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Composed: 1903-1904

Length: c. 79 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th = English horn), English horn, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, cowbells (onstage and offstage), low-pitched bells (offstage), xylophone, bass drum, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, rute, hammer, two harps, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 7, 1968, Zubin Mehta conducting

About this Piece

Alma Mahler, writing of what she called “composing holidays” spent with her husband and their two young daughters at their Austrian mountain retreat, reported as follows of the Sixth Symphony, begun in the summer of 1903:

“After [Gustav] had drafted the first movement, he came… to tell me he had tried to express me in a theme. ‘Whether I’ve succeeded I don’t know; but you’ll have to put up with it.’ This is the great soaring second subject [F major] of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. In the third movement [the scherzo] he represented the unrhythmical games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand. Ominously, the childish voices became more and more tragic, and at the end died out in a whimper. In the last movement he described himself and 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,’ were his words. Not one of his works came as directly from his inmost heart as this. We both wept that day. The music and what it foretold touched us deeply….”

We take such musical “premonitions” with a grain of salt these days, particularly as concerns the hyperimaginative, hyperemotional Mahlers. He, in particular, was a morbidly sensitive soul who, with the wisdom of our hindsight, embraced every tragedy or potential tragedy as an inevitability. It is a feeling that thoroughly colors his music: Gustav Mahler, the victim of cruel fate. Doomed.

Still, the disparity between the outward circumstances of the composer’s life and the inner world of the Sixth Symphony at the time of Alma’s comments, the summers of 1903 and 1904, is glaring. It should have been a happy time. Mahler’s music was being performed with increasing frequency. His family life seemed stable and filled with pleasure. He was meeting success upon success with his productions at the Vienna Court Opera, of which he was artistic director. Yet, here he is, creating the Sixth Symphony, the “Tragic,” as he once labeled it, arguably his darkest, and simultaneously two of the wrenching Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). It seems downright blatant at this point to mention that within a year after the Sixth Symphony’s premiere, which was led by the composer at Essen on May 27, 1906, his four-year-old daughter Maria died, his own, ultimately fatal heart ailment was diagnosed, and he parted company, not on the best of terms, with the Vienna Opera.

Whatever the circumstances of its composition, there can little doubt that the Symphony’s mood is dark, combative, and at times – as in the finale – overwhelmingly angst-ridden. It is therefore no surprise that it was among the last of Mahler’s nine completed symphonies to achieve recognition commensurate with its enormous worth.

In the words of conductor Bruno Walter, the composer’s friend, assistant, and dedicated interpreter, “The Sixth is bleakly pessimistic: it reeks of the bitter cup of human life. In contrast with the Fifth, it says ‘No,’ above all in the last movement, where something resembling the inexorable strife of ‘all against all’ is translated into music….”

And so Walter’s rumination goes, almost gleefully thrilled (a romantic attitude, we might say) at the utter hopelessness and misery of it all. But we may react differently, thrilled not so much by a “program” but, say, by the spine-tingling, jackbooted marching of the percussion-laden first movement, remorselessly, irresistibly pounding its way into the brain, and to a slow movement of the most crushing lush, aching lyrical beauty. That, Walter and the other nabobs of negativism don’t even mention.

Herewith, two reviews of the Essen premiere (May 27, 1906), the first by the influential, perceptive Julius Korngold, critic of the Vienna Neue freie Presse (and father of the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold):

“The classical form is not abandoned; the traditional number of movements is retained. And an allegro is an allegro, the andante is an andante, the scherzo a scherzo, and the finale a finale. Only in the orchestra is there an innovation; percussion is employed with a completeness hitherto unheard of and constitutes an organized invasion by rhythmic noises of the symphonic field. A hammer clashes in the last movement, [a finale] with a duration of 30 minutes: a colossal structure built in thoroughly thematic style, and at the same time in a strict unity of sentiment. This sentiment Mahler designates as a tragic one. The new symphony surpasses its predecessors in solidity of structure, but also in its realism and nerve-wracking intensity. It operates like an alarm. Friend and foe rush to arms.”

Perhaps Korngold is too anxious to show how “with it” he is, how well he understands that a frightening modernist like Mahler can be approached with tradition-attuned ears. By this process Korngold – unintentionally, to be sure – makes Mahler’s vast, exceedingly complex edifice seem facile, which in reality is hardly the case.

But Korngold’s heart was in the right place. Contrast his benignly, if snobbishly, enlightened view with the more pervasive one – which obtained for far too long – of Arthur A. Abell, Vienna correspondent of the American periodical The Musical Courier, who saw the jarring juxtapositions and gear-shifts as indicative of incompetence:

“Mahler’s Sixth Symphony contains not one original thought of moment. Its themes, when they are Mahler’s own, are commonplace and banal, and nearly always in march time. As to reminiscences, the symphony is full of them. One hears a few notes of Goldmark’s Sakuntala Overture, of the Liszt E-flat and Tchaikovsky B-flat-minor concertos, of Carmen, of Spohr, the Faust Overture by Wagner. Mahler’s weakness is his lack of continuity in style; and he patches together these stray scraps from ancient and modern music with a conventional thread or two of his own, making a heterogeneous crazy quilt of music.”

As to similarities to (or cribs from) Goldmark and Spohr, this listener is unable to comment for lack of familiarity with the supposed sources. Regarding the others? Mr. Abell had a vivid imagination, or was himself doing some showing off. One must, however, respect his puzzlement – while wishing he could express it less aggressively – at the seeming “crazy quilt” nature of the music, which Korngold takes such pains to deny.

Thus, these are extreme views – with Korngold not really making a point until the final paragraph, when he tells us that there is something strange and alarming about this music, as it remains to this day.

A more balanced, highly urbane – and much later – viewpoint is expressed in an essay by the American composer Aaron Copland, written in 1941, before Mahler had gained his current wide acceptance. And while it is more about Mahler in general than about the Sixth Symphony specifically, it is superbly descriptive of much that goes on in this staggeringly rich creation. Copland was not an uncritical listener to Mahler’s music, which may explain why his thoughts on the subject are rarely encountered nowadays. Yet they show a deeper, perhaps finer appreciation of Mahler’s originality and substance than the gushings of some sycophantic specialists.

“It is music that is full of human frailties,” Copland observes, “... so ‘Mahler-like’ in every detail. His symphonies are suffused with personality – he has his own way of doing and saying everything. The irascible scherzos, the heaven-storming calls in the brass, the special quality of his communings with nature, the gentle melancholy of a transitional passage, the gargantuan Ländler, the pages of an incredible loneliness... Two facets of his musicianship were years in advance of their time. One is the curiously contrapuntal fabric of the musical texture; the other more obvious, his strikingly original instrumentation.”

And, later, “It was because Mahler worked primarily with a maze of separate strands independent of all chordal underpinning that his instrumentation possesses that sharply etched and clarified sonority that may be heard again and again in the music of later composers. Mahler’s was the first orchestra to play ‘without pedal,’ to borrow a phrase from piano technique. The use of the orchestra as many-voiced body in this particular way was typical of the age of Bach and Handel. Thus, as far as orchestral practice is concerned, Mahler bridges the gap between the composers of the early 18th century and the Neoclassicists of our own time.”  

After serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, Herbert Glass was for many years a columnist / critic for the Los Angeles Times and a contributor to many periodicals, including Gramophone and The Strad. He has been associated with the Salzburg Festival since 1996.