The Sixth Symphony has long been considered Mahler’s most personal expression of fatalism. The three hammer blows originally in the finale, which were reduced to two after the first publication, represents strokes of fate, the last of which fells the hero, who is undaunted courage, in the face of inevitable tragedy, is characterized in the outer movements virtually to the very end. The symphonies subtitle tragic appeared in the program of the first performance, and therefore must have been accepted, if not provided by Mahler himself. It characterizes more the conclusion of the symphony than its entirety. No other work of his Alma claimed, came so directly from his heart as this one. She confessed that when Mahler first played it through for her, they both wept that Mahler identified the sixth with the circumstances of his life cannot be denied. He candidly admitted that the symphony is the sum of all the suffering that he was compelled to endure at the hands of life.
Derek Cooke considers the sixth to be the first truly tragic Symphony ever written. It what is possibly the most pessimistic of Mahler symphonies was written during a relatively happy period in the composer’s life. After having endured many trials and tribulations, he succeeded in firmly establishing himself in the highly prestigious position of Director of the Vienna State Opera, Alma had just given birth to their second daughter on them, and they had the means by which to live comfortably. But Mahler’s inner demon was ever chiding him for his success and marking his happiness. Thus, after the joyful conclusion of the Fifth Symphony, Mahler again gave ear to his subconscious tormentor, and the result is a symphony that functions as a counterfoil to the previous one.
Given Mahler’s quixotic personality, it is not uncharacteristic for him to switch conceptual and emotional gears from one Symphony to the next. His wife thought him schizophrenic for creating a work of such utter hopelessness when their worlds seemed to be as happy as it would ever be. But Mahler was always searching for ultimate meaning, his symphonies were means by which he confronted life’s harsh cruelties and modern decadence, in hopes of finding fundamental value in life despite the inevitability of death. Notwithstanding the positive conclusion of the fifth, which is an expression of human love, as the source of self-fulfillment that assuages the pain of the tragic fate, Mahler once again grapples with life and death issues in the sixth and he merely feigns the unbounded joy of the fifth symphonies finale or did he begin to see the fifth positive conclusion as artificial and ultimately unsatisfying. Whatever prompted him to send his hero on another life journey through a world not of his own making, that subjects him to undeserved suffering and primal doubt, it is clear that Mahler had to delve deeper into his own soul to find answers to the existential questions that continue to plague his spirit. As in the fifth, he seeks remedial answers to these fundamental questions by confronting his inner demon and exposing its most life-threatening aspects. In this respect, the sixth may be Mahler’s most psychologically oriented Symphony. Each of the sixth four movements delves into the inner world of the human spirit, particularly its courageous unremitting impulse to strive for fulfillment in the face of mortality. In this journey of self-examination, the spirit is not depicted as weak and impoverished from doubts and fears, but a strong and undaunted in spite of them. Inexhaustible perseverance defies the hero’s subconscious deem that marks his fruitless efforts to defeat it’s psychologically destructive forces. The hero of the sixth, like Faust, has a mephistopheles inside to his character, a negative counterpart that constantly belittles all courageous striving as absurd and impossibly useless attempts and human fulfillment in light of inevitable death. In the scherzo movement, such an internal demonic figure comes to the surface and marks the hero strength and courage as mere posturing with the same level in grimace that makes so terrifying the vision of an ape crouching in the corner of the graveyard in the crinkly movement from Das Lied von der Erde.
In this respect, the sixth might well be considered Mahler’s first Faust Symphony, despite the tragic conclusion, faust and redemption will have to await the Eighth Symphony, were great as text counteracts the tragic vision of the sixth. In virtually all of his previous symphonies, the positive and negative forces that vie for control of the human spirit, engage in a life and death struggle. In the sixth, this conflict leads to greater self-understanding, despite our mortal coil, and the insecurities and fears generated by thoughts of mortality, even serene interludes of metaphysical detachment and the stategic memories of more peaceful times, quickly dissolve into relentless striving, symbolized by dogged march rhythms, that trample these thoughts underfoot with the incessant persistence of a doom-laden march. In the final confrontation between the hero and his inner demon, the overpowering hammer blows of fate strike the hero, the last of which is fatal. The smaller struggle for dominion over his own soul ends with a tragic fate, having the final word, the one and only time and Mahler symphonies when the final answer offers no consolation or an inspiring resolution to the conflict presented in the earlier movements, Mahler uses many musical symbols to convey the force and depth of humanity’s struggle against its tragic fate, march rhythms characterize the strength and determination of the hero, who takes up the challenge of major to minor chord sequence symbolizes tragic fate. Cowbells evoke a world of lost innocence and serenity, as in the Fifth Symphony motivic phrases from Kindertotenlieder lend a sense of touching the stallion that connects the sixth with the tragic nature of that song cycle. And the motive of the devil’s dance plays a greater role here than in any previous Symphony, personifying the composer’s unflappable inner demon, octave leaps, and stretched intervals distort thematic material, bold harmonies anticipate impressionism while conjuring mystical visions. Thematic interpolation is employed to represent the underside of certain positive aspects of the human character, particularly in the scherzo impish mimicry of the first movements march with them.
Although the sixth is more classically constructed than any of the previous symphonies, it also experiments with innovative extension and development of symphonic form and functional design in trying to find a suitable structure for this Symphony, while working with traditional forms. Mahler recognizes that the wealth of his ideas and the implicit dramatic scenario necessitated both expansion and revision. While few disagree about the overall structural design of each of the first three movements, the enormous finale, which is about half an hour in length, has caused much disagreement. Such noted Mahler commentators as Paul Becker, Erwin Rocks, Bench Vaughn Hoyer, Philip Barford, Constantine Floros, and Norman Del Mar, have gone to great lengths to fit this highly complex movement into one traditional form or another. They’re highly detailed analyses, while divergent in many respects, do share some common elements. Yet all would probably agree that in the six the model is more successful in unifying his thematic material than he was in the fifth, or will be in the seventh. as personal as the symphonies underlying concept may be Mahler does not indulge in fits of distraught anguish and torment, or gushing outpourings of maudlin sentiment.
On the contrary, he tries to distance himself from the emotions he must have felt while composing the work. In this respect, the influence of Kindertotenlieder is apparent and an indication that Mahler may be succeeding in his efforts to explore the negative elements of the Spirit without succumbing to them.
In the end, the final strokes of fate may not actually be as tragic, as is immediately apparent. The life journey that is the sixth yields much personal insight, what is tragic about the sixth is not the weakening of the heroic spirit, but the inevitability of death that cannot be defeated by any human means. Later, particularly in Das Lied von der Erde, Mahler will attempt to overcome even the hopelessness and despair that is a natural consequence of human mortality.
In the sixth, he leaves us without either remedy or relief.
After the first published edition of the score, Mahler instructed his publisher to reverse the order of the middle movements, so that the Andante movement would be placed second, and the Scherzo third, he also omitted the third hammer blow in the finale and substantially refashioned the orchestration to lighten the texture. Arguments have been offered to justify models reversing the order of the middle movements, although we never published the score with that order. Mahler apparently performed the symphony with the reverse order andante scherzo at its Premier, and for the few performances of the symphony conducted thereafter, but when the international Mahler Gesellschaft published a critical edition of the score, it had determined that Mahler again changed his mind and reverted back to the original what are the inner movements, Dr. Erwin Ross, who was principally responsible for this critical edition, claim that Mahler changed his mind in later years, because he came to realize that the reverse order would destroy the essential idea of the work as Ross claim. Ross offers no direct evidence for this assertion or any explanation for Mahler’s failure to have the symphony republished with the skirts will move in second and the Andante third. After Mahler’s death some confusion developed regarding this issue, Alma claimed that the scherzo should be placed second, although she referred to it in her book goes to smaller memories and letters as the third movement.
Both Mengelberg and Paul Stefan apparently also came to believe that the scherzo belongs second, although there are many musical reasons that would justify the choice of either order. I have decided to utilize for purposes of the listener’s guide, the order scherzo and then andante primarily because the scherzo as I see it, is a Mephistopheles in response to the heroic aspect of the first movement. So without juxtaposing the two movements, that connection may be either lost or too remote to be recognized.
By Lew Smoley