BACK TO THE IDYLLIC WORLD. Gustav Mahler. Symphony No. 6

Gustav Mahler (1860—1911) composed Symphony No. 6 in the summers of 1903 and 1904 (he called himself a “summer composer” because his duties as the conductor of the Vienna Opera kept him fully occupied during winter seasons). However, he went on to repeatedly revise the orchestration and even changed the order of the second and third movements, Scherzo and Andante respectively. It seems a paradox that Mahler created one of his most tragic works (it was the composer himself who defined this symphony as “tragic”) during perhaps the happiest period of his life.

His career at the Vienna Opera was one of continuous success. In 1902 Mahler married Alma Schindler and while the famous Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, used by Luchino Visconti in his film Death in Venice, was quite rightly interpreted as the composer’s declaration of love for this woman, she recognised herself in the lyrical theme of Part I of Symphony No. 6. In the early summer of 1904, during the course of the work's composition, the couple’s second daughter was born. This event coincided with Mahler’s completion of a song cycle, entitled Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) that horrified Alma. This femme fatale, a self-declared muse for many artists with whom she had love affairs, later hurt Mahler greatly with her infidelity, which probably expedited his death in 1911. Four years before his own death, Mahler lost his elder five-year-old daughter, broke off relations with the Vienna Opera and had been diagnosed with a fatal heart disease.

The composer conducted the world premiere of Symphony No. 6 in Essen in 1906, then in Munich and, a year later in Vienna, where he had already experienced a conflict with the Opera. Like Symphony No. 5, No. 6 was met with a very negative reception among critics who preferred classical aesthetics. Mahler seemed to have expected that and he wrote in one of his letters: “My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut, one that our critics' feeble little teeth cannot crack.” Unlike Mahler’s other works, as far as we know, Symphony No. 6 was not performed in Russia even in the years leading up to the war, contrary to the cult of Mahler, which existed in Leningrad at that time thanks to the musicologist Ivan Sollertinsky, and the touring (and even residence of Fritz Stiedry for instance) of remarkable German and Austrian conductors such as Mahler’s pupil and friend Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Even after the war, the composition was not performed, although Natan Rakhlin, Nikolai Rabinovich, and Yevgeny Mravinsky continued to perform Mahler’s early symphonies. Symphony No. 6 was presented to the public only once — in 1978 by Kirill Kondrashin who also made a recording of this performance.

After the war Mahler’s works were rarely played even in Europe. His performance traditions (Mahler excelled in conducting not only his own compositions, but also others’ works) were continued between 1910 and 1930 by such masters as the above-mentioned Bruno Walter and Willem Mengelberg, a friend of the composer and commentator of his works. It was at this time when Mahler’s expressionism began to seem old-fashioned in the West, as the keys to the multitude of meanings of his works and particularly their post-Romantic irony (which could be easily linked with postmodernism) were largely lost. When the composer was alive, one of his critics claimed that his music was worth playing “in a pub or a stable”, but after the war it was described as “conductorial”, and even “mechanical”. Audiences had to wait until the 1960s for another chance to hear his music, thanks to Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez, and in Russia, the above-mentioned Kirill Kondrashin. However, by the end of the century it had become necessary to adopt new approaches to Mahler’s works, for example, Boulez’s more analytic and less emotional interpretation of the composer’s scores.

The series of concerts by Teodor Currentzis marked a new chapter in the history of Mahler’s music. Following Symphony No. 3, which he performed brilliantly with the musicAeterna Orchestra at the Diaghilev Festival two years ago (before that he had already conducted it in Moscow in 2004), and the Fifth Symphony closing the festival last year, the maestro is going to play Symphony No. 6 at the forthcoming festival. Currentzis’ interpretations of Mahler’s music are always great music events: excessive exaltation transforms into delicate expression, while the most careful analysis of scores reveals a plethora of new meanings. For example, such was the performance of Symphony No. 4 in Saint Petersburg in 1996, followed by a whole series of concerts in 2012: Symphony No. 1 at Teatro Real in Madrid and in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and Symphony No. 2, entitled Resurrection, on the eve of Easter in Perm. Madrid also saw the performance of a cycle of songs, entitled Des Knaben Wunderhorn; another cycle called Das Lied von der Erde was presented at the Territory Festival in Moscow in 2006; and a third cycle, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, was performed at the Diaghilev Festival in Perm in 2011.

Mahler’s Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies are purely instrumental. The lyrical character of previous symphonies (excluding the First) was expressed through singing and text, which the composer also used in Symphony No. 8. During this transformative period Mahler rejected a “programme approach”, avoiding all those detailed explanations which accompanied his first four symphonies. Now he claimed: “From Beethoven onwards there is no modern music that does not have an inner programme. But if before presenting this music to the audience you have to explain to people the nature of feelings they have to experience while listening to it, then this music is worthless!” Of course, this did not mean that the composer had rejected the core principles which formed the basis of his previous works — the “construction of worlds”, the quest for answers to the questions about the place of people in this world and their tragic fate.

In Symphony No. 6 — sometimes nicknamed Tragische (Tragic) — Mahler returned to the traditional form of a four-part symphony (like the Third, Seventh and unfinished Tenth Symphonies). The opening theme of Part I, Allegro energico ma non troppo, is a march, similar to one from his first three and the Fifth symphonies. However, in Symphony No. 6 it is characterised by a particular selflessness and aggressive mechanicalness that imply the idea of inexorable fate and human inability to change it. A major triad resolves into minor and becomes the “leitmotif of fate” of the whole symphony (excluding Andante). Despite the dominance of the main march theme, the lyricism of the second theme — a mix of pastoral and choral music — takes over, even though it is also opposed by chorales themselves which, according to Arnold Schoenberg, are filled with “cold detachment”.

The central Scherzo marks a return to the march rhythms in triple time and with the same cold animosity. It is contrasted by a nostalgic, but almost comic idyll — a trio, marked by Mahler as Altväterisch (old-fashioned), which includes a quotation from the Scherzo of Symphony No. 4 by Brahms. The form of this trio echoes the Viennese Classic period of the 18th and 19th centuries and, along with the composer’s playful dialogue with it, carries a special meaning. Having gone through a series of transformations, the trio gets interrupted by the return to the main theme and, at the very end of the composition, by the flow of passages similar to the “explosions of infernal laughter” in Part II of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Here the “leitmotif of fate” sounds again.

Andante moderato brings us back to the idyllic world of detachment from everything mundane. This part is rich in associations with several of Mahler’s works: a notable song based on Rückert’s poem Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world, 1902) from the collection of poems Seven Songs of Latter Days, which was also used in Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, as well as some reminiscences of Wagner. Like Adagietto, this part is not characterised by any pathos or simple sentimentality. Other song associations in this part include Urlicht (Primeval Light) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, also used by Mahler in the finale of his Second Symphony.

The finale of the Symphony — Allegro moderato — Allegro energico — which lasts almost as long as all three parts preceding it, is characterised by a highly complex composition. The musical themes of the whole symphony repeat and change all the time, but the lyrical moments together with the tragic passacaglia and distant chorales sound quite bitter. In the confrontation with the themes interpreted by Mahler as the hostile forces of fate, the composer defines three different climaxes that are interrupted by famous hammer blows (the superstitious Mahler had never used the third one during his performances). The last seven bars sound like a funeral litany. Piano articulates the theme of the central part and the minor triad of the “leitmotif of fate” for the last time before the explosion of tutti marks the end of the whole symphony.

So, the inhumanity of march rhythms in Part I, the scherzo and the finale of the symphony; the lyricism of contrasting episodes presented in all the parts; the detachment of Andante, and finally, the endless tragedy of the finale: doesn’t the musical canvas of these motifs immerse us into the essence of tragedy, regardless of the outcome?

In her book about Mahler’s symphonies, Inna Barsova ascribes his works to the ancient tradition of “anticlassical” art. While classical art is based on the principles of balance, proportionality, symmetry and completeness, anticlassical art is characterised by open forms and unpredictable elements: new harmony is created by the confrontation of opposite things that can perform different roles (including ironic and grotesque ones), change places, get parodied and reconsidered. This misunderstanding of this peculiar feature of Mahler’s creative work led to the rejection of his compositions as “barbarian” or “inharmonious” during his lifetime and after his death. It is worth mentioning that Teodor Currentzis is particularly attentive to these features of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic style. I decided to ask him a few questions.

— You perform Symphony No. 6 with Scherzo as Part II, and Andante as Part III. This was Mahler’s initial intention, but then all three times when the composer conducted the symphony himself, he played it in inverse order. Later on he returned to the original variant, with Scherzo second. Disputes concerning the order of middle movements still take place among experts. Maybe, apart from having some deep motivations, Mahler wanted to separate the central march motifs of Part I and Scherzo with Andante because they were similar in many respects, including the key?
— Mahler did not leave any instructions regarding this matter, so I think this issue will never be resolved. I believe that such a situation gives a conductor some freedom of choice depending on his reading of the score. It is worth mentioning that the tradition to place Andante third goes back to Willem Mengelberg, a friend of Mahler, and Webern who conducted all his symphonies in the 1920s.

— Symphony No. 6 is often considered to be the embodiment of tragic despair, dominating in Part I and eventually taking over in the finale. Furtwängler called it “the first nihilistic composition in the history of music”, while Bruno Walter, who was in close contact with Mahler but had never conducted this symphony said that the finale “left his soul in the darkness of absolute hopelessness”. Do you agree with this opinion?
— No, this symphony is as tragic as an ancient Greek tragedy, where the confrontation between the antagonist and fate, even though it might lead to the character’s death, is cathartic for the audience.

— So, we have to imagine that we are not just viewers but participants of this drama which we have a chance to witness thanks to this incredible music?
— The Sixth Symphony is not an illustration of this fight. It does not give any direct answers, but it does open the door to the space of metaphysical freedom. These famous hammer blows in the finale can be compared with deus ex machina from the ancient Greek theatre.

— Then I have a question regarding the symphonic form itself: Mahler always stuck to the established forms of classical Vienna symphony, namely the “finale symphony”, but here he exploded them from inside. For instance, such is the anticlassical and endless transformation of music themes, and the idyllic Scherzo episode with the Altväterisch notation, or the kind of apotheosis at the end of Part I, whereas in the finale it is cut as if by a guillotine, which is interpreted as a final defeat (although the effect of “frustrated expectations” is also typical for the Fifth Symphony).
— The Sixth Symphony is a landmark, a turning point in Mahler’s career when he turned from traditional symphonic forms to expressionism. Apart from the universal conflict of fate and personality which people used to see in it, the symphony considers the inner conflict of overcoming traditional forms.

Michael Meylac,
professor emeritus of the university of Strasbourg