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Symphony No. 6 (Mahler)
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Symphony No. 6 (Mahler)

The Symphony No. 6 in A minor by Gustav Mahler, known as the Tragic, was composed between 1903 and 1905.

The piece is unique among Mahler's symphonies in ending in an unambiguously tragic manner. All the other symphonies end happily or contenedly apart from the Symphony No. 9 which is often described as ending in a mood of quiet resignation. Many people have commented on this unexpectedness of the sixth's tragic tone given the fact that it was composed in what were, for Mahler, exceptioanlly happy times - he had married Alma Schindler in 1902, and during the course of the work's composition his first two daughters were born.

Bruno Walter claimed that Mahler himself gave the symphony its nickname The Tragic. While it is not absolutely clear that this is the case, it is true that Mahler knew of the name and did not initially object to it (although he did not include it in the first edition of the score).

Perhaps because of its grim mood, the symphony is not very popular amongst general listeners. However, it is reckoned by many to be one of Mahler's best, and both Alban Berg and Anton Webern praised it when they first heard it and the work is thought to be most highly regarded by musicians themselves.

The symphony is written for a large orchestra comprising four flutes, two piccolos, four oboes, cor anglais, clarinets, a bass clarinet, four bassoons, a double bassoon, eight French horns, six trumpets, three trombones, a bass trombone, a tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, cowbells, bells, Rute, hammer (see below), cymbals, side drum, xylophone, triangle, two harps, celesta and strings (violins, violas, cellos and double basses). Unlike several other Mahler symphonies, there are no vocal forces.

The 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". 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 strking a wooden box, or a particularly large bass drum.

The work is in four movements:

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

There is some controversy over the order of the two middle movements, for Mahler originally placed the Scherzo before the Andante in his manuscript. However, at the premiere in 1906, Mahler performed the andante second, followed by the scherzo. He also had an addenda inserted into scores indicating the change of order. Despite this, when a new edition was published in 1963 which incorporated many revisions Mahler had made to the work, the scherzo was placed second, the andante third. The editor of that edition, Erwin Ratz, claimed this was because Mahler changed his mind again towards the end of his life about the order, but this was based on information provided by the notoriously unreliable Alma Mahler. Recent scholarship has shown that Mahler himself never performed the symphony with the Scherzo before the Andante and that this practice only emerged ten years after his death. The most recent Critical Edition restores the Andante/Scherzo order; however, many conductors still perform the symphony with the Scherzo erroneously preceding the Andante.

Formally, the symphony is one of Mahler's most conventional, being one of only four to have the traditional number of four movements. The form and character of each individual movement is also quite traditional, 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, and the finale, also in sonata form, quicker and recapping much of the previously heard material.

The first movement, which for the most part has the character of a march, is 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):

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. Its trio (the middle section), marked Altvšterisch (old-fashioned), is rhythmically irregular and of a somewhat gentler character.

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. Apparently in this movement Mahler was attempting to confront the fear of his own artistic downfall; as in the Kindertotenlieder, he chose to deal with his concern by addressing it directly. 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". When he revised the work, Mahler removed the last of these three blows for structural reasons, though some modern performances restore it. 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.

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