Logo Belle Epoque
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No. 6 in a minor "Tragic" (1903/04)

First performance on May 27, 1906 in Essen
conducted by Gustav Mahler

  1. Allegro energico, ma non troppo
  2. Scherzo (Wuchtig)
  3. Andante
  4. Finale (Allegro moderato)

Originally, Mahler put the Scherzo before the Andante. For the premiere in 1906, he nevertheless decided to take the other opposite order. Still, many conductors today choose the a. m. order.

Don Giovanni

Draft of the stage set (1905) by Alfred Roller for Don Giovanni", Act 1, Scene 5 ("Ballroom"), Vienna, Opera, 1905, directed by Gustav Mahler

Copyright © Österreichisches Theatermuseum

In the year 1903, the beginning of Mahler's work on the Sixth Symphony, started also the zenith of his career at the Vienna Opera which should last until 1906. Not only by the help of his wife Alma, Mahler had got in touch with the Vienna Secession, and he had recognised how important its arts and artists would be for the development of the opera. In cooperation with one of the Secession's founders, the painting, graphic and stage designing artist Alfred Roller (1864-1935), Mahler succeeded to create sensational performances harmonizing music, light, form and colour, thus unifying theatre and opera in the sense of the idea of the all-embracing work of art, an undertaking which for us nowadays is rather self-evident but then and especially in Vienna loving the tradition, it was revolutionary. Besides Wagner's works and sensational new productions like Beethoven's Fidelio (1904) or Gluck's Iphigenia at Aulis (1907), Mahler did a great service regarding new interpretations of Mozart's operas. But this way to revolutionize the opera stage also gave rise to criticism of the Vienna traditionalists who at the same time reproached him to neglect on one hand contemporary composers and on the other hand the direction of the Vienna Opera by travelling around too much in order to perform concerts elsewhere, not to speak of the Vienna press anyway not very kind towards jews and starting now to be more hostile to Mahler even if it still took until 1907 before a real press campaign aiming to bring him down began.
The first two movements of the Sixth Symphony were written by Mahler in the summer of 1903, the last two in the summer of 1904; before he had completed the Kindertotenlieder and already worked on drafts for the Seventh Symphony. The completed score of the Sixth is dated May 1st, 1905.

"The Sixth is a work of a fundamentally pessimistic basis, its principal character comes from the bitter taste in life's potion, it says an emphatic No and says it especially in its last movement where the inexorability of the battle of all against all seems to have become music."
(Bruno Walter)

By looking from outside, just formally, the middle one of the three purely instrumental symphonies 5 to 7 is the most conventional one of all Mahler symphonies: It consists of the traditional four movements, an Allegro in sonata form, a Scherzo, a slow movement, the Andante, and the Finale in sonata form as well. Three of the four movements are in the key of a minor and the symphony begins and ends in the same key. However, it is already therefore that it is an unusual Mahler symphony since it is the only one following the forms of the classic symphony; all other symphonies with four movements differ from the traditional structures. "But the contents put by Mahler into the old structure of the movements has nothing to do anymore with its sense and character. One could even say that by composing the Sixth, the composer has gone as far as possible away from the traditional way of making music. The Sixth is his most radical symphony." (Heinrich Kralik)
There is another essential difference with regard to the other symphonies: While all other symphonies have a "happy ending" in an optimistic, often brightly shining and triumphant major key, the Sixth is the only one crashing in the end into a desperate, pessimistic minor chord. It is not only because of this that the title Tragic applies to it even if it is not sure whether Mahler himself had chosen or just accepted it; in any case, it describes the fundamental character of the symphony while there is only the third movement differing in a striking way by its lyric attitude and its totally different key of e flat major.


"My god, I forgot the car horn! Now I will have to write another symphony!"

Fritz Schönpflug in the "Muskete" of January 19, 1907

But the orchestration is not traditional at all: The number of wind instruments is considerably reinforced thus emphasizing the march rhythm of the symphony: Up to five flutes, four oboes and an English horn, five clarinets, five bassoons, eight horns, six trumpets, four trombones and the tuba lend an outstanding weight to the wind instruments thus often thrusting the strings into the background which is also underlined by the strong presence of percussion instruments such as timpani, glockenspiel, bass and side drums, triangle, cymbal, tamtam, slapstick and switch; they are completed by deep bells and - for the first time - cowbells and a hammer. Mahler is supposed to have said about the cowbells that they are the last sound to be heard from the earth by the lonely in the extremest height: A symbol of total loneliness. The three hammer strokes, "short, powerful, but dully reverberating in a non-metallic way" (Mahler), according to Alma Mahler are symbols of three great blows of fate in Mahler's life hereby anticipated.
At this point, I allow myself a short digression, a quotation by Kurt Blaukopf regarding Mahler's orchestration: "But the use of the instruments has been changed by Mahler in a decisive way. Gabriel Engel, one of the enthusiastic pioneers of Mahler's music in America, showed this by the example of the Fifth Symphony: The solo flute, playing sugary tunes before, at Mahler sounds ethereal, free of all false emotion and like coming from infinite distance; the sharp small clarinet in e flat, not used in symphonies before Mahler, appears roguish, grotesque and often bizarre; the oboe is not limited to the melancholy of the superior register but is heard without restraint in the natural middle register; out of the comical bassoon suddenly comes the voice of suppressed pain in the highest register; the contrabassoon is allowed to have solistic, extremely bizarre moments; never before, the horn seems to have played such an important role.
This catalogue of unusual uses could be completed for the other instruments, too, in Mahler's art of orchestration. The method aims at a multiple differentiation of sound and colour. Where the traditional instruments are not sufficient, Mahler does not hesitate to find reserves. So he uses the tenor horn in the first movement of the Seventh Symphony and underlines the night music character of the fourth movement by using guitar and mandoline besides the harp.
The second night music of the Seventh Symphony shows that Mahler did not simply want to increase the orchestration in a monumental way. Similar to some passages of the Sixth and to the Adagietto of the Fifth, Mahler anticipates in this night music the symphonic chamber style established by Arnold Schönberg - a Mahler admirer - in 1906 by his chamber symphony for fifteen instruments."

The Sixth Symphony is maybe the greatest enigma Mahler has left; beyond the technical structure, it refuses to be interpreted or explained in any way by all Mahler admirers whose explanations therefore are as much different as their number is multiple. More than usual, listeners should therefore just let the language of the music have their effects on them without any reservation and let their own images develop before their inner eye.
Although the third movement does not seem to fit emotionally into the structure, no other Mahler symphony seems to me to be as homogeneous as the Sixth. The march character as well as the elements of despair, tragic and unfulfilled desire are determinant until the very last chord for the whole music, only the ways are different.

The first movement is determined by a heavy, sometimes menacing march, going forward unstoppably and ending in a cry of despair before a second, lovely theme is heard, in the same rhythm first, increasing afterwards up to an extreme intimacy but without really losing the march character. Here, surprisingly and for the only time, Mahler prescribes a repetition. The march restarts, more martially than before, resisted by a soft longing motif but which is countered by strange and bizarre trills and carried away by the steady rhythm until reaching a final point where the flowing stops completely; here, for the first time, the cowbells are heard to tell us that we have reached the summit and make us feel the loneliness. A lyric and devoted phrase is introduced by the bass clarinet, and I imagine the complete loneliness of a high mountain region in the light of the full moon. A calm and peaceful atmosphere arises. But suddenly, the march restarts again, taking us away from this wonderful place. Through the second theme, within the reprise, the movement pretends to reach a relaxed climax and ends abruptly.

The second movement is a Scherzo in a minor and has a clear structure with two trios. After a tumultuous beginning continuing without rupture the march rhythm of the first movement, we find again - like in the first four symphonies - ironic accents by quacking sounds (throughout the whole movement) and bizarre trills of the wind instruments. Then follows a trio in the "altväterisch" (old-fashioned) style which in its exaggerated attitude of parody reminds me on the Glissandi of the second movement of the Second Symphony. The entire Scherzo has again the effect of being grotesque but in the principal motif, a tragic undertone is always heard. At the end of the movement, the music slows down like an old steam engine braking more and more before finally stopping completely.

Bruno Walter wrote about the Seventh Symphony as follows: "... the third (middle movement) as a piece of music (is) maybe the most beautiful Mahler has ever written: there is a sweet tender erotism living inside which is the only erotic sound in Mahler's work as far as I know." Certainly, every human being has erotic feelings with different music - I rather tend to call the Second Night Music the most romantic one Mahler has ever written, underlined by the above mentioned orchestration with guitar and mandoline. I feel sweet and tender erotism within the following third movement of the Sixth Symphony: Never Mahler has written a more restrained, more tender, more longing and at the same time more desiring music. Most intimate motifs flow one into the other and beside each other in an expressive art of counterpoint and permanent changing of keys until the most unusual, most tender climax to be found in Mahler's music: Violas, harp, celesta and finally the single Glissando of the violins float in the highest spheric lightness seeming to hold the breath and the course of the world - but yearningly, the oboe picks up the theme again, the rescueing relaxation does not take place. Completely unexpected follows the changing into a triumphant e major, the second climax accompanied by fanfares of the horns and sounds of the cowbells: The music increases up to giddy heights until the point where, after the return of a brightly glistening e flat major, complete happiness and final apotheosis seem to be reached; but the excitement decreases nearly as suddenly as it had begun and all that is left is a longing sigh of the clarinet, carried further by the flute, tenderly accompanied by the harp and softly terminated by the cellos.

A furiously rising introduction in the key of c minor starts the monumental fourth movement in which the whole force of this outsized orchestra unfolds. By changing into the main key of a minor and the restart of the march rhythm, the themes of this movement in sonata form are introduced; the introduction will come back again at the beginning of the development, the reprise and the coda. Out of the cowbell sounds, out of the loneliness, a doubtful optimism arises as well as the restrainedly joyful expectancy that all will turn into a happy ending; the character of steadily walking forward which is typical for the whole symphony is found in this movement with particular clearness but every time when the summit, the salvation, seems to be reached, all hope is destroyed by an enormous hammer stroke and everything breaks in a tragic way. The music is torn between hope and destruction and the final climax before the coda in the key of a major, a key whose usually brightly shining sound colour this time nearly sounds shrill, collapses weakly. With difficulty, the music struggles to its feet again and drags on to the final minor chord which leaves us helpless, hopeless, yet not unfulfilled.

Top of page