Symphony No. 6 (Mahler)

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The Symphony No. 6 in A minor by Gustav Mahler, sometimes referred to as the Tragische ("Tragic"), was composed between 1903 and 1904 (rev. 1906; scoring repeatedly revised). The work's first performance was in Essen, on May 27 1906, which was conducted by the composer.

The tragic, even nihilistic, ending of No. 6 has been seen as unexpected, given that the symphony was composed at what was apparently an exceptionally happy time in Mahler's life: he had married Alma Schindler in 1902, and during the course of the work's composition his second daughter was born.

The symphony is far from the most popular of Mahler's works. Statistics compiled by League of American Orchestras show that over the seven seasons in the U.S. and Canada ending with 2008–2009, the symphony was programmed considerably less often than Symphonies Nos. 1, 2, 4, and 5.[1] However, both Alban Berg and Anton Webern praised it when they first heard it: for Berg it was "the only sixth, despite the Pastoral";[2] while Webern conducted it on more than one occasion.


The symphony is written for a large orchestra comprising:

1The 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 (like the fall of an axe)." 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 striking a wooden box, or a particularly large bass drum, or sometimes simultaneous use of more than one of these methods.

As in many other of his compositions, Mahler indicates in several places that extra instruments should be added, including two or more celestas "if possible," "several" triangles at the end of the first movement, doubled snare drum (side drum) in certain passages, and in one place in the fourth movement "several" cymbals. While at the beginning of each movement Mahler calls for 2 harps, at one point in the Andante he calls for "several," and at one point in the Scherzo he writes "4 harps." Often he does not specify a set number, especially in the last movement, simply writing "harps."

While the first version of the score included slapstick and tambourine, these were removed over the course of Mahler's extensive revisions.


The status of the symphony's nickname is problematic. The programme for the first Vienna performance (January 4, 1907) refers to the work as 'Sechste Sinfonie (Tragische)',[3] but only the words 'Sechste Sinfonie' appeared on the programme for the earlier performance in Munich on November 8, 1906.[4] Nor does the word Tragische appear on any of the scores that C.F. Kahnt published (first edition, 1906; revised edition, 1906), or in Richard Specht's officially approved Thematische Führer ('thematic guide'),[5] or on Alexander Zemlinsky's piano duet transcription (1906).[6] In his Gustav Mahler memoir, Bruno Walter claimed that "Mahler called [the work] his Tragic Symphony", and this is often cited in support of a nickname that many people clearly find congenial. The fact remains, however, that Mahler did not so title the symphony when he composed it; when he first performed it; when he published it; when he allowed Specht to analyse it; or when he allowed Zemlinsky to arrange it. He had, moreover, decisively rejected and disavowed the titles (and programmes) of his earlier symphonies by 1900; and neither the "Lied der Nacht" subtitle of the Seventh Symphony, nor the "Sinfonie der Tausend" of the Eighth, stem from Mahler. For all these reasons, the Tragische nickname is not used in serious works of reference.


The work is in four movements. The order of the inner movements is a matter of debate. The Kaplan Foundation recommends the following order:[7]

  1. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig.
  2. Andante moderato (see below)
  3. Scherzo: Wuchtig (see below)
  4. Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderatoAllegro energico

The duration is around 80 minutes.

Formally, the symphony is one of Mahler's most outwardly conventional. The first three movements are relatively traditional in structure and character, with a standard sonata form first movement (even including an exact repeat of the exposition, unusual in Mahler) leading to the middle movements – one slow, the other a scherzo-with-trios. However, attempts to analyze the vast finale in terms of the sonata archetype have encountered serious difficulties. As Dika Newlin has pointed out: "it has elements of what is conventionally known as 'sonata form', but the music does not follow a set pattern [...] Thus, 'expositional' treatment merges directly into the type of contrapuntal and modulatory writing appropriate to 'elaboration' sections [...]; the beginning of the principal theme-group is recapitulated in C minor rather than in A minor, and the C minor chorale theme [...] of the exposition is never recapitulated at all"[8]

The first movement, which for the most part has the character of a march, 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, with the trumpets sounding most loudly in the first chord and the oboes in the second.:

Mahler 6 fate motif.png [Sound sample(OGG)]

This motif, which some commentators[who?] have linked with fate, reappears in subsequent movements. The first movement also features a soaring melody which the composer's wife, Alma Mahler, claimed represented her. This melody is often called the "Alma theme".[citation needed] A restatement of the that theme at the movement's end marks the happiest point of the symphony.

 \relative c'' { \clef treble \key f \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \partial 8*3 a'8(\f\< bes c)\! | \slashedGrace { a,( } d'4.)(\ff^"Schwungvoll" c8) \slashedGrace { bes,( } bes'\sf)([ g\sf) e8. d16] | d4\sf( c) }

Performed by the Virtual Philharmonic Orchestra (Reinhold Behringer) with digital samples

Problems playing this file? See media help.

The andante provides a respite from the intensity of the rest of the work. Its main theme is an introspective ten-bar phrase in E-flat major, though it frequently touches on the minor mode as well. The orchestration is more delicate and reserved in this movement, making it all the more poignant when compared to the other three.

 \relative c' { \clef treble \key ees \major \numericTimeSignature \time 4/4 \tempo "Andante moderato" \partial 4*1 ees8\pp( f) | g4( ees'8 g,) aes( fes) ees-- d-- | ees2( bes4) d!8( ees) | f!4.--( f8--) f([ ges16 f ees8 f)] | ges2. }

The scherzo marks a return to the unrelenting march rhythms of the first movement, though in a 'triple-time' metrical context.  { \new PianoStaff << \new Staff \relative c' { \clef treble \time 3/8 \key a \minor \tempo "Wuchtig" \partial 8*1 s8 | s4. | r8 r8 \grace { b16([ d] } a'\ff)[ r32 gis] | a16[ r32 gis a16 r32 gis a16 r32 gis] | a16[ r32 gis a16 r32 gis a16 r32 gis] | \grace { a16([ b] } c8\sf)([ a16)] r } \new Staff \relative c { \clef bass \time 3/8 \key a \minor a8[\sf | a a] a[\sf | a a] a[\sf | a a] a[\sf | a a] a[\sf | a a] } >> }

Its trio (the middle section), marked Altväterisch ('old-fashioned'), is rhythmically irregular (4/8 switching to 3/8 and 3/4) and of a somewhat gentler character.  \relative c'' { \clef treble \key f \major \time 3/8 \partial 8*1 c8\f-. | c\>-. c-. c-.\! | \time 4/8 a(\p c16 a f8->)\breathe c' | \time 3/8 c-.\< c-. c-.\! | \time 4/8 bes16( c a bes g8)-.\breathe }

According to Alma Mahler, in this movement Mahler "represented the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand". The chronology of its composition suggests otherwise. The movement was composed in the summer of 1903, when Maria Anna (born November 1902) was less than a year old. Anna Justine was born a year later in July 1904. Contemporary interpreters and conductors appear to have accepted Alma Mahler's characterization nevertheless.[citation needed] 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 agony.  \relative c'' { \clef treble \time 2/2 \key c \minor c2(\f c'~\> | c4\! b-- c-- d-- | ees4.\< f8 aes2~\! | aes4( ges) ees-- c-- | bes( aes) f'-- ees-- | c--_"dim" aes-- ees-- c-- }

The movement is punctuated by three hammer blows.  << \new Staff \relative c' { \clef bass \time 2/2 \key bes \major bes1\ff-> | bes,2.-> aes4-> | g1-> } \new RhythmicStaff { \clef bass b4_"Hammer"\ff r4 r2 | r1 | r1 } >>

Alma quoted 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". She identified these blows with three later events in Gustav Mahler's own life: the death of his eldest daughter Maria Anna Mahler, the diagnosis of an eventually fatal heart condition, and his forced resignation from the Vienna Opera and departure from Vienna. When he revised the work, Mahler removed the last of these three hammer strokes so that the music built to a sudden moment of stillness in place of the third blow. Some modern performances restore the third strike of the hammer.[citation needed] The piece ends with the same rhythmic motif that appeared in the first movement, but the chord above it is a simple A minor triad, rather than A major turning into A minor. After the third 'hammer-blow' passage, the music gropes in darkness and then the trombones and horns begin to offer consolation. However after they turn briefly to major they fade away and the final bars erupt ƒƒƒ in the minor.

It has been suggested by Stephen Johnson that Mahler's 6th symphony may have "pilfered" music from a piano duet of Carl Maria von Weber.[citation needed]

Performance history[edit]

There is some controversy over the order of the two middle movements. Mahler is known to have conceived the work as having the scherzo second and the slow movement third, a somewhat unclassical arrangement adumbrated in such earlier gargantuan symphonies as Beethoven's Ninth and Bruckner's Eighth and (unfinished) Ninth, as well as in Mahler's own four-movement First and Fourth. It was in this arrangement that the symphony was completed (in 1904) and published (in March 1906); and it was with a conducting score in which the scherzo preceded the slow movement that Mahler began rehearsals for the work's first performance, in May 1906. During those rehearsals, however, Mahler decided that the slow movement should precede the scherzo, and he instructed his publishers C.F. Kahnt to prepare a "second edition" of the work with the movements in that order, and meanwhile to insert errata slips indicating the change of order into all unsold copies of the existing edition. The seriousness of such a decision is not to be underestimated: as Jeffrey Gantz has pointed out, "A composer who premières his symphony Andante/Scherzo immediately after publishing it Scherzo/Andante can expect a degree of public ridicule, and [the reviewer of the first Vienna performance] didn't spare the sarcasm".[9] Moreover, this revised, "second thoughts" ordering was observed by Mahler in every single performance he gave; it is also how the symphony was performed by others during his lifetime.

The first occasion on which the abandoned, original movement order was reverted to seems to have been in 1919, after Alma had sent a telegram to Willem Mengelberg which said "First Scherzo, then Andante". Mengelberg, who had been in close touch with Mahler until the latter's death, and had happily conducted the symphony in the "Andante/Scherzo" arrangement right up to 1916, then switched to the "Scherzo/Andante" order. In this he seems to have been alone: other conductors, such as Oskar Fried, continued to perform (and eventually record) the work as 'Andante/Scherzo', per Mahler's own second edition, right up to the early 1960s.

In 1963, however, Erwin Ratz's "Critical Edition" of the Sixth appeared, and in this the Scherzo preceded the Andante. Ratz, however, never offered any support (he did not even cite Alma's telegram) for his assertion that Mahler "changed his mind a second time" at some point before his death; but his editorial decision was questioned by few musicians—and even those who did not accept his "third thoughts" ordering (such as Barbirolli in his acclaimed 1967 recording) could find that their 'Andante/Scherzo' performance would be changed by the record company to "Scherzo/Andante" so as to make their recording agree with the "Critical Edition". The utter lack of documentary or other evidence in support of Ratz's (and Alma's) reverted ordering has caused the most recent Critical Edition to restore the Andante/Scherzo order; however, many conductors continue to perform the Scherzo before the Andante. Moreover, Henry-Louis de La Grange, Mahler's biographer, referring to the 1919 Mengelberg telegram, has questioned the notion of Alma simply expressing a personal view of the movement order:

It is far more likely ten years after Mahler's death and with a much clearer perspective on his life and career, Alma would have sought to be faithful to his artistic intentions... it is stretching the bounds of both language and reason to describe [Andante-Scherzo] as the 'only correct' one. Mahler's Sixth Symphony, like many other compositions in the repertory, will always remain a 'dual-version' work, but few of the others have attracted quite as much controversy.[10]

The dual-version view is one echoed by another major Mahler writer, Donald Mitchell. The matter therefore remains hotly debated.[11][12]

Recorded and performed movement order[edit]

Recorded and performed examples on the inner movements' order by several prominent conductors.[13]

Andante-Scherzo Scherzo-Andante
John Barbirolli[14] Herbert von Karajan
Leonard Slatkin George Szell
Claudio Abbado[15] Jascha Horenstein
Simon Rattle Pierre Boulez
Mariss Jansons Klaus Tennstedt
Charles Adler[16] Bernard Haitink
Charles Mackerras Leonard Bernstein
Riccardo Chailly[17] Christoph Eschenbach
Günther Herbig Giuseppe Sinopoli
Iván Fischer Seiji Ozawa
Yannick Nézet-Séguin Michael Tilson Thomas
Daniel Barenboim Rafael Kubelik
Edo de Waart Eliahu Inbal
Valery Gergiev Thomas Sanderling
Franz Welser-Möst Claus Peter Flor
Lorin Maazel[15] Benjamin Zander[18]
Alan Gilbert[19] Lim Yau
Gustavo Dudamel Georg Solti
Stefan Sanderling Michael Gielen
David Zinman[20] Yoel Levi
Carlos Kalmar[21] Zubin Mehta
Fabio Luisi Erich Leinsdorf
Hermann Scherchen[22] Neeme Järvi
Vladimir Ashkenazy James Levine
James Conlon Gary Bertini
Manuel Lopez Gomez Semyon Bychkov[23]
Daniel Barenboim Harold Farberman
Myung-whun Chung Edo de Waart
Evgeny Svetlanov Pietari Inkinen[24]
Jakub Hrusa Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Antonio Pappano Maurice Abravanel
Andris Nelsons
Fabio Mechetti


My Sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.

(Mahler, in a letter to Richard Specht).

My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack.

(Mahler, in a letter to Willem Mengelberg).

The only Sixth, despite the Pastoral.

(Alban Berg, in a letter to Anton Webern).



  1. ^
  2. ^ Alban Berg, letter to Webern
  3. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.59
  4. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.58
  5. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.50
  6. ^ See Gilbert Kaplan: The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (2004), illustration on p.57
  7. ^ Reinhold Kubik (2004). "Analysis versus History: Erwin Ratz and the Sixth Symphony". In Gilbert Kaplan. The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony (New York: The Kaplan Foundation). p. 43.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ Dika Newlin, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg, New York, 1947, p.184-5.
  9. ^ Gantz, Jeffrey. "Myth and Reality in Mahler's Sixth Symphony". Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  10. ^ La Grange, Henry de (2008) Gustav Mahler: A New Life Cut Short, Oxford. p. 1587 [ISBN=9780198163879]
  11. ^ Mahlerfest – Symphony No. 6 – Myth and Reality explores in some detail the controversy surrounding the movement order
  12. ^ Extensive history and analysis by renowned Mahler scholar Henry Louis de La Grange
  13. ^ Naturlaut Vol. 4 No. 4
  14. ^ Barbirolli's 1967 recording was re-ordered as Scherzo-Andante in some releases
  15. ^ a b originally performed the work Scherzo-Andante
  16. ^ made the first recording of the 6th, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra
  17. ^ Leipzig Gewandhaus, 02/09/2012
  18. ^ originally performed the work Andante-Scherzo
  19. ^ NY Philharmonic performance, September 29, 2010
  20. ^ Orchestra of the Hessicher Rundfunk performance, February 18, 2010
  21. ^
  22. ^ Radio Symphony Orchestra Leipzig, October 4, 1960
  23. ^ Vienna Philharmonic performances, February 19 & 20 & 22 & 27, March 3, 2010
  24. ^ New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performance 10/06/11, Wellington

External links[edit]