Recording producer, recording engineer: Ralf Koschnicke / Ralf Kolbinger
Mixing engineer, editor: Ralf Koschnicke
Recording facilities: ACOUSENCE recording mobile / ACOUSENCE recordings
Recording location: Mercatorhalle Duisburg, 18./19.06.2008
c & p 2008 ACOUSENCE records
The Complexity of Gustav Mahler's "Tragic symphony"
Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony is enigmatic. It is a work with a 'Janus-faced' appearance, which on the one hand strictly fulfils the conventions of a classical symphony, but is on the other hand tonally brittle like no other of Mahler's symphonies. Also with regard to its meaning the work isn't easily accessible, for here the composer does not give pithy descriptions or comprehension aids as in the case of the previous symphonies. On top of this the few references to its meaning are bordering on dubiosity. Not even the epithet "tragic" is authentic beyond doubt.
But firstly the Sixth symphony by Gustav Mahler fulfils the classic symphonic scheme as clearly as no other work of this composer. This begins to show itself in the sequence of movements, with a clearly structured sonata movement (exposition, development and reprise), slow movement, scherzo and a finale which once again takes up the sonata form. The fact that a densely related network of themes, motives and structures is laid over these four movements, contributes substantially to the uniform shape of this composition.
The avoidance of a radiantly optimistic ending to the Sixth Symphony, as can be found by most composers since Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and also elsewhere by Gustav Mahler, is very striking. Although Mahler's radiantly triumphant major finales always seem compulsive and unauthentic. In Mahler's Sixth Symphony the prospect of a happy solution is however excluded right from the start, therefore striding conspicuously in the opposite direction to the "Fifth". While the older work wandered from the opening funeral march to the cheerful rondo finale, the hammer blows in the finale now mark the catastrophe from which the hero never recovers. What exactly could be intended by that isn't free of speculation. It is said that Gustav Mahler alluded to three strokes of fate which caught up with him soon after: the death of his elder daughter, the diagnosis of his own incurable heart condition and the task of the directorship of the Viennese Court Opera. This however, would assume that the composer had prophetic abilities. Such explanatory attempts, and also the conjuration of the ghost of the first World War are always amazing, but nevertheless also take away decisive factors with regard to a work's ambiguity and openness.
Gustav Mahler wrote his "tragic" symphony in the summer months of the years 1903 and 1904.The circumstances didn't offer any reason for pessimism at that time because the successful director of the Viennese Court Opera had also found his family happiness: He married Alma Schindler, and their two daughters were born in 1902 and in 1904. But professionally Mahler was so busy that he had only the summer months left for his own compositional work. He liked to spend his vacation in Maiernigg on the Wörthersee, and the Sixth Symphony was written here. In the summer vacation of the year 1903 the two middle movements and subsequently also a large part of the opening movement were drawn up, while in the following year he was not able to work as quickly and its completion was achieved only after his work on the "Kindertotenlieder" and an excursion to the Dolomites.
Gustav Mahler conducted most of the premieres of his symphonies himself. Thus he travelled to Essen in May1906 to introduce his Sixth Symphony at the Musicians' Festival of the 'Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein' (Universal German Music Society). Gustav Mahler had already recognized the special status of this composition early in time: "My VI. will pose questions which only a generation is allowed to approach which has incorporated and digested my first five", he prophesied to his biographer Richard Specht in 1904 shortly after producing the composition outlines. That he was right, can be seen by its initial reception. After the Essen premiere the composition still appeared on the concert programs in the following season 1907 in Vienna, Munich, Leipzig and Dresden, but subsequently nothing much was heard of the work. Even the conductor, Mahler's friend Willem Mengelberg couldn't succeed in organizing a performance in Amsterdam, despite the fact that a real Mahler community had formed there. It was in the United States in 1947 that Mahler's "Sixth" was to be heard again for the first time - more than forty years after its completion.
Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony is mostly performed with the epithet "the tragic". This title does not appear in the score, but is nevertheless probably genuine. It appears on the program of the Viennese premiere and the young conductor Bruno Walter attested the fact that Mahler wanted to call this symphony his "tragic" one. There are, by the way, also open questions regarding the positioning of the two middle movements: Originally the composer saw the scherzo as a second movement, and the andante moderato as the third, but on the occasion of the Viennese performance in January 1907 he switched the order of the two middle movements. Since then there is disagreement amongst conductors, and it must be added that the conductor Jonathan Darlington has placed the slow movement before the scherzo again, in accordance with the Viennese tradition.
Recurring major-minor changes in 'Leitmotiv' fashion are typical for Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony. The importance of this harmonious gloominess is already obvious in the first movement and it recurs in important sections in the scherzo and in the finale. It takes place through long held notes over the marching rhythm of the percussion instruments whereby the radiantly sounding major key played by the trumpets decreases in volume to let the painfully elegiac minor key of the oboes emerge. It is already an example of Mahler's precise concept of sound, and his extraordinary skills in orchestration, for even the gigantic orchestra allows for transparency and subtlest colour effects. Looked at from a formal point of view, however, the main emphases of the symphony have undoubtedly been moved to the monumental outer movements, whereas the other two shorter movements seem more like slide-in units.
In the first movement the structural order of a sonata movement is strictly fulfilled and the repetition of the exposition already corresponds exactly to convention. Of the two main themes the first one mercilessly casts a spell with its marching rhythm while the "sweeping" side theme is allegedly supposed to represent a portrait of Alma in sound. A chorale serves as a bridge between the two themes which, however, has nothing to do with the religious character of Bruckner's symphonies. In the development there is a moment of idyllic calmness in which the wind section plays fragments of the Alma theme to each other while a violin tremolo forms the background: In this place Mahler uses cow bells for the first time, and describes a moment of blissful solitude, as one then again finds in the so movingly beautiful slow movement. The reprise confirms the deceitful character of this idyll.
While the scherzo features the alternation between a grotesquely distorted main section in the style of a medieval dance of death and an "antiquated" trio, the andante moderato leads to a completely different world. This movement with its lyrical character is a pure idyll and thematically bears a certain relationship with the fourth of the "Kindertotenlieder" ("I often think they have only gone out").
The final movement with its gigantic dimensions actually belongs amongst Mahler's most extensive symphonic movements. A slow introduction is followed by the main part and makes fragments of themes appear and, soon, disappear again. After an outcry in the violins, falling suddenly from the heights into the depths, this motto with its characteristic change of key happens at the beginning of the finale again. Here once more, a chorale has obvious negative connotations, as does the main movement, predominantly consisting of already known elements. The marching rhythm dominates. The contrasting themes cannot lift the tragic, prevailing mood and the clearest confirmation for this are the hammer blows which are driven into the music at formal pivot points "like the blow of an axe". Whereas originally three hammer blows were planned, the superstitious Mahler omitted the last blow after his revision of the score. At the end of the symphony hopelessness and "dooms-day atmosphere" prevail.
Even if the brittleness of Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony stood in the way of a wide acceptance in the beginning, its meaning was nevertheless soon recognized by experts. And so Schoenberg's pupil Alban Berg wrote: "There is, after all, only one 'Sixth', in spite of the pastoral." Since then the trend-setting tendencies of this music are pointed out time and again: The "Tragic" is the most modern and boldest of all Mahler symphonies.
Michael Tegethoff (Translation: Michael Millard)