the latter's death, and had conducted the symphony in the "Andante/Scherzo" arrangement up to 1916, then switched to the "Scherzo/Andante" order. In his own copy of the score, he wrote on the first page:
Nach Mahlers Angabe II erst Scherzo dann III Andante ("According to Mahler's indications, first II Scherzo, then III Andante")
Other conductors, such as Oskar Fried, continued to perform (and eventually record) the work as 'Andante/Scherzo', per the second edition, right up to the early 1960s. Exceptions included two performances in Vienna on 14 December 1930 and 23 May 1933, conducted by Anton Webern, who utilised the Scherzo/Andante order of the inner movements. Anna Mahler, Mahler's daughter, attended both of these performances. De La Grange commented on Webern's choice of the Scherzo/Andante order:
In 1963, a new critical edition of the Sixth Symphony appeared, under the auspices of the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft (IGMG) and its president, Erwin Ratz, a pupil of Webern, an edition which restored Mahler's original order of the inner movements. Ratz, however, did not offer documented support, such as Alma Mahler's 1919 telegram, for his assertion that Mahler "changed his mind a second time" at some point before his death. In his analysis of the Sixth Symphony, Norman Del Mar argued for the Andante/Scherzo order of the inner movements, and criticised the Ratz edition for its lack of documentary evidence to justify the Scherzo/Andante order. In contrast, scholars such as Theodor W. Adorno, Henry-Louis de La Grange, Hans-Peter Jülg and Karl Heinz Füssl have argued for the original order as more appropriate, expostulating on the overall tonal scheme and the various relationships between the keys in the final three movements. Füssl, in particular, noted that Ratz made his decision under historical circumstances where the history of the different autographs and versions was not completely known at the time. Füssl has also noted the following features of the Scherzo/Andante order:
The 1968 Eulenberg Edition of the Sixth Symphony, edited by Hans Redlich, restores most of Mahler's original orchestration and utilises the original order of Scherzo/Andante for the order of the middle movements. The most recent IGMG critical edition of the Sixth Symphony was published in 2010, under the general editorship of Reinhold Kubik, and uses the Andante/Scherzo order for the middle movements. Kubik had previously declared in 2004:
This statement has been criticised, in the manner of earlier criticism of Ratz, on several levels:
British composer David Matthews was a former adherent of the Andante/Scherzo order, but has since changed his mind and now argues for Scherzo/Andante as the preferred order, again citing the overall tonal scheme of the symphony. In keeping with Mahler's original order, British conductor John Carewe has noted parallels between the tonal plan of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 and Mahler's Symphony No. 6, with the Scherzo/Andante order of movements in the latter. David Matthews has noted the interconnectivity of the first movement with the Scherzo as similar to Mahler's interconnectivity of the first two movements of the Fifth Symphony, and that performing the Mahler with the Andante/Scherzo order would damage the structure of the tonal key relationships and remove this parallel, a structural disruption of what de La Grange has described as follows:
"...that very idea which many listeners today consider one of the most audacious and brilliant ever conceived by Mahler -: the linking of two movements - one in quadruple, the other in triple time - with more or less the same thematic material"
Moreover, de La Grange, referring to the 1919 Mengelberg telegram, has questioned the notion of Alma simply expressing a personal view of the movement order, and reiterates the historical fact of the original movement order:
"The fact that the initial order had the composer's stamp of approval for two whole years prior to the premiere argues for further performances in that form...
"It is far more likely ten years after Mahler's death and with a much clearer perspective on his life and career, Alma would have sought to be faithful to his artistic intentions. Thus, her telegram of 1919 still remains a strong argument today in favour of Mahler's original order...it is stretching the bounds of both language and reason to describe [Andante-Scherzo] as the "only correct" one. Mahler's Sixth Symphony, like many other compositions in the repertory, will always remain a "dual-version" work, but few of the others have attracted quite as much controversy."
De La Grange has noted the justification of having both options available for conductors to choose:
"...given that Mahler changed his mind so many times, it is understandable that a conductor might nowadays wish to stand by the order in the second version, if he is deeply convinced that he can serve the work better by doing this."
Mahler scholar Donald Mitchell echoed the dual-version scenario and the need for the availability of both options:
"I believe that all serious students of his music should make up their own minds about which order in their view represents Mahler's genius. He was after all in two minds about it himself. We should let the music - how we hear it - decide! For me there is no right or wrong in this matter. We should continue to hear, quite legitimately, both versions of the symphony, according to the convictions of the interpreters involved. After all the first version has a fascinating history and legitimacy endowed by none other than the composer himself! Of course we must respect the fact of his final change of mind but to imagine that we should accept this without debate or comment beggars belief."
Matthews, Paul Banks and scholar Warren Darcy (the last an advocate for the Andante/Scherzo order) have independently proposed the idea of two separate editions of the symphony, one to accommodate each version of the order of the inner movements. Music commentator David Hurwitz has likewise remarked:
"So as far as the facts go, then, we have on the one hand what Mahler actually did when he last performed the symphony, and on the other hand, what he originally composed and what his wife reported that he ultimately wanted. Any objective observer would be compelled to admit that this constitutes strong evidence for both perspectives. This being the case, the responsible thing to do in revisiting the need for a new Critical Edition would be to set out all of the arguments on each side, and then take no position. Let the performers decide, and admit frankly that if the criterion for making a decision regarding the correct order of the inner movements must be what Mahler himself ultimately wanted, then no final answer is possible."
An additional question is on whether to restore the third hammer blow. Both the Ratz edition and the Kubik edition delete the third hammer blow. However, advocates on opposite sides of the inner movement debate, such as Del Mar and Matthews, have separately argued for restoration of the third hammer blow.
This discography encompasses both audio and video recordings, and classifies them as to the order of the middle movements. Recordings with three hammer blows in the finale are noted with an asterisk.