“My Sixth poses riddles that can only be solved by a generation that has received and digested my first five symphonies”, declared Gustav Mahler about his new symphony in 1904. And he was largely right about that.
Especially to those closest to the composer, it was incomprehensible that during the happiest period of his life he should write music of such hopelessness—at the same time he was also composing the last two songs of the cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). After all, he had finally succeeded at securing the post of music director of the Vienna Court Opera, he had married the girl of his heart’s desire, Alma Schindler, and he had fathered a second daughter. However, it seems that only now, in moments of pure joy, all the things he had previously borne within him were now surfacing, like frustration, the public’s incomprehension, the struggle against pettiness and mediocrity, and antisemitic comments. It is said that he himself gave the symphony the title Tragic, but then he decided to leave the interpretation up to the listeners, so he withdrew the title. Despite fleeting hints of brightness and optimism, the composition is as uncompromising as the dramas of classical antiquity or of Shakespeare. “How can such a good soul express so much cruelty and harshness?” one of Mahler’s friends later asked, and after Mahler introduced the symphony to his wife Alma, she wrote: “None of his earlier works had sprung from the depths of his heart the way this one did. We both wept that day. The music and what it foretold moved us deeply.” Mahler believed artists to be capable of powerful intuition, so after the fact he perceived his Sixth Symphony as an ominous premonition of the personal tragedies that were to come: in 1907 the Mahlers lost their four-year-old daughter Maria, doctors diagnosed the composer’s heart defect, and he left his position at the theatre under unfavourable circumstances.
Mahler began writing the work in the summer of 1903 in the little Austrian village Maiernigg on Lake Wörthersee, where he had house built along with a hut for composing. He wanted quiet (he was even disturbed by the sounds of birds singing or of dogs barking far away) and, above all, the peace he lacked when dealing with day-to-day operational matters at the theatre in Vienna. For a third summer in Maiernigg, he was able to enjoy communion with nature, taking walks and jotting down in his notebook the ideas that are said to have come to him as direct inspiration from the landscape. The following summer he complained for a while about a lack of inspiration, but his elan returned after a quick excursion to Lake Misurina in the Sexten Dolomites, and he finished the symphony.
The Sixth Symphony conceals more than darkness. It is also the result of a compositional approach that was unusual for its day. The musicologist Kurt Blaukopf described this fittingly: “What Mahler caused with his innovations can be compared only approximately with the revolution that Art Nouveau caused in the visual arts.” As the 19th century was dying away, in this composition one senses the new century boiling just beneath the seemingly romantic surface. And the public was not ready for this at the time.
In this work, Mahler built upon his previous symphony from 1902, and once again he concentrated the fundamental message into the finale. He also tried to liberate himself completely from the piano, at which he usually sketched out his compositions, then filling in the “fabric of the other voices” on the basis of the bass line. The instrumental parts, unplayable on piano, demand superior players equipped with the technique of soloists. The voice leading of the individual lines is also remarkable, reflecting the thorough study of Bach’s counterpoint, which Mahler recast in this symphony into something we might call comprehensive polyphony. The voices overlap, merge, separate, collide… At the beginning of the 20th century, this must have sounded like total chaos to many people. Incidentally, this was not the first time; in 1898 after the Prague premiere of the First Symphony, the composer’s future wife Alma Marie Schindler wrote in her diary that it was “nerve-wracking noise”. Mahler described his approach in the summer of 1900, when he and some friends were walking in the woods and heard the voices of a fair in the distance: barrel organs, swings, a rifle range, a military band, and a men’s choir. He was fascinated by what it all sounded like jumbled together, and he reacted spontaneously, saying: “Once long ago in my early childhood, something like this in the woods near Jihlava had a peculiar effect on me, and it left an impression on my memory. It does not matter whether polyphony consists of noise, as is the case here, or of a choir of a thousand birds, the roaring of a storm, the splashing of waves, or the crackling of a fire…”
Also arising from this is his approach to sound. In Mahler’s earlier compositions, there is already an apparent attempt to give instruments a character that differs from what listeners were accustomed to, with ethereal flutes, grotesque clarinets, and mournful bassoons. In the Sixth Symphony, the size of the orchestra is also greatly increased (e.g. two harps, celesta, eight French horns, four trombones, tuba) with the addition of a large quantity of percussion instruments: two pairs of timpani, bass drum, triangle, rute, tam-tam, bells, glockenspiel, slapstick, and hammer—which he wanted to have a particular kind of non-metallic sound, making the impression of the fateful, dull blow of an axe. Making this sound is a great challenge for the percussionist, requiring a special wooden instrument and an appropriate wooden base that is struck. According to the composer, the cowbells heard before the final part of the first movement symbolise extreme loneliness, the only earthly sound that rises to the heights to which the soul departs. In order to ensure that orchestras would realise his conception of the symphony properly, the composer provided detailed performance instructions in the score. He demanded absolute precision, for example stating that fast tempos must never exceed the limits of audibility. The problem was that such demands were not always in accordance with the acoustics of the concert halls of the era…
The symphony was progressive for its day, and packaging it in the traditional four-movement layout was a brilliant move. The composer had already confused audiences in his symphonies with vocal solos, unusual movement lengths, or funeral marches as introductions. Here, however, he lets himself be firmly constrained, unlike Debussy, his junior by just two years, who opposed the symphony as a superfluous genre. Mahler does experiments, searching for his own unique unity in diversity, but he does not renounce architecture as such. In the first movement, he introduces an optimistic second theme, perhaps a depiction of Alma, he lets the Scherzo keep its dance character even if it is a depiction of a dance of death, he conceives the lyrical Andante as light in the darkness, and then the epic finale arrives, nearly half an hour long, bringing utter defeat. It is here that the hammer plays its blows of fate. The composer drags us down to the depths so he would be able to rebound and rise to eternity in the works that followed. The only point about which he was hesitant was the order of the two inner movements, which he changed just before the premiere (Andante – Scherzo).
In 1920, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg became the first to return to the original order of the movements (Scherzo – Andante) on the basis of a now famous telegram from Alma Mahler, in which she reported that towards the end of his life, the composer’s inclination was to revert to the original version with the Scherzo as the second movement. That is how the Czech Philharmonic has recorded the symphony with the conductors Václav Neumann, Zdeněk Mácal, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The order of the movements is still disputed among experts, and one of the conductors who favours the opposite order is Sir Simon Rattle.
The Sixth Symphony was premiered on 27 May 1906 in Essen with the composer conducting. The performance was a tremendous success, and the public called Mahler back to the stage six times, but critics from the German-language press reacted with much less enthusiasm, calling the music an “unpleasant maze of polyphony”, the laughable product of a “degenerate imagination”. The Frankfurt critic Rudolf Louis called the symphony the work of a “master of crooked lines and sonic antics.” On the other hand, the Viennese critic Julius Korngold, the father of the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, praised the symphony’s form, singling out in particular the finale as “a colossal structure built upon a thoroughly thematic style, having at the same time a strict unity of feeling. Mahler designates this feeling as tragic. The new symphony surpasses its predecessors for the sturdiness of its structure as well as for realism and nerve-wracking intensity. It functions like an alarm. Friend and foe rush to arms.”