As great as a work Mahler’s sixth symphony is, I’m not sure if I was a conductor I would want to program it. The ending is so bleak and pessimistic. Not the kind of piece that should be used to end a concert. But if I somehow ever get to be a conductor of an orchestra, I probably would still program it.
Mahler was at the happiest point in his life when he wrote his most tragic work. He had an amazing (though later cheating) wife, and two cute little kids. He had a sweet house on a lake, and he was conductor of the Vienna Opera. This translates to “he was on top of the world”. Yet it was at this point when he wrote his “Tragic” symphony. Why? Some think that because he was so happy, he could finally come to terms with his sadness and struggle. Others think that Mahler was predicting his own demise in the work, with the hammer blows (note that in the above picture there is no glass ball; you can probably figure out what I think about that theory). What ever the reason, here it is: Mahler’s sixth symphony.
Form wise, this is probably one of his most traditional symphonies. First movement in sonata form with exposition repeat (yes exposition repeat), and a, by Mahler’s standards, a fairly normal, recapitulation. A joking scherzo, with a trio, then a slow a slow movement, concluding with a finale in a sort of rondo type form. Although the shell is Classical, everything that goes inside is completely Romantic.
The first movement, marked Allegro energico (or peasante furioso if your name is John Barbirolli) is, in essence, a march. It starts with vigorous and driving, with low strings and snare drum, and the only principal theme that I can think of that starts with a descending octave. After we march a bit, we reach one of the principal motives of the symphony: major triad turning to minor, over a thundering timpani rhythm. This is one of those “Fate” motives. The only other ones I can think of off the top of my head are the obvious Beethoven 5, du du du daaaaaaa. and the opening bass line in Shostakovich symphony 8. For a moment we get to escape fate and we hear the graceful “Alma” B theme, but this can’t last forever and we are thrown back into the bustle of the march. Skip ahead to the development. Everything is going crazy, march rhythms, pitched percussion, but all of a sudden we go to a pastoral landscape (remember the other 6th symphony), with cowbells. We have reached a place of momentary repose, sort of like Mahler’s summer home, but the next opera season starts and back into the bustling march. For the coda the key goes into A major! Happy ending! Some conductors forget that even though this is the Tragic symphony, there can still be happiness. Save the tragedy for the finale.
The second movement, the scherzo (or for some people this would be the third), starts off in A minor, a contrast from the major ending of the first movement. This is Mahler’s joking music. It sounds, to me at least, a bit ridiculous. There are these wild clarinet arpeggios which will turn up again in the finale, that sound a bit like shouting. The trio features a great number of time signature changes, and a playful little melody, that is quintessential goofy Mahler. It is a bit strange form wise in the way that it is sort of rondo like, alternating A sections and B sections.
The Andante is gorgeous. I’m not sure I need to say more. The first melody could be one of those times where people call Mahler oversentimental, but I don’t care, It’s gorgeous. Really most of the movement is kind of sentimental, but never mind, it’s still pretty. By the way, I have pretty high standards for beauty in music, so I mean it when I say it’s beautiful (Perhaps my standards of beauty contribute to the fact that I am single…).
The finale is flat out one of the strangest sounding pieces I have ever heard. All these weird sounding chords, a spooky chorale. After the mysterious beginning, that is sort of like being in a fog, we get this heroic theme, that moves us onward. There’s a lot of march type stuff. After briefly revisiting the beginning, we march along some more, struggling all the way. This whole movement is full of struggle. Suddenly the music seems to hit a wall and then…BAM!!! The hammer falls. The trombones belt out one of the most menacing lines that I know of. It’s wicked scary. Eventually we get out of the misery, and the march continues. Galloping brass, rute, and swaggering (at least they sound swaggering to me) cello lines, bring us to the second Hammer blow, which seems to come out of nowhere. We’re going along fine, but then, we hit an off color note, and there goes the hammer. After struggling some more we come back to the opening mysterious part for the third time. It’s not exactly a rondo, but a theme comes back a couple times interspersed with other material, of course the other material in this case is the bulk of the movement, but never mind. After the opening part we have our heroic theme. We seem like there is hope for a happy ending, or least a somewhat satisfying ending, but the struggle doesn’t go away. So many ideas are coming back from earlier in the symphony: descending octaves, major to minor, and that timpani rhythm. We come back to the opening one last time before getting demolished by the final hammer (removed in some versions). The trombones wander around but getting nowhere. The first theme is quietly presented by low strings/winds. The near silence is broken by a sudden full orchestra A minor chord with the menacing timpani rhythm coming back one last time. The symphony ends with a unison pizz. A in the strings.