Symphony No. 6 in A minor
“My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack.” (Mahler, in a letter to conductor Willem Mengelberg)
Gustav Mahler was, and remains, a controversial composer. As a conductor, he was the dominant figure in Vienna’s music scene – celebrated as a musician but reviled for his difficult and neurotic personality as well as for his Jewish heritage, despite the fact that he converted to Catholicism. As a composer, he wore his emotional heart on his sleeve, transforming his psychological peculiarities into brilliant, emotionally charged music. Today, he elicits extreme responses on the love/hate spectrum.
Born in a small town in what is now the Czech Republic, Mahler showed early musical gifts. He entered the Vienna Conservatory at 15 and in the summer of 1880, at 20, he landed the first of a series of minor conducting jobs in a summer theater in Austria, an obligatory apprenticeship for advancement in opera, the most prestigious genre of the time. From 1891 to 1897 he was conductor at the Hamburg Opera and from 1894, of the subscription concerts there as well. By 1897 he was named Kapellmeister and then Director of the most prestigious musical organization of the time, the Vienna Hofoper, at the time the most prestigious posts in the musical world. He left the post in acrimony in 1907, the result of Vienna’s virulent anti-Semitism and the composer’s abrasive personality.
Such a meteoric rise and hectic schedule left him little time for composing, usually only during the summer recess. Mahler nevertheless completed nine massive symphonies and numerous songs and song cycles. These works, especially the symphonies, were innovative and challenging, and for nearly 50 years were only occasionally performed. Only in the 1960s did they finally become standard fare on orchestra programs, championed by Leonard Bernstein. As late as 1972, however, Bernstein had to cajole and browbeat the Vienna Philharmonic to take Mahler’s music seriously.
Mahler composed the Symphony No. 6 between 1903 and 1905, originally giving it the title “Tragic,” although he withdrew the title before going to print. Composers have traditionally had to accept, or even endure, publishers’ or audiences’ nicknames for their great achievements. Mahler’s symphonies, however, are all narrative – and autobiographical – in nature; such titles, whether originally conceived and withdrawn or appended by third parties, give some insight into the composer’s fundamental conception of his work. Nevertheless, The title is ironic to a work written when the composer was at the happiest point in his life.
Mahler’s earlier five symphonies may have opened tragically, but they all close in triumph. In the Sixth, the happy denouement never comes. The tragedy lies in the composer’s monumental struggle with fate, which denotes physical and psychological suffering against intransigent barriers, as opposed to mere death. This theme forms the narrative of all his symphonies. Without giving his musical symbols Wagnerian names, he already had established a vocabulary and grammar with which – he would have insisted – we should be familiar.
Mahler’s symphonies can break today’s financially beleaguered orchestras with the need to hire the greatest complement of pick-up players in the repertory, and the Sixth demands the largest orchestra of all: doubling and redoubling of all the conventional instruments plus a percussion section consisting of no fewer than 14 different instruments – many in multiple sets as well. His orchestration frequently enhances the emotive and narrative contradictions by pitting of the most blaring tutti against delicate chamber ensembles.
The first movement of the Sixth introduces the battle between strife and resolution, made conveniently clear in the first and second themes. It opens with the emblematic Mahler funereal, if not funeral, march, punctuated by a two-chord, major-to-minor motive on the trumpets and oboes. This chord progression recurs throughout the symphony as a condensed symbol of the existential dichotomy. The second theme, played by the violins, is a gentle, almost loving melody, which also recurs and has been thought by some musicologists to represent Alma. Its mood dominates – although not without strife – the movement. Two further themes, perhaps also “Alma” themes, are a celesta solo and an oboe solo.
The slow movements of Mahler’s later symphonies always present a respite from the funereal atmosphere of the other movements. If, indeed, they represent Alma, they suggest that through her – and love in general – can existential pessimism be attenuated. The movement contains restricted thematic material, which Mahler constantly redefines and transforms. The second section of the “aria” is a haunting English horn solo. Running through the movement is a gentle murmuring motive eventually accompanied by Mahler’s cowbells.
The scherzo, marked Wuchtig (Massive), is deliberately and doggedly tuneless. It’s all about a simple rhythm, three quarter notes in 3/4 time. Beginning with an initial statement of the motive in an angry timpani solo, Mahler casts this motive in as many ways as symphonically possible, constantly changing the orchestration and juxtaposing contrasting dynamics and tempi. The movement conforms to the basic scherzo/trio structure only in its broadest outlines. Melodically and harmonically, he continually sets up expectations but he never meets or resolves them, and the tension produced by the combination of all these characteristics conveys a sense of doom and even chaos.
The final movement, the longest of the four, returns to the battle, seesawing between resolution and disaster. In fact, it has been pointed out that every melody Mahler invents he eventually distorts or ridicules – a characteristic his previous symphonies as well.
The symphonies usually contain one or more unconventional gestures – for which he was vigorously criticized – such as cowbells in the Fourth and this one, oboe glissandi in the Third (which sound like the principal oboe is having a bad reed day). The final movement of the Sixth is punctuated by three ominous hammer blows, which Mahler described in the score as: “Short, powerful, but with muffled resonance, of non-metallic character (like the stroke of an axe).” The superstitious Alma interpreted the third blow as harbinger of death and demanded that he remove it, initiating a heated and protracted argument. Mahler, who had his own superstitions, eventually excised the third hammer blow in a later edition. (How two versus three would have substantively neutralized the omen is unclear, probably having something to do with the symbol-laden number 3.) Today, most conductors put the third blow back, citing various musical reasons, but probably because the swinging of a giant wooden mallet on a huge wooden block makes for good theater.
For a full half hour, the movement brings together all of the emotional turmoil of the preceding three, leaving the listener in doubt until the very end as to the outcome of the existential narrative. The “battle” begins in the first few measures: celesta, harp and violins versus timpani. By the middle of the movement, the most lugubrious funeral march of Mahler’s many, suggests that the battle is lost; it concludes with the major/minor trumpet motive from the first movement that signaled the pessimistic tone of the entire piece. The sudden increase in tempo and galloping rhythm foreshadows the sudden appearance of the “cavalry” so popular in films of the forties and fifties. It brings new energy to the moribund “hero,” even stampeding over the trumpet motive. But those fateful hammer blows eventually seal his fate. One of Mahler’s signatures is the alternation between full orchestra fortissimo and smaller chamber ensembles, so that even after the first of the hammer blows, an oboe/violin duet intervenes. A number of Mahler scholars give these quiet moments symbolic significance associated with Alma, but one should not indulge in too much literal story telling. Before the denouement, the solo oboe returns with some respite before the crashing close.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016|