I am often asked to rank the Mahler symphonies.
Which one do you think is the greatest? Which is the hardest to conduct? Which is hardest to play? Which is a good one to start with if I am new to Mahler? Which one sells the most tickets?
Not surprisingly, my answers to all of these questions have varied over the years. They are all such compelling, challenging, rewarding, vexing works that working on or listening to any of them can quickly convince you that the piece on your desk is the greatest, the hardest, the most accessible, the most popular, the scariest or the most multi-faceted.
However, when asked for my “favourite” Mahler symphony over the years, my answer has been pretty consistent. It’s still a close contest and always has been. The late triptych of Das Lied von der Erde, the Ninth and the Tenth all mean a great deal to me- they are a profound source of comfort and solace and have been almost my entire life. The 2nd will always be special for many reasons because of its cathartic power and the special place it has held in my performing life. The 4th is simply perfection. The 8th, well, I just love it- I’m not too cool to love it, and I have no criticisms of it. On goes the list for all 11 works.
But, more or less without interruption, the 6th has always been my favourite of them all.
It was the first Mahler work I analyzed the score to- even if it was the wrong score (the Dover edition is only Mahler’s first version),. It’s not the one I listen to most often (that’s likely to be the one I’m conducting in 2-6 moths, whichever that may be), but I listened to it so many times in my youth that it will probably always be the one I’d heard the most times.
I only share this because I suppose the deeply tragic nature of the piece might scare listeners off from it. You might well take my love of this work as an indication that I am a morose or gloomy person. Well, I may or may not be gloomy, but my love for Mahler 6 is not to be confused with a love of gloom.
Over 25 years of acquaintance, I suppose there two things in this piece that make me feel so close to it. First, I think it is in many ways his most musically perfect work. That’s not to say it is as innovative and transcendent as the later works, nor is that to be taken as a criticism of his earlier ones. Still, to me, it is the Mahler symphony in which everything works. The structure, the material and the orchestration are all so utterly compelling that for all its complexity and vast scale, I think it is the Mahler symphony that is the most consistently sturdy. Everything works, and works for almost every performer able to do justice to the technical demands of the piece, and yet it is also a work that can always be taken to a new height. There are a number of truly amazing recorded performances of Mahler 6- there seems to be no limit to what the piece can be.
The second thing I feel most strongly in this piece is its sheer life force. It is the most powerful musical evocation of will, courage and resilience of any work I know. Far from being nihilistic, I think the message of the work is far more hopeful in a completely painfully realistic way. Mahler described the plan of the Finale of the symphony as a portrait of a great hero who suffers three blows of Fate, the last of which fells him “as a tree is felled.” Shakespeare knew that the true test of a hero was what they did when all hope was lost, in how they faced the inevitable when it becomes inescapable. This piece is completely unflinching in is acknowledgement of mortality, and yet the heights to which the hero soars in this work are unlike anything else in music. It is only the ultimate fact of our universal mortality that stops him. I always find the ending upsetting, but my lasting impression of a good performance, be it mine or someone else’s is of a great life lived to the absolute limit.
Of course, there is a strange autobiographical coincidence in this piece- it could very well be a depiction of Mahler’s on life. He himself suffered those 3 blows of fate- the tragic death of his daughter, the loss of his position in Vienna, and the onset of his terminal heart condition.
But, Mahlerians will already know that the paradox is that in this case, life imitated art. Mahler wrote the piece before any of those misfortunes came upon him.
This has long left commentators wondering about the inspiration behind this unique piece. Mahler wrote 11 symphonic works- all the others end in either triumph or transcendence. Only this one ends in tragedy. Beethoven never wrote a tragic symphony, Brahms and Mozart only wrote one each. When Mahler wrote the Fifth, which ends exuberantly, he had just recovered from a life threatening illness. On the other hand, when he wrote the 6th, he was at the peak of his career, in the happy early days of his marriage to Alma, and his beloved children were all well.
And yet, Mahler developed a uniquely strong sense of identification with this piece- it seemed to genuinely upset him.
The question has long been “where did this piece come from.” Was Mahler truly being prophetic? Were there signs his perfect marriage was not so perfect after all?
I have no doubt that Mahler was in some strange ways more sensitive than most of us to the spiritual reverberations of great events past and future, and probably was dialled in to the resonances of tragedies to come. On the other hand, I’m sure the inspiration, the trigger for this outpouring of tragic energy came from his own 5th Symphony.
The 2nd movement of Mahler 5 is an explosion of violence and despair without precedence in music. Certainly, there were important tragic works before- Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Mozart 40, Brahms 4 and Tragic Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. However, none has the unremitting ferocity and apocalyptic power of that one movement of Mahler 5. As I got to know the piece in minute detail, I was stunned to find that it is not just a narrative of destruction- it comes close to being the destruction of narrative. At every turn, Mahler sets up expectations of the classical forms that gave structure to many of the great tragic musical essays of the past. Coriolan, the 1st and last mvts of Tchaik 6 and Mozart 40, the Brahms Tragic Overture- all of these are built on sonata form.
With the 2nd mvt of his 5th Symphony Mahler created something not “in” sonata form, but “against” it. Without going into analytical detail, Mahler does everything he can to remind us of what we expect, even in a work like Coriolan, but it is not just his protagonist who is destroyed, it is the form itself. Every expectation is denied, every continuation interrupted- I can’t think of a more disturbing work written before it.
But, of course, in the 5th, the road continues beyond this point of negation- first to a sort of ambivalent, world weary black humour in the Scherzo, then later to a serene awakening of hope in Adagietto, and finally on to joyful celebration in the Finale. The Fifth Symphony is the first truly modern symphony- for the first time Mahler offers no “answer.” The cataclysm of the 1st part is not balanced out by the 3rd part, instead, a page is simply turned. Mahler seems to be acknowledging that life can be cruel one day and kind the next, that the most horrific tragedies and the most joyful awakenings can come in close succession. Today may be the worst day of your life, but tomorrow could still be the best.
It seems self-evident in the music, though, that Mahler could see that the 5th was obviously a Triptych in which the outer panels could be switched. What if today was the greatest moment of your life, and tomorrow brought tragedy? The Fifth didn’t show that things must get better, only that they can get better, and that when they do, we can still re-awaken our capacity for joy.
So, the Sixth became Mahler’s attempt to come to terms with the monstrous truth he had revealed in the 2nd movement of the 5th. It is in the same key as that movement, A minor, and very much in the same mood. It is also a triptych- the first movement ends in the joyful triumph of the melody he himself called the “Alma” theme. Today, it says could be the best day of your life.
Then, in the final great panel of the 6th’s triptych, possibly Mahler’s most perfect movement (the 1st mvt of the 9th is the other obvious contender), Mahler creates an epic drama, in which a truly heroic protagonist rises to ecstatic heights, again and again overcomes impossible adversity, only to be completely and utterly destroyed by Fate in the end. Tomorrow, it says, could be the end of your life.
Just as the Scherzo of the Fifth Symphony is more ambivalent, with hints of both hope and nihilism, the middle of the Sixth is also a bit more grey, where the outer panels are one white and one black.
And here is where this piece suddenly gets very problematic and controversial for the performer.
The Sixth is in 4 movements (the 5th in 5). Mahler fans will know that he originally had conceived of the Scherzo as the 2nd mvt and the Andante as the 3rd. He changed the order at the first performance to Andante-Scherzo, and the scores for many years were printed in that order. In the 1960’s, Erwin Ratz, the editor of the old Critical edition, determined the original order was correct and switched it back to Schezo-Andante. However, since his death recent research by Jerry Bruck and Rheinhold Kubik has revealed that Ratz may have been a bit free with the facts- Ratz claimed that Mahler later changed his mind and that later performances after the premiere were done in the original, Scherzo-Andante order. We now know that this was not, in fact, true, and that Ratz knew it wasn’t true. You can read more about this issue here in Gilbert Kaplan’s excellent NYT piece. Suffice it to say that historical evidence pretty clearly validates the case for Andante-Scherzo. Mahler changed his mind, and never seems to have reversed that decision.The only lingering confusion of historical fact surrounds a telegram from Alma Mahler to Mengelberg in which she said Mahler changed his mind back to the original order of Scherzo-Andante, but her telegram is so short and vague, and Alma is generally considered so flaky, that Bruck and Kaplan doubt very much that telegram is proper evidence of a change of heart.
However, as Ginanadrea Noseda and I discussed the other day, there remain compelling reasons for sticking to Mahler’s original plan. The key relationships are more dramatic, logical and compelling when going Scherzo-Andante (a topic for another post), and the thematic similarities of the Scherzo and the 1st movement make pairing them seem quite logical. In fact, it greatly strengthens the sense of a tripartite form- the first two movements form a thematically unified part I, the Andante a part II that, like the Scherzo in Mahler 5, offers a break and a meditation before taking us to the mirror image of Part I, the great and tragic Finale. Also, remember the axiom that Mahler generally did not change matters of concept in revision, only of execution. Changing the order of movements as he did seems out of character and musically suspect.
In fact, Mahler’s whole attitude to the piece seems out of character. His correspondence shows he could be colourful and passionate in discussing any of his works, but a study of the working copies of his scores show his attitude to conducting his own music was extremely pragmatic. He never seemed to suffer great doubts about what he’d written- he simply kept trying again and again to perfect the “how’s,” never really changing the “what’s” or the “why’s”
And you will remember Mahler’s own description of the 3 blows of Fate in the Finale. Mahler actually called for the use of a huge hammer at these points in the score- it is a devastating effect. However, he removed the final hammer blow. Why? Superstition? Did he see in it his own demise? It was really just a symbolic gesture- the ending is no more hopeful without it, it just ends a slightly different story. This change seems so out of character, as does the swapping of the movements.
So- history and a respect for the composer’s stated wishes indicate Andante-Scherzo. Analysis seems to indicate Scherzo-Andante. Conductors and scholars get very passionate in their disagreement about this. Was Mahler driven to indecision or revision by his own powerful emotional response to the music he had written? Was he concerned that the original movement order was to exhausting for the players or the audience? Did he fundamentally change his idea about the piece? Did he want to abandon the tripartite form, or to mask it? Did he feel that the piece as originally written was too dark?
The more one grapples with this, the more confused the issue seems to become. On the one hand, it turns out Mahler had done the same thing with his 2nd Symphony. I recently found out from Gilbert Kaplan that the score Mahler used for the premiere of the 2nd Symphony was printed with the order of the 2nd and 3rd movements reversed from what we are now used to (which is, in fact, Andante-Scherzo). With that knowledge we can see that this was not the only time he reversed himself on such a basic question, and in both cases, it was just before his first performance.
And, of course, there were other major changes of plan throughout his ouvre, notably the move of Das himmlische Leben from the 3rd Symphony to the 4th.
On the other hand, we by no means always assume that a composer’s final version is the only one worth doing. In Bruckner, the question is very complicated of which version to perform, and often in Stravinsky, the originals are preferred. Why not in Mahler?
I’m conducting the 6th next season for the first time in many years, so soon enough, I will have to make a decision. I’m very grateful to those who have done the recent research on the 6th, and I admire their commitment to setting the historical record straight, but the historical record is only as permanent as the latest paper. Ratz used to be the last word. Next week, we could find a lost letter from Mahler to Alma saying that the 3rd hammer blow was back in and the original order should prevail. A conductor taking on this piece can’t trust the concept to research, but only to analysis of the score itself. The text is the only authority that matters, and people will come to their own conclusion about whether Mahler should have trusted his original instinct and would have, or may have reverted to the original (Alma told Mengleberg that he had changed his mind back to the original order). I admire the conviction of the faithful, but I have to remain a passionate agnostic, doomed to revisit this again and again. I may conclude that the historical evidence indicates that I should go Andante-Scherzo, but until I understand Mahler’s musical reasoning for the change, I’ve got no business conducting it that way.