Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

“Darkness, turbulence and an unmistakable undertone of violence” –  what could be a more fitting way to spend a Friday evening in January 2017 than listening to the epic Sixth Symphony by Gustav Mahler. So apt is this work for the times we’re living through that it was performed on Thursday evening by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3; you can catch that performance on the BBC iPlayer here. I’ve always preferred my music live rather than recorded, so I went to St David’s Hall on Friday to hear it performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the direction of Thomas Søndergård. This was recorded live, and will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Friday 27th January, and available thereafter on iPlayer so you can compare the two versions if you want to.

Before the main course, we heard the excellent BBC National Chorus of Wales singing four motets by another late Romantic composer, Anton Bruckner. The pieces chosen were all settings of latin religous texts: Locus Iste, Os Justi, Christus Factus Est, and Ave Maria. These are beautiful works, and interesting because of the many references they include to earlier musical forms, especially in the Os Justi which is in the Lydian mode, harking back to what at the time it was written (1879) was an obsolete church scale.

These four works last only about 15 minutes in total. That explains why the bar staff weren’t taking interval orders before the concert started – there simply wouldn’t have been enough time to put the drinks out before the first half finished. Fortunately, my seat was near the door of the auditorium so I was able to make a quick escape and get my usual glass of wine at the bar before most of the audience.

And then the Mahler. What can I say? It’s another huge symphony, in four movements lasting about eighty minutes, requiring a huge orchestra including tubas, bass trombones, harps and varied percussion including cowbells, a celesta, and of course the famous hammer..

I mentioned earlier on that I much prefer live concerts. One of the things that I remember vividly from last Friday was the sight of the huge wooden mallet that is used to deliver the “hammer blows of fate” in the final movement, which loomed ominously on stage in front of the percussion section throughout the performance. When it was finally deployed it came down with such force that it buckled the wooden box underneath, but even when it wasn’t being used it had a powerful stage presence. That’s one kind of experience you’ll never get from a recording.

The first movement of this Symphony (Allegro energico) is a battle between a strident march theme and a passionate romantic melody, though the conflict is interrupted by a lengthy passage of remarkable peace and tranquility. In Mahler’s original version of this work, the Scherzo movement (in which the two main themes return in an even more agitated struggle) came second, but on reflection he swapped it with the Andante, which is measured and reflective but still with an undertone of foreboding. I’m not sure if anyone ever performs the original ordering anymore, but out of curiosity I’d like to hear it performed that way. The tonality and thematic content of the Scherzo mean it is more closely related to the Allegro than the Andante, which has led some to argue that, despite what Mahler thought, it should be played second. I don’t think that follows necessarily, but it would be interesting to hear how it works.

The final movement is vast, intense, emotionally draining and absolutely wonderful. The mood changes continually from terror to euphoria, from triumph to tragedy and from optimism to despair. Many people I know dismiss Mahler’s music as “angst-ridden”. I don’t think you can describe all his compositions like that, but it’s fair to say that this symphony is bleak and ultimately nihilistic in its despair. The hammer blows of fate (three in the original composition, with one later removed by Mahler) signal the end of hope, but the end is a whimper rather than a bang. The music subsides into nothingness,  its light fading  into the “Dark Night of the Soul”.

It’s no surpise that this is often called the “Tragic Symphony”, but however bleak the message may seem, it’s always uplifting to experience the “artistic conquest of the terrible”. If civilization is to survive in a world filled with suffering and arbitrary cruelty, then we have to come to terms with reality, not shy away from it. Mahler is one composer who isn’t afraid to tell it the way it is.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales was on top form for this concert – with outstanding work by the brass section in particular – and were marshalled with great vision and a mastery of detail  by Thomas Søndergård. I’m sure I’ll remember this performance for a very long time.

5 Responses to “Mahler’s Sixth Symphony”

  1. Steve Warren Says:

    Mahler had to get a special box constructed as nothing else produced the sound he required for the great three fateful hammer blows. He later associated the hammer blows with three tragic events in his life: the diagnosis of his terminal illness, the loss of his job, and the death of his daughter. I always understood that he subsequently wrote out the third hammer blow because he couldn’t bear to be reminded of the death of his daughter, but a quick internet search doesn’t seem to corroborate this.

    • telescoper Says:

      All three of the “hammer blows” that Mahler himself endured actually happened after the first performance of this Symphony.

    • telescoper Says:

      Given the tone of the Symphony it does seem strange that it was written at what was a happy time in his life, before the three events you mention took place…

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    It must have been an excellent concert. I love Bruckner motets, and Locus Iste is probably my favourite of all. It will be good to hear the concert on the radio.

    As for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, it’s a piece I’ve only heard once live. That was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons at a BBC Prom a little over a year ago, when the Scherzo was played second. I’m used to hearing the symphony with the Andante played second, and, surprisingly, I found the order changed my reaction to the symphony. The Scherzo repeats some material from the first movement and has matches in key. Having the Scherzo second gave some connection between the first and second movements, then the symphony moved away in the second half. The conventional order, in contrast, gives a change between the first and second movements, in material and tempo, which is satisfying, then recapitulates material from the first movement in the Scherzo placed third. That gives a more coherent overall structure to the symphony for me. I’m surprised that I found the symphony works much better with the Scherzo third. Curious.

    (Incidentally, I queued to get an arena ticket for that BBC Prom. Afterwards, I left the hall and immediately joined the queue for the arena for a late-night Bach Prom: wonderful András Schiff playing the Goldberg Variations. For me, that’s just like hearing Glenn Gould would have been for some other people.)

  3. Steve Warren Says:

    Perhaps, following Anton’s request, you could find Tom Lehrer singing about Alma (that’s Alma Mahler, Ian, not ALMA).

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