Mahler: Songs and Symphonies

Symphony No. 6, “Tragic”

Program from 1947 Performance at Carnegie Hall of Mahler's Symphony No. 6

The Carnegie Hall and US premiere of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony took place on December 11, 1947, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

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The Symphony at a Glance

Mahler conducted his Sixth Symphony only three times in his career, and on the last occasion in Vienna, the title “Tragic” was printed in the program. While so much of Mahler’s music is deeply personal, and much of it despairing, in the Sixth he plumbed new depths. Long after his death, his widow recounted elaborate stories about the autobiographical meaning of the symphony, which culminates with “three blows of fate” sounded by a hammer in the last movement. The specific meaning of the Sixth Symphony will never be resolved, but its passion, integrity, and inventiveness remain extraordinarily powerful more than 100 years after its composition.

The Symphony In Depth

Composed in 1903–04, Mahler’s terrifying and tragic Sixth Symphony actually preceded those tragedies in his own life—beginning in 1907—that his wife, Alma, later associated with that symphony. That summer their younger daughter suffered a bout of scarlet fever and their elder daughter died from diphtheria and scarlet fever. Shortly thereafter, Mahler’s daily life was transformed by the diagnosis of a heart-valve ailment, which eventually led to his premature death at age 50; and finally, beset by personnel problems at the Vienna Opera, Mahler resigned and moved to New York soon thereafter. These three blows of fate, Alma believed, were foreshadowed in the Sixth Symphony's finale, when a large hammer strikes three times. “None of his works came so directly from his inmost heart as this,” Alma recalled, and after he first played it on the piano for her, they both wept.

Mahler often discussed his symphonies in terms of a heroic protagonist—a variant on Beethoven’s Third, Fifth, and Seventh symphonies, which outline a path from struggle to victory. But in Mahler’s Sixth, the hero does not survive: after the two blows of fate, each represented by a huge hammer blow, the last hammer blow “fells him like a tree,” Alma later recounted. Fearful of the omen, Mahler began to sob and wring his hands backstage before the premiere, unable to conduct with total concentration, and he ultimately deleted the third hammer blow.

The impact of the work was lost on critics at the first German performances in 1906, so at the Viennese premiere, in January 1907, Mahler had the title “Tragic” Symphony printed on the program books. But the Sixth Symphony is not programmatic to the extent that his earlier symphonies were. There is no sung text, nor are there titles for individual movements (and, after the Vienna premiere, Mahler never again used the title “Tragic”). Even the addition of non-symphonic instruments like a hammer and cowbells, which some contemporaries took as signs of a hidden story, were included merely to enrich the sound palette of the orchestra.

Wilhelm Furtwängler called it “the first nihilist work in the history of music.” The tale of destruction is so powerful because Mahler deploys all the conventions of the symphony, only to shatter them in the daring course of the finale. Mahler followed classical form more strictly than he had ever done before or ever would again: there are four movements, each in roughly the tempo, form, or character expected in a classical symphony. However, the symphony's sheer force in exacting rhythm, its great length and complexity, and its novel array of percussion instruments—a tam-tam (an untuned gong), tambourine, woodblocks, xylophone, and whip, in addition to the hammer—provoked scorn and ridicule from contemporaries. In rehearsals for the Viennese premiere, the orchestra members were so resistant to the role of the percussion that Mahler felt compelled to exaggerate, saying that he used only one percussion instrument at a time, so that the result was a new range of orchestral colors, not the mere “noise” then associated with percussion.

The Sixth Symphony is also a work of extremes in the character of the music. Three of the Symphony’s four movements are in the grim key of A minor and share thematic ideas. All three are punctuated throughout by a “fate motto”—here, an A-major chord that turns into A minor above a death-knell in the timpani. The andante, in the warm key of E-flat major, contrasts in every way with the other three movements. Mahler composed the andante to be the third movement, clearing the air for the massive finale. But during rehearsals for the premiere he conducted, Mahler reversed the order of the inner movements, with the andante in the traditional position as second movement. All his future performances retained that order.

Mahler composed the work at his lakeside summer villa, and in parts of this Sixth Symphony, he evokes the idea of Beethoven’s Sixth (his “Pastoral”) in modern guise. At the core of both outer movements lies a pastoral world apart, complete with cowbells. The escape works in the first movement, but when it reappears in the finale, it is only to be swept away by the momentum of the urban world and ultimately shattered by its force. One contemporary spoke of its “ghetto” tone, and until the ravages of World War I, almost no critics appreciated its driving march rhythms.

Audio Audio Excerpt 1

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" (I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo)

In the first movement, (Audio 1) the brusque opening march gives way to a slow chorale and then a “long and sweeping theme” in the violins, a melody that portrayed Alma, as Mahler himself told her. The exposition of these themes—from the brutal march to the chorale and the Alma theme—is repeated note-for-note, a classical convention Mahler hadn’t deployed since his First Symphony. In the central development section, the brusque pace of the march gives way to a pastoral interlude, with cowbells and the heavenly chimes of the celesta (an instrument then new to the concert hall, and one that the composer later used to symbolize eternity at the end of Das Lied von der Erde). To create an effect of wandering cows, Mahler asked the percussionist to ring a cowbell that hung from his neck as he walked around the orchestra. A similar dreamlike recollection of earlier themes occurs at various points in the ferocious last movement.

Audio Audio Excerpt 2

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" (III. Andante moderato)

The andante (Audio 2) opens with a tender melody in the muted strings. There is a melancholic English horn, an instrument not heard in the first movement. In the pastoral scene, the violins play “like a breath,” just as Mahler instructs in the closing “chorus mysticus” of the Eighth Symphony, another moment where we sense the voice of inspiration.

Audio Audio Excerpt 3

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" (II. Scherzo. Wuchtig)

The scherzo, (Audio 3) Alma believed, represented the “arhythmic playing of two small children in the sand, as they totter in zigzags.” (During the first summer he worked on the Sixth Symphony, Mahler often played with his two-year-old, dancing and singing with her, and during the second summer, Alma gave birth to their second child.) The image of two children playing captures well the character of the tentative and delicate “trio” section, which alternates with the main part of the movement. “Grandfatherly” is the image Mahler wanted performers to keep in mind. The rest of the movement has the same ferocious character as the outer movements. The score demands from the orchestra an “angry” and “whipped” sound.

Audio Audio Excerpt 4

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" (IV. Finale)

The finale, (Audio 4) which usually takes about 30 minutes, is the longest concluding movement of a Mahler symphony (the second of the Eighth’s two movements hardly counts as a finale). To prepare listeners for its novelty and horror, Mahler wrote perhaps the longest slow introduction to any finale—a movement that normally has no slow introduction. After an eerie sweep in the strings, it begins with a slow introduction that evokes the very opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and of virtually all of Bruckner’s symphonies: individual motives emerge one by one, against a hazy backdrop that again includes cowbells.

Audio Audio Excerpt 5

Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" (IV. Finale)

Audio excerpted from Carnegie Hall presents Leonard Bernstein: The Mahler Symphonies / Sony Classical

The classical symmetry of the first movement is destroyed: the brutal march and the ebullient lyrical theme return in reverse order in the last third of the movement. The layering of instruments and intricate development of themes and fragments make it almost impossible, in any case, to recognize the individual sections in this apocalyptic buildup of march rhythms, crashing brass, and dark harmonies. The movement is clearest in the central development section, where a large hammer (Audio 5) (“strong but dull blow, like the stroke of a hatchet,” Mahler requested) slams down at two points. These are the high points in the movement’s ever-growing complexity: above the dizzying runs in the strings, the brass stretch out one of the main ideas in the movement to the breaking point. The opening segment of the finale returns twice in the midst of dizzying march rhythms, and then a third time, only to expire in the bleakest ending Mahler ever wrote. The final, somber dialogue between tuba and trombones, with a timpani roll, evokes a requiem. The Sixth is Mahler’s only symphony that doesn’t end in victory or transfiguration, but the listener is prepared for tragedy as the only natural outcome of the finale’s dark course.

—Karen Painter
© The Carnegie Hall Corporation