Retorded: Berlin. 4/1989 (Symphony No. 6) & 12/1989
Berliner Philarmoniker Conducted by Bernard Haitink
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Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 6 in A minor
"My Sixth will be a source of mystery only approachable by a generation which has taken up and digested the first five," wrote Gustav Mahler to his biographer Richard Specht in the late summer of 1904. At the time Mahler was working on the sketches for his Sixth Symphony, completed the following summer and conducted by him at its first performance. This was given at the music festival staged by the Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein in Essen on May 27, 1906. For years the work remained in the shadows, with a score mistrusted as inaccessible; it was a work, which seemed to be under a spell. Not until 1947 was it performed in the United States. But the work had a subcutaneous influence: the second Viennese School was fascinated, and Alban Berg - whose Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 are clearly written in the wake of Mahler's Sixth - ventured the forthright pronouncement: "the 'Pastoral' notwithstanding, there is only one Sixth."
The choice of A minor, Mahler's "tragic key," comments by Alma Mahler ("his most personal work of all and moreover a prophetic one"), and a battery of instruments expanded by such unusual resources as a hammer and cow-bells - all these are pointers to the character of a work which is a personal statement, a symphony of destiny. The heroic individualism resounds, transforms, elevates, yet without any triumphal conclusion in the major key; the Sixth is the only symphony by Mahler to ebb away on a quiet, disjointed minor chord. The three magical, "unmetallic" hammer blows that resound into the finale; the major-minor antithesis inherited from Schubert and here raised to a harmonic principle; and finally the use of chords barely assignable to keys; all these lead from the tragedies, troubles, and failures of a hero (cast, when all is said and done, in the Beethovenian mould) to an oppressive "anticipation of future life, "to the convulsions that were to threaten the world barely a decade later. The Sixth is at once a self-portrait, a diagnosis of the time, and a vision of the future: the allegory of an artist caught between epochs.
"Vehement but vigorous," the march rhythm propels the first group of themes in the Allegro energico: the bars of the exposition contain the material of the entire symphony in outline: one of its main characteristics is the coherent pattern of the motives employed. Of the four movements, three - the two outer movements and the scherzo - have in common not only the key of A minor, but also the underlying motive, namely the rising and falling of the tonic third, clouded now and then by an intervening ascending major second (A-B). Running through the outer movements is the march rhythm, strident and harsh in the first, moderated to a solemn gait in the finale. In the scherzo this is transformed into a rigid, positively machine-like 3/8 rhythm, conveyed by drum beats and apparent shifts in accentuation.
After five introductory bars containing the march rhythm and the basic harmonic formula, the strings intone their first, striding theme, reminiscent of Schubertian thematic patterns. Sonata form holds together the apparently contrasting themes which are in fact all derived from one root. Cowbells conjure up loneliness and remoteness from the world, deep tubular bells the realm of the church, wooden clappers and the xylophone the sardonic laughter of the tempter. The form of the first movement has some unusual features: the repetition of the thematic exposition is written out in full, in other words is not simply-indicated by repeat signs of the kind found only in the first movement of the First Symphony. The recapitulation restates the two thematic groups, the return of the third theme serving as a springboard to launch the independent coda over an F sharp pedal point. "The movement finally culminates in a triumphal epilogue... never again will Athe sun shine so brightly" as in this epilogue to the first movement, the quintessence of Mahler's dithyrambic zest for life," commented Hans Ferdinand Redlich, who in 1960 provided the first new edition of the score of the Sixth, The scherzo - Mahler subsequently decided that this should be the second movement, and his decision has since been accepted as the rule - is a "wuchtig" (powerful) reassertion in 3/8 time of the key of A minor and of the original motives and themes of the first movement, while the "altvaterisch" (old-fashioned), dignified trio is a parody of the gallant style. The characteristic flavour of the movement is to be found in its "diabolical ingenuity," as Redlich termed the rhythmic juxtapositions found here, which allude perhaps to the "Mephisto" movement of Liszt's "Faust" Symphony. Alma Mahler felt that Mahler here wanted to portray the arrhythmic playing of their two children. Mahler's two little girls were still alive at the time when he composed the Sixth; the catastrophes of the summer of 1907 were still remote.
In diction as well as in the themes quoted, the cantabile, romantic Andante in E flat is related to the "Kindertotenlieder"; the accompanying figure for the main theme is repeated almost literally in the Ruckert 'setting "Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgega:ngen" while the closing phrase of the theme takes up the words "Freudenlicht der Welt". A farewell mood pervades the Andante The final bars are like one last, lingeringe look back.
In the finale, lasting over 30 minutes, the underlying themes of the preceding movements clash in one catastrophic debacle. Organised chaos and irresistible logic intertwine. Erwin Ratz, formerly President of the International Gustav Mahler Society has provided an exhaustive analysis of the final movement. In his diagnosis, the introductory augmented three-four chord over C constitutes the point of departure for the thematic unfolding and stimulates that "harmonic uncertainty by means of which the ground is so to speak, pulled away from under the listener's feet." This is Mahler's musical symbol for chaos, derived from the same altered three-four chord found in Schubert's late setting of Heine's "Am Meer." On this occasion it becomes a symbol for tonal and Atmospheric uncertainty. This is heard in both concentrated and dissected form. The finale is laid out in several sections and is mainly concerned with the alternation between chaotically whirling preparatory passages and allegro sections of rigorous development. The five-section sostenuto introduction is followed by an allegro moderato main section; this in turn leads to recapitulation and development, the drama of which is heightened by hammer blows. The final blow marks the beginning of the coda. The epilogue for the last time quotes the march rhythm which is so pregnant with fate.