Doom & Cataclysm in Mahler's Sixth

Gustav Mahler is possibly my favourite composer. This is because his music endlessly grapples with ideas of existence, spirituality, and complete nihilism. Yet even at his darkest, Mahler seems to communicate an inextinguishable joy of living and optimism. 

GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 - 1911)

Mahler is making his first appearance in this blog because of his contribution to musical storytelling. Mahler took Beethoven’s ‘New Path’ towards musical metaphor (see previous blog Breaking the Mold) and advances it by using Wagner’s more explicit kind of musical symbolism, where a short phrase or motif signifies something very specific. (That’s a whole huge topic for further discussion at some point.)

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is what we call ‘absolute music’; that is, no explicit story outside of the music exists. And yet, this symphony powerfully evokes a narrative. The overarching idea, as is so often the case in Mahler, is struggle. This struggle is not as clearly defined as it is in, say, the Second Symphony where it is unambiguously the spiritual crusade for redemption after death. The struggle here is unidentified. But we are aware of an overwhelming external force, some impending calamity beyond our control. How do we understand this just from the notes? Let’s talk about the music!

The menacing opening march establishes a savagely combative atmosphere and it is immediately evident that this work is going to be one of intense conflict. The militaristic tone of the beginning is produced through repeating bass notes and snare drum (which create a driving march), the dotted rhythms of the melody (which propel us forward), and a tattoo in the timpani that seems to evoke 'left, left, left-right-left.' This whole war-like scene outlines an appropriately heightened emotional framework.  

But we haven’t yet mentioned the most important musical idea: a major-chord that immediately collapses into a minor-chord. (Major and minor are the two primary chord types. As young musicians we are taught to hear them as ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, but a much richer view is ‘stable’ and ‘unstable’.) This major-to-minor becomes a repeated musical motif throughout the whole symphony; it is this that gives us the sense of an ineluctably tragic fate. 

The second movement continues the caustic tone of the first (think of movements in a symphony like chapters in a book, or scenes in a movie – i.e. they tell different aspects of the same story.) It is titled Scherzo (pronounced ‘SKER-tzoh’, literally meaning ‘joke’ in Italian), and the light relief it is supposed to provide is completely absent. Rather, it hammers home the strife of the first movement, but now does so by sneering and mirthlessly laughing (with high-pitched trills in the woodwind and the bone-rattling sound of the xylophone.)

James Levine, the pre-eminent American conductor alive today in my estimation, says that the third movement is like ‘the memory of a great experience that has vanished with the course of time.’ It feels very remote from everything we have heard so far. It begins like a folk-song, tinged with loneliness and melancholy. It stirs itself up with great angst as it remembers what it has lost. This is music of unfulfilled longing - or that beautifully evocative German word, Sehnsucht (pronounced 'ZE(Y)N-zookht'.) The placid calm returns and invites us into a sustained hypnotic reverie.

Mahler keeps us suspended in this dream-like world by opening the Finale with a hazy, amorphous shimmering. We are carried aloft by a violin melody, seemingly unbound by gravity. But this is not celestial. We feel untethered.

The tattoo returns, having been absent throughout the third movement, and over the course of a tumultuous movement, we are struck by three climactic hammer-blows of fate (Mahler actually had to construct a specially invented instrument to get the massive sound he wanted.)

The most potent and poignant moment of the symphony comes right near the very end. We are heading towards a hard-won victory, with the military tattoo now seeming to represent glorious triumph rather than tragic fate, and where the major-chord will finally conquer the darkness of the struggle. And yet at the crucial moment, nothing happens; instead, the disorienting hallucinatory shimmer of the opening reappears out of nowhere. Our hopes are then totally annihilated with a violent statement of the major-to-minor motif and rhythmic tattoo. Stunned into defeat, trombones intone a funereal dirge and die away to nothing. But the final blow comes in a crushing and unrepentant minor-chord blaring from the trumpets. They obliterate the doom-laden silence, and as abruptly as they appeared, vanish back into the gloom.

Kirsten Hicks