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Programme Notes: Forces of Nature, June 8, 2024

Landmarks of Note

Programme Notes by Trevor Rines

Listening Landmarks are in boldface

Symphony No. 6 in A minor “Tragic”

Gustav Mahler

1860 Kaliště, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) – 1911 Vienna, Austria (age 50)

Composed – 1903-1905

Premiere – May 27th, 1906 in Essen, Germany (conducted by Mahler (age 46))

This is Orchestra Toronto’s premiere performance of this work

Running Time – about 80 minutes (no intermission)

1st movement – Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig. (meaning violent (as in severe), but pithy (as in concise)) (about 22 minutes)

2nd movement – Scherzo: Wuchtig (meaning forcefully) (about 13 minutes)

3rd movement – Andante moderato (about 15 minutes)

4th movement – Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico (about 30 minutes)

About this symphony, Mahler cryptically wrote, “My Sixth will be asking riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has received & digested my first five.” By “received & digested,” he means enjoyed & understood. And the generation quip is him looking forward to future, more openminded audiences.

Yes, he is implying that the reason why current audiences didn’t enjoy most of his first five symphonies, was simply because they didn’t understand them. The world wasn’t ready for his music, yet.

Only one of his first five symphonies had been well received by audiences & critics, at its premiere: his Second, 11 years earlier, in Berlin. It’s referred to as the “Resurrection” Symphony, although Mahler didn’t add that nickname & he didn’t ever use it.

Of Mahler’s nine completed Symphonies, only a few others gained nicknames. He named his First Symphony after a novel by his favourite author, “Titan,” but explained that it’s not about the book. Against his wishes, someone attached “Tragic” to his much larger Sixth Symphony & the name stuck.

Not since his First, had he attempted a purely instrumental symphony. Two through Five all have choirs, as well as orchestras. He conducted the premieres of all of his own orchestral works & was already internationally acclaimed as a conductor; but, he was even more passionate about his compositions. And Mahler was gaining a reputation for writing very long & complex works which required huge numbers of instrumental & choral musicians.

The musical forces required to perform his Sixth Symphony are enormous. You’ll notice that there are over 100 musicians onstage, for our performance.

This expansion reached its peak just six months before his death, at the triumphant premiere of his Eighth Symphony. It’s claimed that the performance was followed by the audience applauding for nearly 30 minutes. That one is nicknamed “The Symphony of a Thousand,” in reference to the approximate number of orchestral & choral performers required to perform it. There were over 1,000 performers, at its 1910 Munich premiere. This quickly prompted a cartoon, captioned, “Mahler is told there is no audience left in the hall because everyone is needed to perform in his mammoth symphonies.”

Despite a disastrous attempt to reorchestrate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which led to his dismissal as chief conductor in Hamburg), Mahler is much praised for his skillful & creative orchestration. He often treats his gigantic orchestras as several chamber ensembles, coexisting, overlapping, & interrupting each other.

Listen for these interruptions. The moments where these abrupt changes of direction occur are significant & they happen all through the symphony.

This symphony begins & ends in the same minor key (which is unusual for a Mahler symphony) & the major key sections stand out. You’ll repeatedly hear the dramatic effect of a major triad being replaced by the minor triad, throughout. 

Keep your ears open for these happier sounding (major key) sections. For the most part, they don’t last.When there is a glimmer of cheer, when a theme is played in a major key, it’s quickly silenced by either the minor key version of that theme, or a different theme.

It’s almost as if the rest of the orchestra turns on those instruments which are attempting to inject a ray of sunshine. And it’s not that the rest of it is gloomy. Menacing, perhaps; stormy, certainly; but not gloomy. There’s no moping & the threat is not implied – it has already arrived, & is stomping around, front & centre.

Speaking of stomping, the symphony begins with a march. Actually, to be more accurate, we first hear a depiction of the stomping of the marching boots, before the marching band joins in.

This appears to be inspired by a recollection of his childhood, since we know that young Mahler had a fondness for military marches. They were some of his first compositions, at just 8 years old, & were inspired by the music which he often overheard, coming from a barracks which was near his home. It’s during this march that we hear the first of those many major & minor triad pairs.

Mahler instructs us to know his previous symphonies, to understand this one. If your takeaway, from listening to his five previous symphonies, was “needs more cowbell,” then you’re in luck. In the middle of the first movement, we first hear the cowbells. We’ll be hearing them again, in the Andante & Finale (third & fourth movements). Apparently, only the Scherzo (second movement) is bereft of cows.

Mahler added a footnote to the score, saying that the first movement’s cowbells “must be handled very discreetly – in realistic imitation of a grazing herd, high & low-pitched bells resounding from the distance, now all together, now individually.” These are polite cows, who have waited until a moment of quiet stillness, to wander through.The only other instruments quietly playing, at that point, are the celesta & violins, but this still & serene moment is soon interrupted.

A hint at their significance to the composer is given in a letter which he wrote at age 19: “I go to the meadow, where the tinkling of cowbells lulls me to dreaming. Shadowy memories of my life pass before me, like long-forgotten ghosts of departed happiness.”

Mahler liked to include unlikely instruments in his works, to achieve particular orchestral colours. Cowbells may seem like an odd choice, but we’ll soon be hearing far odder instruments: a rute & a hammer.

A complex mythos has grown around this symphony. This collection of myths was largely created by the passions & indecision of the composer. It was then further muddled by his wife & four generations of musicologists, & it is a tangled tale of controversy & confusion. Even before the advent of the quarrelsome internet, there was already much misinformation about this symphony & its history. It has turned out that some of these established facts had even been created from scratch, by musicologists wishing to bolster their arguments.

We do know that there is a programme, for this symphony. There is an overarching sense that something is wrong, perhaps even that something wicked this way comes. Mahler intends that the music should give us the impression of scenes & events, & should conjure up images in our imagination. The music vividly tells a story, painting a sonic picture of…something.

Mahler refused to tell us what that was. Mostly. He does give us a few hints, even though he intended that we should figure it out for ourselves. His wife, Alma, on the other hand, was more than happy to reveal elements of this symphony’s programme, much of it in her memoirs about living with Mahler, published decades after his death.

I’ve seen some rather uncharitable things written about Alma. Oddly enough, these things are often written when Alma’s statements don’t support that writer’s pet theory. The year after her death, the musical satirist Tom Lehrer was even inspired, by what he called “the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read,” to compose Alma, a biographical ballad.

Still, Alma’s recollections, as well as what Mahler & his friends said or wrote, are all that we have to go on. The trouble is that many of these recollections are contradictory. These inconsistencies are often chalked up to the theory that Mahler must have simply changed his mind, then didn’t write about it, or mention it to anyone, other than Alma.

In the past, Mahler had provided detailed programme descriptions, but he was now adamant that none should be given, for his Sixth. Since those programme descriptions, for his first 4 symphonies, Mahler had come to the conclusion that audiences just don’t listen attentively, if it’s all spelt out for them. He had decided that they will be more actively engaged in the performance if they’re forced to try to envision their own story, as inspired by the twists & turns of the music, as it is washing over them.

On that note, Mahler would likely hate this programme note. He once leapt to his feet, at a dinner party, & shouted, “Down with programme notes! They propagate false ideas!” The party was right after he had conducted a performance of his Second Symphony & a guest had dared to mention the oddly controversial topic of programme notes, within Mahler’s hearing. The composer excitedly explained that he had only succeeded if he had reached the listeners directly, through his music, & that they understood what was going through his mind, without them first being prejudiced by reading mere words, vainly attempting to describe it. With that, he raised his glass in a toast, downed his drink, & finished with this statement: “Damn all programs!”

And so, with apologies to the composer, please do read on, to discover more of what we’ve been told about the programme of this symphony.

One can’t help but think that he might not be too pleased by Alma’s memoirs, either. In many ways, they hugely contributed to the confusion. As the person who was closest to the composer, most people initially took Alma’s recollections & interpretations of Mahler’s music & intentions as gospel. Those same memoirs are now taken with a grain of salt.

Let’s look at some of the many claims & controversies still surrounding this monumental symphony, even now, nearly 120 years after its premiere. Most of them boil down to the fact that musicians love to argue about music. Musicologists even more so.

Mahler wrote this symphony on his 1903 & 1904 Summer composing vacations (breaks from his gruelling conducting schedule). He spent those happy Summers with his Family, at a retreat in the Austrian Alps, sitting in a little composing hut (which is now a national memorial).

Alma claimed that, when Mahler finished writing the first movement, he told her, ‘I have tried to capture you in a theme; I do not know whether I have been successful. You will have to put up with it.’ True or not, that soaring theme is now known as Alma’s theme. We first hear it in the first movement, but it is repeated & transformed throughout.

That first Summer, Alma warned him not to tempt fate, when she learnt that he was setting to music some poems from Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). She also said that he depicted their daughters in the Sixth Symphony’s Scherzo. The irregular 7/8 section is meant to describe children playfully zigzagging on the sand. She added that Mahler had cast himself as the hero of the Finale. These claims laid the groundwork for The Three Hammer Blows of Fate.

The fourth movement, the Finale, is the longest movement of the symphony. And, of all of the Finales in all of Mahler’s symphonies, this one is the longest. For that matter, at 30 minutes, it’s longer than many composers’ entire symphonies.

Fast forward to the 1906 premiere performance, in Essen. Mahler’s friend, Willem Mengelberg, was in the audience. Remember that name. He also played a role in further confusing matters.

When we speak of the premiere, we also need to discuss the dress rehearsal. Many small changes, as well as two significant changes, were made to the score, between dress rehearsal & premiere: the order of the second & third movements was reversed, & the number of hammer blows in the last movement was reduced from three to two.

Mahler stipulates that, in the Finale, the sound of a large hammer should be “Brief & mighty, but dull in resonance & with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).” The challenge is to get a dull hammer blow which has power enough to carry far enough to be heard by the whole audience.At the 1906 premiere, the wooden hammer & block which they had constructed were visually impressive, but thudded inadequately.The effect was too quiet & didn’t carry very far.

This dull instruction continues to present a challenge, for orchestras. For our performance, the huge wooden hammer (as well as the big wooden block, which is being struck) have been built specially for Orchestra Toronto & this performance.

After the dress rehearsal, Alma describes Mahler backstage, in anguish. “None of his works moved him so deeply at its first hearing as this. We came to the last rehearsal, the dress rehearsal – to the last movement with its three blows of fate. When it was over, Mahler walked up and down in the artists’ room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself.”

The story goes that Mahler was upset that those three hammer blows, if performed publicly, would spell doom for his family & himself, whom he had dared to depict in his music. Whatever the reason, there were three hammer blows at the dress rehearsal & only two at the premiere. He had removed the third & final blow. (There will also be two hammer blows in our performance.)

“In the last movement, he described himself & his downfall or, as he later said, his hero’s. ‘It is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him, as a tree is felled,” according to Alma. Did Mahler remove the third hammer blow in an effort to avoid whatever fate had in store for him? If that was the reason, then his attempt to dodge fate appears to have been unsuccessful.

It’s easy to claim that one predicted something, decades later. Especially when the subject of your reminiscences is no longer around, to correct your embellishments. Alma was 19 years younger & outlived Mahler by 53 years.

She explains how the three unavoidable blows of fate struck, the very next year.

  • He was forced to resign from his prestigious & powerful directorship of the Vienna Opera, due to growing resistance to the many changes which he imposed during his 10-year reign.
  • His eldest daughter, Maria, died of scarlet fever, at only four years old.
  • He was diagnosed with an incurable heart ailment (which would cost him his life, only four years later).

Both Alma & Gustav Mahler were extremely superstitious & made these connections in hindsight.

Of course, when one considers that there were originally five hammer blows, this neat little fatalist theory is somewhat spoilt; however, I’m sure that another two inescapable blows of fate could be easily identified. Unsurprisingly, some conductors reinstate the third hammer blow (e.g. Leonard Bernstein), but I have yet to discover any who have increased it further, to the original five.

When you hear each of our concert’s two hammer blows fall, you’ll hear the music suddenly change direction. Each time, the music has been setting us up for a happy ending, only to be denied. Even the spot where the third hammer blow was to have been placed (very close to the symphony’s end) is a brief moment of intense stillness. It marks the final & definitive defeat of the cheery ending which we’d been led to believe might still be possible.

Between the first & second hammer blow, listen for an odd clicking sound. That’s another of Mahler’s unusual instrument choices, called a rute. It’s a bundle of birch twigs, which the percussionist uses to strike the shell of the bass drum.

Now, back to Willem Mengelberg, who had been at the premiere, where he’d heard the Andante second & the Scherzo third. Because Mahler switched the second & third movements’ order right before the premiere (& after the dress rehearsal), the first edition of the already published score still showed Scherzo-Andante. Mahler then insisted that his publisher include an errata sheet, in those editions, correcting the order to Andante-Scherzo.

Mengelberg had already conducted a performance from a later (Andante-Scherzo) edition of the score. Years later, in 1919, while preparing for his second performance, he obtained a copy of the first edition score, but without an errata sheet. Confused at the movement order discrepancy, he sent a telegram to Alma, requesting clarification. “First Scherzo, then Andante,” was her surprising reply, so that’s how he performed it, from then on.

Her memoirs later stated the opposite order, & most early performances were Andante-Scherzo. Then, a 1963 critical edition of the score was published for the International Gustav Mahler Society, as Scherzo-Andante, so most performances after 1963 followed this order.

Because the Mahler Society changed its mind, to Andante-Scherzo, in 2004, & some newly published scores have followed suit, confusion now reigns, & the controversy has actually heated up. There are ample musical arguments for both orders, so conductors over the past 20 years have joined one of the two camps. They are now at liberty to simply pick the order which they prefer, then brace for an argument, from those who strongly disagree. Our concert is Scherzo-Andante.

The year after his Sixth Symphony’s premiere, Mahler explained to Sibelius that, “To write a symphony is, for me, to construct a world.” Mahler seemed to understand that most of his symphonic worlds may be baffling his audiences, but would, one day, be enjoyed & understood. “My time will come,” is one prediction of Mahler’s which did finally come true, but not until decades later.

It’s difficult to imagine a world without Mahler already up on a pedestal with Bach & Mozart; however, all three of these composers initially faded into obscurity. They didn’t become household names until their music was rediscovered & promoted, long after their deaths. In the case of Mahler, Leonard Bernstein would have us believe that he single-handedly resurrected Mahler from obscurity. The newfound popularity of Mahler’s music was actually achieved through the efforts of many prominent conductors & composers, including Aaron Copeland, who had begun championing Mahler’s works years earlier. But it was in 1960, when Lenny & friends began introducing Mahler to modern audiences, that people began to really take notice. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s birth, followed, the next year, by the 50th anniversary of his death.

Perhaps Mahler did glimpse the future, after all, since he somehow knew precisely how far ahead of his time he was, exclaiming, “Would that I could perform my symphonies for the first time 50 years after my death!”

Just two minutes from the end of the symphony, as the Finale is wrapping up, is my favourite score footnote: “The C in the trumpets is correct.” It’s as if Mahler is reassuring us that he does, in fact, know precisely what he’s doing, is anticipating that we may have doubted that, & is also pre-emptively admonishing us for considering changing even a single note.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony may not have been appreciated, in its day, but it has, at last, been recognized as the astonishing masterpiece which it always was.

Headshot of Trevor Rines

Trevor Rines is a writer, musician, graphic and boardgame designer, and stage and voice actor, who has performed in every one of Shakespeare’s plays & has acted as narrator for three Orchestra Toronto concerts.

He performs with the notorious Renaissance gemshorn quartet, The Gemsmen, & was recently a contestant on Evil Idol.

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