After the Fifth Symphony, Mahler embarked on a new path. Not only did he renounce the human voice, but also the programmes he had deemed useful to facilitate understanding of his pieces. As a result, you often have to rely on very modest clues to decipher the meaning and “message” behind the three instrumental symphonies. The journey accomplished by the imaginary “hero” in the Fifth Symphony seemed relatively simple, departing from the initial Funeral March to the joyful Rondo-Finale: “per aspera in astra”. In the Sixth Symphony, however, the determination and hostile nature of the first movement only escalates in the Finale which, despite everything, ends in defeat with nothing to sweeten the bitterness. These notes of defeat and bitterness are somewhat unexpected considering that Mahler’s life at the time did not seem to warrant such gloomy pessimism.
In 1903, the year he started the Sixth Symphony, Mahler successfully imposed his authority and original designs on the Vienna Opera by starting his long collaboration with the great painter and decorator Alfred Roller. As a composer, he finally began to be recognised and had succeeded in finding an editor, C.F. Peters, one of the most well-known in Germany at the time. Unfortunately, there is very little information available on the actual composition of the Sixth Symphony because, unlike Nathalie Bauer-Lechner, Alma was never a particularly avid follower of her husband’s creative life. All we know is that Mahler, a young married man and now the father of a little girl, arrived in Maiernigg on 10th June 1903, and set to work almost immediately. Alma says that he once came down from the Häuschen and said to him: “I tried to portray you in a motion. I don’t know if I succeeded, but you’ll have to be happy with it!” This is the second major element of the first movement, one of the only resolutely “positive” gestures contained within the piece. An ascending, then descending, energetic and purposeful motion, above which Mahler noted in the score: “Schwungvoll” (full of go, vigorous). As was quite commonplace when finishing part of his work, Mahler left Maiernigg on 20th July to get away, undertaking a short train journey in the Dolomites with his bicycle. Five weeks later, when returning to Vienna, he had completed the Particell of the two intermediate movements, and probably also drafted the first.
Early the following summer, Alma’s arrival at Maiernigg was delayed by more than a fortnight because she was struggling after the birth of her second daughter, Anna, nicknamed Gucki. It was during this month of June 1904 that heaven and earth seem to have ganged up on Mahler as he struggled to resume his work. During these long days of solitude and enforced idleness, the weather in Wörthersee was atrocious: heavy skies, thunderstorms, and torrential rain. Mahler spent his time reading Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and the sinister Confessions of Tolstoi, He also sight-read Brahms and Bruckner on the piano. While all the books and music he read disappointed him, his own lack of productivity overwhelmed him even more. When he finally resumed composing, it was to finish the Kindertotenlieder cycle. Time passed by and the composer had still not made any progress, at least not in his own eyes. The anguish resulting from his lack of creative inspiration became an obsession, while he strived to “collect the scattered fragments of his inner self”. At the beginning of July, the weather improved but suddenly the heat became unbearable. No longer being able to bear it, and shortly before Alma’s arrival, Mahler rewarded himself for the completion of his Lieder cycle with a “flying visit” to the Dolomites. And it was here, in the fantastic landscapes of the Sextener Dolomiten, that he finally found the inner strength and inspiration to complete the new symphony.
In August, upon preparing his return to Vienna, Mahler told his friends, Guido Adler and Bruno Walter, that he had completed the Sixth Symphony. While his message to them was short, it was tinged with obvious pride. However, he had no illusions about the future of his new piece, which he knew would be as difficult to make known as his previous pieces. “My Sixth will propound riddles, the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies”. As soon as the piece was finished, he solemnly took Alma’s arm and took her to the Häuschen to play it for her. She said that the score had moved her soul to its very depth, that it was the most “fundamentally personal” of all his pieces and the one “which had sprung most directly from her heart”.
A young friend of Alma left a very detailed account of their life in Maiernigg in 1904. Mahler played Bach on the piano, recited Goethe poems for his loved ones and rowed a boat on the lake. It therefore seems that it was the most pleasant summer of all those he spent in Carinthia. How is it then, that this is the summer in which he composed the most sorrowful of all his pieces? According to Alma, he later became convinced that the three hammer blows during the Finale were a forewarning of three traumatic events that would afflict him in 1907: the death of his eldest daughter, his diagnosis of heart failure and his departure from Vienna. Be that as it may, none of these events had actually yet occurred and two years later, in May 1906, Mahler went to Essen, in the Ruhr region, to direct the new Symphony at the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein Festival. Whilst here, Alma describes his mental state during rehearsals as almost obsessive; he demonstrated high levels of anxiety, nervousness, sadness, and instability as he continued to be bombarded with torturous doubts. The young musicians gathered and did their best to advise and support him during rehearsals. Even more so than usual, he tirelessly polished and corrected the finer details of the orchestration. According to Alma, he was very nearly “incompetent” when conducting the first performance, “because he was ashamed of his own emotions and feared they would overwhelm him during the performance”. After the concert, the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg, became worried about his condition. It is almost as if the evil piece instilled terror in its creator.
Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is made up of four movements:
At first glance, compared to previous symphonies, we could consider the Sixth Symphony as a return to the classical four-movement form, whereas the Fifth Symphony had five movements, and the Third Symphony, six. However, when you take a closer look, you will see that the work fearlessly exceeds anything that Mahler had already produced, if only by the dimensions of the Finale. During the rehearsals in Essen, Mahler appeared unstable to those around him. He even hesitated on questions as fundamental as the order of the intermediate movements. The first version, the one we generally hear today, linked together the Allegro, Scherzo, Andante and Finale. Nevertheless, in Essen, it is likely that Mahler was influenced by a few friends who pointed out the striking similarity between the beginning of the Scherzo and that of the original Allegro. He therefore allowed himself to be persuaded to put the Andante in second place, an order which was kept for the second performance in Munich in November. However, a few weeks later, in January 1907, during the first rehearsals prior to the Viennese première, he decided to go back to the initial order of movements and asked his friend, the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg, to consider it permanent. These hesitations and changes of heart only confirmed the testimony of his contemporaries. When composing the Sixth, as had often been the case, Mahler felt an instrument of a higher force. But this time it was a mysterious, tragic and relentless force which plunged him into the depths of despair.
What then was this force against which the symphonic heroes were required to fight, and to which they sometimes succumbed, as was the case during the closing of the Sixth Symphony? A single sentence from Mahler reveals that it was about a fight that he himself led: after the dress rehearsal, one of his friends asked him: “But how can such a good being express so much cruelty and harshness in his work? ” and Mahler replied: “These represent the cruelties that I experienced and the pain I felt!” Upon reflection, we first think of the enemy that Mahler fought against relentlessly during his life; the hostile and often formidable force of mediocrity, inertia, habit and routine, that characterised Alltag (daily life). But, in Mahler’s own life, a very real drama was unfolding, in the form of conflict with Alma, his wife, this radiant and spiritual creature that he had married, perhaps a little hastily, three years earlier. For by his side, Alma led and would always lead an existence which went completely against his own aspirations. And many years later she threw all her resentments and frustrations back in his face. In her two books, she even went so far as to blame him for having wanted to destroy all the vital forces within her.
Any piece of work worthy of being called art has the duty to satisfy two contradictory requirements, unity and diversity. In the Sixth Symphony, Mahler responded to both these with his usual masterful and novel techniques. Never before had he bothered to create a network of cyclical interrelationships between different movements, and to draw from a very small “reservoir” of thematic cells, a never-ending array of themes and motifs. In the Sixth Symphony, he tried “to obtain a minimum of original material and a maximum of different characters”. Two “leitmotifs” characterise the extreme movements of the Sixth Symphony. From the offset, Mahler defined the negative and pessimistic character of the work by reversing the traditional sequence of the two modes, that is to say by preceding the minor chord with a major chord. This major-minor sequence was used countless times and was almost always accompanied by another rhythmic leitmotif.
“A note about the orchestral strength Mahler demanded for the Sixth Symphony. While the number of woodwind instruments was relatively normal, the brass section was embellished with 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones and a tuba. However, it is the percussion family of instruments that reached unusual dimensions in this symphony. It included two pairs of timpani, a bass drum, a triangle, multi-rods (rute), a tom-tom and, for the first time ever in Mahler’s work, cowbells and bass bells.
It was also the first time that Mahler used the celesta in his symphonic work, a keyboard instrument from the metallophone family, in which steel blades placed over wooden resonators are struck using felted hammers. In addition to the celesta, we must not forget the xylophone and the famous hammer from which Mahler extracted “”short and powerful blows, with a dull resonance of non-metallic quality, like the stroke of an axe””. In the first instance, he experimented with a huge wooden box that he had made and covered with skin. But the resulting sound was not good enough, so he gave up on the idea of using it. During the concert, the hammer blows, that caused so much ink to flow, were barely audible and it is likely that Mahler would have welcomed a sound of electronic origin. In one of the latest versions of the work, he removed the last hammer blow entirely, which clearly shows the symbolic importance he attached to them. “
-1- Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig [Vehement, but pithy], 4/4, A minor
At first glance, it is an Allegro in a classical and balanced sonata form, with an exposition wisely concluded by a double repeat bar. Behind this reassuring appearance there are in fact many hidden innovative characteristics: Here, it can safely be said that Mahler left the world of Knaben Wunderhorn behind him, despite still catching a few glimpses during the Fifth Symphony. There is no longer any trace of legends, memories or nostalgia, but rather the depiction of a cruel, almost unattractive world: angular and
sometimes even thankless themes, characterised by vast intervals, obstinate rhythms and a tense, nervous and painful atmosphere. The symphonic hero “goes to war” with an energetic walking rhythm, punctuated by a percussion instrument borrowed from the world of military music, the snare drum. After the double exposure of the main theme, from the woodwind section, a transitional theme follows, a “bridge” in the form of a chorale, somewhat foreign to the traditional genre with an empty formalism and unusual
harmonies. Unlike the songs of triumph and faith, which played an essential role in Bruckner’s symphonies, it is a “negative” chorale and therefore one of the most striking innovations of this symphony. As Adorno demonstrated, it leads nowhere and does not really give a “hint” of things to come, especially the completely unforeseen intrusion of
The second thematic element belongs to the great family of ascending (optimistic) motifs, which had already characterised the theme of the Finale in the First Symphony and that of the resurrection in the Second. Rather than Alma, it seems to embody Mahler’s image (or perceived image) of his wife. Because neither the charm or radiant beauty of his young companion are evoked here, but rather a voluntary and somewhat constrained optimism. No doubt Mahler had already guessed that Alma would not always play the idealistic role of a sister in arms, or “life partner”, a role that he had so easily entrusted to her … Besides, some elements of the first theme soon mingle with those of the second, and it doesn’t take long for the “positive” to abate.
Such an evolving episode deserves special attention; a moment of idyllic calm where the wood and the wind instruments exchange snippets and variations of the Alma theme, against a background of violin tremolo. For the first time, we hear cowbells, a symbol of blissful isolation above the human “mêlée”. At the end of the movement, the main closing takes on a more emphatic than triumphant allure, almost as if the “hero” wanted to convince himself that he had won, despite not really believing in his triumph.
-2-Scherzo : Wuchtig [Pesant], 3/8, A minor
Here, Alma afforded us an extremely unconvincing “key” for the movement, the “rhythmic games” of two little girls in the garden of Maiernigg. It was 1903 when the two movements were composed; Anna was not yet born and Putzi was only eight or nine months old… It is somewhat tempting to see a “Death march” in this mediaevally
inspired scherzo, a “Death march” which would extend the tradition already established by the “Funeral March in the manner of Callot” contained within the First Symphony. I say “Dance”, but it has to be said that this strange Scherzo never really dances, or rather that it dances lamely because the ternary rhythm is constantly thwarted by accents placed on the weak beats. The general atmosphere is gloomy and contorted, and the orchestration contributes to this using instruments with sharp or caricatural sounds, such as the small flute, the clarinet in E flat and the xylophone. With its changes of metre, rhythmic instability, ceremonious and old-fashioned counterpoints, the trio (Altväterisch [Old-style], F major) can hardly be said to be less disturbing. Its almost as if you can see the awkward appearance of absurd puppets dressed in dusty clothes.
-3- Andante moderato, 4/4, E flat major.
In the somewhat hostile and cruel universe created by this Symphony, the Andante introduces the only real contrast. Its blooming lyricism even makes it Mahler’s only authentic “slow movement” with that of the Fourth Symphony. The initial theme, which at the time of was often accused of being “bland”, was analysed in detail by Schönberg who
underlines its asymmetries, ellipsis points and especially the fact that it is never actually “recapitulated” in its initial format. From a melodic point of view, it still belongs to the Kindertotenlieder universe, even if we do not find the same climate of mourning here. Two contrasting episodes follow on from one another, the first with the strings, and the second in minor with the wind instruments, but they soon mingle and merge. The spinning triplets, bird trills and cowbells evoke the blissful calm of nature, from which Mahler drew much of his creative energy.
-4- Finale : Sostenuto ; Allegro moderato ; Schwer [Lourd] ;Marcato ; Allegro energico; 2/2, A minor.
This is a piece of epic dimensions (nearly forty minutes long) and, with the exception of the second part of the Eighth Symphony, Mahler’s most extensive, taking its influence from Goethe’s texts. This immense symphonic “novel”, whose breath and compositional refinement exceeds anything Mahler had created previously, is interspersed with four returns of the slow Introduction. The beginning of the Introduction plunges us into the darkest of nights, an end-of-the-world chaos. From the darkness emerge hints of the theme but they quickly disappear. After the loud initial “cry” of the violins, which rises towards the treble only to give way to the bass notes of the cellos, we can successively hear the double leitmotif of the piece, one harmonic and the other rhythmic, ; then an octave leap motif, on the tuba, taking us back to the initial theme of the first movement, then again an arpeggio motif, borrowed from the Scherzo, and finally an anticipatory glance back to the second theme, the only “optimistic” element of this Finale. However, the most striking element of this Introduction is undoubtedly the schwer (heavy) episode, played by the wind instruments, a new chorale that is even more paradoxical and “negative” than that contained within the first movement. What does it symbolise? Material resistance? The merciless fate from which no man can escape? Death? In any case, its immobility, rigidity, formalism and serious timbres afford it a deeply hostile character.
The main theme of the Allegro is made up of previously used elements that we already know. In the first repeat of the Introduction, the initial, inverted “cry” (descending then ascending, and harmonised differently) introduces the development, but any attempt at a brief analysis must stop here. Indeed, this development is commensurate with the whole piece since it contains nearly 300 measures out of the total 822 contained within the Finale. Two hammer blows separate the large sections of this phenomenal mêlée. In the repeat, which is considerably shortened, the order of the two main thematic elements is reversed. The major scale precedes the minor scale and represents one of the main leimotifs of the piece
A final variant of the initial “cry”, accompanied in the last bars by the major-minor leitmotif and the haunting rhythm of the second, declare the closing catastrophe. No known music exceeds this coda in terms of its stark and desolate nature. The slow motion “octave leap” motif is created by the orchestra’s most serious instruments and creates a kind of lugubrious threnody, an oppressive funeral song. Everything comes to a close with a last repeat of the octave motif, this time with low strings, a repeat abruptly interrupted by a powerful minor chord (with no major chord preceding it) punctuated with a rhythmic diminuendo leitmotif. There is a despairing overtone, the night of the soul, a defeat illustrated by this haunting rhythm.
Is there any reason to further speculate on the meaning of the conclusion drawn up by Adorno subtitled “everything that is bad ends badly?” For my part, I think that every human being goes through similar moments of absolute despair, and here Mahler is being himself, just like during the triumphant accents of the Eighth Symphony. Taking this path of darkness was an absolute must in order for him to be able to compose his following works and to illustrate other paths leading to quite different issues. The darkness of the Sixth Symphony was an essential step for his personal growth. It would lead him to the radiant optimism of the Eighth Symphony and later towards “blue horizons”, towards brighter prospects which, at the end of the Song of the Earth, point towards eternity.