Symphony No. 6


1860 – 1911

Epic, immense, the uncompromising product of the most accomplished genius, Mahler’s stunning Sixth Symphony had not always borne the descriptor “Tragic.”

In the score’s first edition, the word was nowhere to be found. But conductor Bruno Walter, who was Mahler’s good friend, claimed that the composer himself had used it in relation to his Sixth, and while there is still room for doubt, Mahler ultimately agreed to keeping it as a subtitle that so aptly suited this work. 

 Unlike Mahler’s other symphonies—which end in redemption, or at the very least, optimistically—the “Tragic” is given an ambiguous conclusion. A sombre mood prevails, instilling a sense of malaise to which we are hardly accustomed in Mahler. This is doubtless one of the reasons why the Sixth lags in popularity compared to Mahler’s other symphonies, with the exception of the Seventh, still a lingering outcast in the composer’s catalogue. 

 The work’s rather lukewarm public reception has not, however, prevented many composers from considering it as Mahler’s supreme masterpiece. Webern and Berg were among those who praised it, and Berg even said, “There is only one Sixth,” apart, of course, from Beethoven’s celebrated “Pastoral.”  

 Tragedy Amidst Happiness 

 It is paradoxical that Mahler’s Sixth was written during an especially happy period of his life: the years 1903 to 1904. Alma Schindler, whom he had married the previous year, had just given birth to the couple’s eldest daughter Maria, and domestic bliss prevailed… 

 Mahler’s previous symphony, which had also been written during a happy period, evolves from darkness to light. His Sixth, however, appears to have the opposite effect. And yet, there was nothing in Mahler’s life at the time that would have inspired such obvious disillusionment. Was he fearful, even in those years, that his happiness would prove fleeting? Did he sense the impossibility of his joy remaining intact?   

 Such latent pessimism is expressed musically through two chords on A, one major and one minor, that we may interpret as representing respectively light and darkness. Repeated ad with their own distinctive rhythm, they form a sequence that furnishes the work’s unifying element.   

 Another, altogether distinctive aspect of this symphony is its orchestration. Its very skillfully rendered tonal colours are some of Mahler’s most nuanced. The work is also highly effective in its use of instruments that were until then uncommon in symphonic music. They include the celesta and xylophone, as well as cowbells, adding considerably to the work’s originality of timbre. 

 Fate’s Knocking 

Mahler’s Sixth indeed employs an altogether novel instrument of crucial symbolic significance: the hammer. Three mighty strikes, at the end of the Finale, symbolize Fate knocking. This theme, of interest to many composers, has been used at various times throughout the history of symphonic music, the most iconic instance undoubtedly being the famous da-da-da-daaaa that opens Beethoven’s Fifth. Mahler’s use of a hammer confers on Fate’s knocking an inexorable force. Fate cannot be impeded. 

 By some cruel irony, the composer was struck with three tragedies in the year that followed this symphony’s premiere. In 1907, his eldest daughter Maria died at the age of four. Then, he learned that he was suffering from a severe heart condition. He was subsequently forced to resign as director of the Vienna Opera.  

 Convinced that he had tempted fate with these hammer blows, in the work’s second edition, Mahler removed the last of the three in the hope of avoiding additional catastrophes for himself and his family.     

 The “Tragic” in Music 

The opening movement of Mahler’s Sixth develops several highly contrasting themes. The first one is martial and almost hostile in character. Born in a garrison town, Mahler had a long-held fascination for military music. A second theme, announced by the previously mentioned major-minor chords and a disquieting trumpet part, is shrouded in mystery. The third is lyrical and ample, tender and passionate. Mahler deemed it a musical depiction of his beloved Alma.  

 The deliberately farcical irony that characterizes Mahler’s fast movements comes through clearly in the Scherzo, a form that proved especially fertile ground for his growth as a composer. Its orchestral treatment is jeering, while the reverential gestures in the middle section come off as fickle; overall, the movement is rousing and at times, brutal.  

 The poignant Andante movement builds on modal ambiguity, with shifts between major and minor that can be rather disorienting. The movement is also imbued with a pastoral quality, discreetly accented by the cowbells.  

 The opening measures of the Finale appear to evoke a modern film score: a dense atmosphere of suspense gives way to an unsettling flurry of brass, heightened by a clamour in the trumpets. But this mere flurry turns into a maelstrom, catching the listener unaware amidst escalating turmoil. Mahler inserted a few quotations:  themes from his lieder [short songs for voice], artfully adorning them with a variety of orchestral colours. At moments, light seems to want to peek through, but alas, fate will not broach it. As Alma Mahler said about this last movement, the composer “described himself and his downfall, or as he later said, that of his hero. It is the hero on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him, as a tree is felled. 


Bertrand Guay and Andréanne Moreau