Symphony No. 6 (Mahler)

Symphony No. 6 (Mahler)

The Symphony No. 6 in A minor by Gustav Mahler, sometimes referred to as the Tragische ("Tragic"), was composed between 1903 and 1904 (rev. 1906; scoring repeatedly revised). The work's first performance was in Essen, on May 27, 1906, conducted by the composer.

The tragic, even nihilistic ending of No. 6 has been seen as unexpected, given that the symphony was composed at what was apparently an exceptionally happy time in Mahler's life: he had married Alma Schindler in 1902, and during the course of the work's composition his second daughter was born.

The symphony is far from the most popular of Mahler's works. Statistics compiled by League of American Orchestras show that over the seven seasons in the U.S. and Canada ending with 2008-2009, the symphony was programmed considerably less often than Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5.[1] However, both Alban Berg and Anton Webern praised it when they first heard it: for Berg it was "the only sixth, despite the Pastoral";[2] while Webern actually conducted it on more than one occasion.



The symphony is written for a large orchestra comprising:

1The sound of the hammer, which features in the last movement, was stipulated by Mahler to be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)." The sound achieved in the premiere did not quite carry far enough from the stage, and indeed the problem of achieving the proper volume while still remaining dull in resonance remains a challenge to the modern orchestra. Various methods of producing the sound have involved a wooden mallet striking a wooden surface, a sledgehammer striking a wooden box, or a particularly large bass drum, or sometimes simultaneous use of more than one of these methods.

As in many other of his compositions, Mahler indicates in several places that extra instruments should be added, including two or more celestas "if possible," "several" triangles at the end of the first movement, doubled snare drum (side drum) in certain passages, and in one place in the fourth movement "several" cymbals. While at the beginning of each movement Mahler calls for 2 harps, at one point in the Andante he calls for "several," and at one point in the Scherzo he writes "4 harps." Often he does not specify a set number, especially in the last movement, simply writing "harps."

While the first version of the score (currently available from Dover Publications) included slapstick and tambourine, these were removed over the course of Mahler's extensive revisions.


The status of the symphony's nickname is problematic. The programme for the first Vienna performance (January 4, 1907) refers to the work as 'Sechste Sinfonie (Tragische)',[3] but only the words 'Sechste Sinfonie' appeared on the programme for the earlier performance in Munich on November 8, 1906.[4] Nor does the word Tragische appear on any of the scores that C.F. Kahnt published (first edition, 1906; revised edition, 1906), or in Richard Specht's officially approved Thematische Führer ('thematic guide'),[5] or on Alexander Zemlinsky's piano duet transcription (1906).[6] In his Gustav Mahler memoir, Bruno Walter claimed that "Mahler called [the work] his Tragic Symphony", and this is often cited in support of a nickname that many people clearly find congenial. The fact remains, however, that Mahler did not so title the symphony when he composed it; when he first performed it; when he published it; when he allowed Specht to analyse it; or when he allowed Zemlinsky to arrange it. He had, moreover, decisively rejected and disavowed the titles (and programmes) of his earlier symphonies by 1900; and neither the "Lied der Nacht" subtitle of the Seventh Symphony, nor the "Sinfonie der Tausend" of the Eighth, stem from Mahler. For all these reasons, the Tragische nickname is not used in serious works of reference.


The work is in four movements. The inner movement order is the matter of some debate (see below). While the Critical Edition of the Symphony until recently has shown the Scherzo as preceding the Andante moderato, the Kaplan Foundation has recently published articles suggesting that the order should be as follows (which is to appear in a future edition):

  1. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig.
  2. Andante moderato (see below)
  3. Scherzo: Wuchtig (see below)
  4. Finale: Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - Allegro energico

The duration is around 80 minutes.

Formally, the symphony is one of Mahler's most outwardly conventional. The first three movements are in fact relatively traditional in structure and character, with a fairly standard sonata form first movement (which even includes an exact repeat of the exposition, most unusual in Mahler), leading to the middle movements, one slow, the other a scherzo-with-trios. However, attempts to analyze the vast finale in terms of the sonata archetype have encountered serious difficulties. As Dika Newlin has pointed out: "it has elements of what is conventionally known as 'sonata form', but the music does not follow a set pattern [...] Thus, 'expositional' treatment merges directly into the type of contrapuntal and modulatory writing appropriate to 'elaboration' sections [...]; the beginning of the principal theme-group is recapitulated in C minor rather than in A minor, and the C minor chorale theme [...] of the exposition is never recapitulated at all"[7]

The first movement, which for the most part has the character of a march, features a motif consisting of an A major triad turning to A minor over a distinctive timpani rhythm (the chords are played by trumpets and oboes when first heard, with the trumpets sounding most loudly in the first chord and the oboes in the second):

Mahler 6 fate motif.png [Sound sample(OGG)]

This motif, which some commentators have linked with fate, reappears in subsequent movements. The first movement also features a soaring melody which the composer's wife, Alma Mahler, claimed was representative of her; this melody is now often known as the "Alma theme". The movement's end marks the happiest point of the symphony with a restatement of the Alma theme.

The andante is a respite from the brutal intensity of the rest of the work. Its main theme is an introspective ten-bar phrase that is technically in E-flat major, though the theme alone can seem major and minor at once. The orchestration is more delicate and reserved in this movement, making it all the more poignant when compared to the driving darkness of the other three.

The scherzo marks a return to the unrelenting march rhythms of the first movement, though in a 'triple-time' metrical context. Its trio (the middle section), marked Altväterisch ('old-fashioned'), is rhythmically irregular (4/8 switching to 3/8 and 3/4) and of a somewhat gentler character. Alma's report, often repeated, that in this movement Mahler "represented the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand" is refuted by the chronology: the movement was composed in the Summer of 1903, when Maria Anna Mahler (born November 1902) was less than a year old, and when Anna Justine (born July 1904) had not even been conceived. All the same, it is widely accepted by contemporary interpretors and conductors and it is usually in this playful-turned-terror-filled manner that this movement is conducted.

The last movement is an extended sonata form, characterized by drastic changes in mood and tempo, the sudden change of glorious soaring melody to deep pounded agony. The movement is punctuated by three hammer blows. Alma quotes her husband as saying that these were three mighty blows of fate befallen by the hero, "the third of which fells him like a tree". She identified these blows with three later events in Gustav Mahler's own life: the death of his eldest daughter Maria Anna Mahler, the diagnosis of an eventually fatal heart condition, and his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera and departure from Vienna. When he revised the work, Mahler removed the last of these three hammer strokes so that the music built to a sudden moment of still, mute pain as its third blow. Some modern performances restore the third strike of the hammer. The piece ends with the same rhythmic motif that first appeared in the first movement, but the chord above it is a simple A minor triad, rather than A major turning into A minor. This ending is one of the most brutal in all music, after the third 'hammer-blow' passage, the music gropes in darkness and then the trombones and horns begin to offer consolation. However after they turn briefly to major they fade away and the final bars erupt ƒƒƒ to hammer home the minor.

It has been suggested by Stephen Johnson that Mahler's 6th symphony may have "pilfered" music from a piano duet of Carl Maria von Weber.[8]

Performance history

There is some controversy over the order of the two middle movements, though recent research has clarified the issue considerably. Mahler is known to have conceived the work as having the scherzo second and the slow movement third, a somewhat unclassical arrangement adumbrated in such earlier gargantuan symphonies as Beethoven's Ninth and Bruckner's Eighth and (unfinished) Ninth, as well as in Mahler's own four-movement First and Fourth. It was in this arrangement that the symphony was completed (in 1904) and published (in March 1906); and it was with a conducting score in which the scherzo preceded the slow movement that Mahler began rehearsals for the work's first performance, in May 1906. During those rehearsals, however, Mahler decided that the slow movement should precede the scherzo, and he instructed his publishers C.F. Kahnt to prepare a "second edition" of the work with the movements in that order, and meanwhile to insert errata slips indicating the change of order into all unsold copies of the existing edition. The seriousness of such a decision is not to be underestimated: as Jeffrey Gantz has pointed out, "A composer who premières his symphony Andante/Scherzo immediately after publishing it Scherzo/Andante can expect a degree of public ridicule, and [the reviewer of the first Vienna performance] didn't spare the sarcasm". Moreover, this revised, "second thoughts" ordering was observed by Mahler in every single performance he gave; it is also how the symphony was performed by others during his lifetime.

The first occasion on which the abandoned, original movement order was reverted to seems to have been in 1919, after Alma had sent a telegram to Willem Mengelberg which said "First Scherzo, then Andante". Mengelberg, who had been in close touch with Mahler until the latter's death, and had happily conducted the symphony in the "Andante/Scherzo" arrangement right up to 1916, then switched to the "Scherzo/Andante" order. In this he seems to have been alone: other conductors, such as Oskar Fried and Dimitri Mitropoulos, continued to perform (and eventually record) the work as 'Andante/Scherzo', per Mahler's own second edition, right up to the early 1960s.

In 1963, however, Erwin Ratz's "Critical Edition" of the Sixth appeared, and in this the Scherzo preceded the Andante. Ratz, however, never offered any support (he did not even cite Alma's telegram) for his assertion that Mahler "changed his mind a second time" at some point before his death; but his editorial decision was questioned by few musicians—and even those who did not accept his "third thoughts" ordering (such as Barbirolli in his acclaimed 1967 recording) could find that their 'Andante/Scherzo' performance would be changed by the record company to "Scherzo/Andante" so as to make their recording agree with the "Critical Edition". The utter lack of documentary or other evidence in support of Ratz's (and Alma's) reverted ordering has caused the most recent Critical Edition to restore the Andante/Scherzo order; however, many conductors continue to perform the Scherzo before the Andante. The matter remains hotly debated, however.[9][10]

Recorded and performed movement order

Recorded and performed examples on the inner movements' order by several prominent conductors.[11]

Andante-Scherzo Scherzo-Andante
Dmitri Mitropoulos Herbert von Karajan
John Barbirolli[12] Georg Solti
Claudio Abbado[13] Jascha Horenstein
Simon Rattle Pierre Boulez
Mariss Jansons Klaus Tennstedt
Charles Adler[14] Bernard Haitink
Charles Mackerras Leonard Bernstein
David Zinman[15] Riccardo Chailly
Günther Herbig Giuseppe Sinopoli
Iván Fischer Seiji Ozawa
Yannick Nézet-Séguin Michael Tilson Thomas
Daniel Barenboim Rafael Kubelik
Edo de Waart Eliahu Inbal
Valery Gergiev Thomas Sanderling
Franz Welser-Möst Claus Peter Flor
Lorin Maazel[13] Benjamin Zander[16]
Alan Gilbert[17] Lim Yau
Leonard Slatkin George Szell
Stefan Sanderling Michael Gielen
Yoel Levi
Zubin Mehta
Erich Leinsdorf
Neeme Järvi
James Levine
Semyon Bychkov[18]
Harold Farberman
Edo de Waart
Pietari Inkinen[19]
Jukka-Pekka Saraste


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.

(Mahler, in a letter to Richard Specht).

My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack.

(Mahler, in a letter to Willem Mengelberg).

The only Sixth, despite the Pastoral.

(Alban Berg, in a letter to Anton Webern).



  1. ^
  2. ^ Alban Berg, letter to Webern
  3. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.59
  4. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.58
  5. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.50
  6. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.57
  7. ^ Dika Newlin, 'Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg', New York, 1947, p.184-5.
  8. ^ In Discovering Music - Hindemith's Symphonic Variations of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber from 38:50 to 42:05, particularly from 41:26
  9. ^ Mahlerfest - Symphony No. 6 - Myth and Reality explores in some detail the controversy surrounding the movement order
  10. ^ Extensive history and analysis by renowned Mahler scholar Henry Louis de La Grange
  11. ^ Naturlaut Vol. 4 No. 4
  12. ^ Barbirolli's 1967 recording was re-ordered as Scherzo-Andante in the original release
  13. ^ a b originally performed the work Scherzo-Andante
  14. ^ made the first recording of the 6th, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra
  15. ^ Orchestra of the Hessicher Rundfunk performance, Feb. 18, 2010
  16. ^ originally performed the work Andante-Scherzo
  17. ^ NY Philharmonic performance, Sep. 29, 2010
  18. ^ Vienna Philharmonic performances, Feb. 19 & 20 & 22 & 27, March 3, 2010
  19. ^ New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performance 10/06/11, Wellington

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Symphony No. 8 (Mahler) — Munich, September 1910. Final rehearsal for the world premiere of Mahler s Eighth Symphony, in the Neue Musik Festhalle. The Symphony No. 8 in E flat major by Gustav Mahler is one of the largest scale choral works in the classical concert r …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 1 (Mahler) — Gustav Mahler in 1892, after he had composed the 1st symphony The Symphony No. 1 in D major by Gustav Mahler was mainly composed between late 1887 and March 1888, though it incorporates music Mahler had composed for previous works. It was… …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 2 (Mahler) — The Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler, known as the Resurrection, was written between 1888 and 1894, and first performed in 1895. Apart from the Eighth Symphony, this symphony was Mahler s most popular and successful work during his lifetime. It is …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 9 (Mahler) — The Symphony No. 9 by Gustav Mahler was written between 1909 and 1910, and was the last symphony that he completed. Though the work is often described as being in the key of D major, the tonal scheme of the symphony as whole is progressive. While …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 5 (Mahler) — The Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor by Gustav Mahler was composed in 1901 and 1902, mostly during the summer months at Mahler s cottage at Maiernigg. Among its most distinctive features are the funereal trumpet solo that opens the work and the… …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 10 (Mahler) — The Symphony No. 10 by Gustav Mahler was written in the summer of 1910, and was his final composition. At the time of Mahler s death the composition was substantially complete in the form of a continuous draft; but not being fully elaborated at… …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 7 (Mahler) — Gustav Mahler s Seventh Symphony was written in 1904 05, with repeated revisions to the scoring. It is sometimes referred to by the title Song of the Night (German: Lied der Nacht), though this title was not Mahler s own and he disapproved of… …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 4 (Mahler) — The Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler was written between 1899 and 1901, though it incorporates a song originally written in 1892. The song, Das himmlische Leben , presents a child s vision of Heaven. It is sung by a soprano in the work s fourth… …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 3 (Mahler) — The Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler was written between 1893 and 1896. It is his longest piece and is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, with a typical performance lasting around ninety to one hundred minutes. Contents 1 Structure 1 …   Wikipedia

  • Symphony No. 4 (Shostakovich) — Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Symphony No. 4 in C minor, Opus 43, between September 1935 and May 1936. Halfway through its composition, he was denounced in the infamous Pravda editorial Chaos Instead of Music, written under direct orders from… …   Wikipedia