About this Recording
8.550529-30 - MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 6, "Tragic" (Polish National Radio Symphony, Wit)

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 6 “Tragic” in A Minor


The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successors in two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music, among other things creating a symphonic form that included in it the tradition of song in a varied tapes try of sound particularly apt for a twentieth century that has found in Mahler’s work a reflection of its own joys and sorrows.

Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in the world. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child, and the first of fourteen to survive, he was born in Kaliste in Bohemia in 1860. Soon after his birth his family moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectual self-improvement, to the running of a tavern and distillery. Mahler’s musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.

It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, then in Prague, Budapest and Hamburg, before moving to a position of the highest distinction of all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary. In Vienna he effected significant reforms in the Court Opera, but made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family’s future before his own imminent death, which took place a week after his return to Vienna, on 18th May, 1911.

Although his career as a conductor involved him most closely with opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composer consists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death, together with his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in Das Lied von der Erde. The greater part of his music was written during summer holidays away from the business of the opera-house, a miraculous achievement in view of his other obligations.

The new century brought a marked change in Mahler’s life. In 1902, to the amazement of all Vienna, he married the twenty-year-old Alma Schindler, daughter of the painter Anton Schindler and a composition pupil of Zemlinsky, future wife of the architect Walter Gropius and later of the writer Franz Werfel. Summer holidays were spent at a villa Mahler had had built at Maiernigg on the Wörthersee. Here he was able to work in a garden chalet with relative lack of disturbance. In the summer of 1903 he worked on his Sixth Symphony, writing three of the four movements in that year and completing the whole work in the summer of 1904, at a period when the birth of the second of his two daughters brought some happiness amid the inevitable frustrations and difficulties of Vienna and the relatively minor but irritating disturbances of his peace at Maiernigg from holiday-makers. Alma Mahler later wrote of the symphony, which her husband had played through to her as the summer drew to a close. The second subject of the first movement, he told her, represented Alma herself, while the third movement (now the second) represented the rhythmic games of the two children, walking with uneven stepson the sands of the lake-shore - an unlikely event, in view of the fact that the second child was born only in June 1904. The fading of the childish voices at the end of the movement seemed, like the Kindertotenlieder completed in the same summer, to have, with hindsight, an ominous nature, since the eider of Mahler’s daughters died suddenly in 1907. The last movement, according to Alma Mahler, described the composer himself, his downfall or that of his hero, with three blows of Fate, the last of which, later omitted, was fatal. Again with hindsight, these three blows she saw as the death of their daughter, the diagnosis of Mahler’s heart ailment and his resignation from the Court Opera, events of 1907.

The Sixth Symphony was first performed in 1906 in Essen at a generally undistinguished festival of contemporary music given by the Allgemeiner deutsche Musikverein. The programme opened with a performance of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, conducted by Richard Strauss, followed by the new symphony under the composer’s own direction. It was well received in the concert-hall but had a very mixed wider critical reception, puzzling many, as Mahler had said it would. The symphony, conceived on a vast scale, is scored for piccolo and four flutes, two also doubling on piccolo, four oboes, two players doubling on cor anglais, cor anglais, clarinet in D and in E flat, three clarinets in A and in B flat, bass clarinet, four bassoons, double bassoon, eight French horns, six trumpets, three trombones and bass trombone, bass tuba, two pairs of timpani, a percussion section of glockenspiel, cow-bells, deep tubular bells, whip, hammer, xylophone, cymbals, triangle, side-drum, bass drum, tam-tam, two harps, celesta and strings.

Some have chosen to use the distinguishing title Tragic for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This echoes the composer’s own description of the work and the mood of pessimism that prevails in the last movement of the symphony, with the ominous hammer-blows of Fate, prefiguring, as Alma Mahler suggested, the tragedy of Mahler’s final years.

The first movement is marked Allegro energico, ma non troppo, with the added direction Heftig, aber markig. There is a brief introduction of five bars of march rhythm before the appearance of the first of the three principal subjects, the second prefaced by a loud trumpet chord, but introduced gently enough by the flutes and woodwind. Shortly after this Alma Mahler’s theme, the true second subject, is heard, marked schwungvoll. The exposition is repeated, followed by a central development section, with Alma Mahler’s theme and the cow-bells suggesting the simple joy of the countryside. The recapitulation starts with the first subject now in A major, almost at once returning to the minor. Alma Mahler’s theme leads to a coda that starts with the insistent rhythm of repeated notes on double bassoon and double basses, but is eventually dominated by this theme.

tragic march, its rhythm stressed by the drum. The mood changes with the Trio, marked Altväterisch, in olden style, introduced by the oboe, a satirical view of an elegant past, in music that now turns again into the threatening and eerie. To this the muted strings otter a gentle contrast in the opening of the Iyrical Andante moderato, characteristically marked zart und ausdrucksvoll (tender and expressive). The second theme is introduced by the cor anglais and the mood is continued in music that grows in intensity of feeling and yearning, redolent of the countryside in which the symphony was written.

The last movement, the longest of the four, is one of strong and violent contrasts. Structurally it is of some complexity, opening with a Sostenuto introduction. This consists of five elements, the first introduced by harp and celesta and characterised by the first violin theme. A sudden burst of sound leads to a fragmentary theme for bass tuba, followed by a third element, a woodwind and brass chorale. A heavy drum-beat opens the fourth section of the introduction, while the insistent rhythm of the Allegro moderato provides the fifth element. There follows a series of three thematic groups, the first, marked Allegro energico. There is are petition of material derived from the introduction and apart of the following Allegro, before the first hammer-blow signals a development, followed by a second hammer-blow and a further development of the material. Earlier elements again return, to be followed by a recapitulation proper, marked Molto pesante. A third hammer-blow, or in a revised version the sound of the tam-tam, starts the coda. It will be seen that this movement, which defies brief analysis or explanation, has about it the elements of a rondo, although of a very complex and novel kind. At the same time its reminiscences of what has passed serve to draw together the whole massive work into a remarkable unity , in spite of its bewildering variety of material and mood.

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