Hammer Time: Percussion in Mahler 6

The original hammer time, who, as far I know, was able to pay his taxes.

For whatever reason I’ve decided to a series of three articles on Mahler 6. Why? Because this is my blog and I can do what I want. Also, for whatever reason, the 6th is my favorite Mahler symphony, not because i’m nihilistic, but because it’s awesome.

I’ll get to the hammer in a minute, but i’ll start with the whole percussion section. It requires more percussion than any of his other symphonies, rivaled only by 2 and 7. There are the usual timpani (6 total), bass and snare drums, cymbals, tam-tam and triangle, and the less usual rute (I can’t think of any other composer who uses is), 2 off-stage deep bells, glock., xylophone, on and off-stage cowbells (not of the “Don’t Fear the Reaper” variety), and of course, the hammer. That’s quite a bit. Enlarged percussion sections have never been common. Mahler being Mahler though, he uses the percussion section sparingly, but when he uses it, it’s used to great effect. There’s one part in the first movement where the winds are trilling, accompanied by triangle, xylophone, and glock. It is such a cool effect. The cowbells, and the unpitched bells add a pastoral quality that nothing else could (note the other 6th symphony of note. The pastoral. Coincidence? Nope).

Mahler exploits every instrument for the most effect. There’s another section in the first movement where the cowbells are playing and the bass clarinet is playing, and it kinds of sounds cow-like (disclaimer, I actually love bass clarinet). The rute sounds cool because it is so different, and Mahler uses it well in the weird second movement.

Now to the hammer. I’ve searched youtube for the best hammerschlags. I’ll just link them instead of posting the whole video here.

This first one is meh, to me. The hammer falls at exactly the 2 minute mark. I wish Ashkenazy took more time getting into it though. I do like the quicker tempo after it though. So many conductors seem to take it too slow, but maybe that’s because i’m used to the (really awesome) Solti version.

This one sounds pretty destructive, but that may be the terrible quality of the video, so it’s hard to tell. This one is slow after the hammer (again, just me).

This next one is pretty solid. A nice dull thud. Another plus: Female cymbal player. Women percussionists are just naturally cooler, I don’t know why. Again too slow.

Now, this one is in the wrong spot, Mahler never wanted a hammer blow in that spot. If I recall, it is a few bars before where the 3rd, later removed hammer blow, was/is (in some performances). It’s a shame. It sounds really good.

This hammer blow is from the excellent Haitink/CSO version from the ’08 Proms. It’s comes in at about 1:07:12. This one cuts through quite well, but I wish it had more resonance. I approve of the tempos on this one.

The requisite Bernstein rendition? Right here, and with a beard, which is a bit unsettling. It comes down at 1:04:51. Another one that I feel goes to slow afterwards.

This one here is my favorite. What makes it even cooler is the shard of wood the comes flying. A bit slow again, but the sound is just right IMO.

There are also two videos on how now to play the Mahler hammer. It shouldn’t be used to smash chairs. The sound is great though, although the guys laughter is satanic. This other, how-not-to-play-the-hammer video is some German kid being silly. However, it is funny.

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About Why must you use all the notes

So much to do, so little reason to do so much of it...
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