Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 6, a decision


Mahler in Manchester

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.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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27 comments on “Performer’s Perspective- Mahler 6, a decision”

  1. Zoltan

    As you might guess, I’ve been following your writing on the Mahler symphonies with great interest (and also anxious to read your thoughts about DSCH 7)!

    This latest post shows (for me) a new perspective on the creation and structure of the Sixth, one, which is quite compelling!

    If I understood you right, the Fifth could be seen (simplified) as a darkness-to-light work (Part I being darkness, Part II being grey and Part III being the light). From that follows, that the Sixth is a lightness-to-dark work. Now, even the casual listener will notice the dark undercurrents in the first movement (even when the march is not made sound relentless as it can do), but could be an argument made for placing the Andante second in light of the structure that might be the the “mirror opposite” of the Fifth?

    (Protective headgear is on of course!)

  2. R.A.D. Stainforth

    Aside from philosophical questions, and notwithstanding Mahler’s second thoughts, the entire tonal structure of this symphony is destroyed by placing the Andante second. This would be lost on most listeners.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan!

    What an interesting and perceptive comment. It’s good to hear from you.

    The parallels with the 5th are extremely interesting.

    First, it’s worth clarifying that the 5th is not so much darkness-to-light, but darkness-then-light, which is an important distinction. Mahler never found a solution to the catastrophe of the 2nd mvt. The Chorale in the 2nd mvt returns as an apotheosis in the Finale, but the piece doesn’t end there, but instead in a stream of hilarity and irony. It’s a bit like the coda of Beethoven’s op 95, when he seems to be saying, after much drama, that it’s all a bitter joke anyway.

    So, on the one hand, the 6th is a mirror image light-then-darkness. What is interesting is that the first movement by itself can be seen as a sort of re-working of the ideas of the entire 5th Symphony- a funeral march that is overcome by all consuming love, with a bunch of more grey music in the middle.

    And, of course, the Andante could be considered part of the Light side of the Triptych. Of course, by separating I and Scherzo, you lose a moment powerful tragic impact, where the Alma theme is instantaneously demolished by the return of the pounding A’s. Then, by separating Andante and Finale, you lose another one, where the serene E flat major ending(remember, E-flat is another of Mahler’s special keys, otherwise reserved for the end of the 2nd Symphony and the 8th. It is his key of rememption)disintegrates into its bleak mirror image of C minor in the opening of the Finale.

    By switching the mvt order, Mahler is essentially eliminating two more hammer blows. In the original order, those are 2 of the 3 darkest moments in the piece (the other being the final ff)


    It seems like in both this change and the removal of the 3rd hammer blow, Mahler was deliberately softening the bleakness of the piece. It seems unlike him to soften a spiritual blow- was it superstition, or did he just think that the Andante-Scherzo order was what he meant to say?


  4. Kenneth Woods

    RAD- you’re comment came in as I was responding to Zoltan, but that’s a very short way of saying what I just said….

  5. Peter

    It is the fact that the sixth has four movements which creates the problem of the order. There is no axis to define the symmetry of the work, as there is in 5 and 7. The four-movement shape constrains the musical content in a claustraphobic way, reinforced by the obsessive A minor tonality. The E-flat major Andante can then be heard in parentheses, as if it is outwith the rest of the work. Then it almost doesn’t matter what the order of the inner movements is.

    Ken’s right though – while my head agrees that Andante-Scherzo is plausible, my musical instincts say that is wrong, because of the dramatic double-dip you get when the Andante comes third. In Mahler you are up and then you are fully down, and he maximises contrasts between movements.

    I guess whatever you do, you have to do it with conviction and with a meaningful narrative that works for you…But what would we have to discover to resolve this – find some secret programme or some thematic link that only makes sense, if you hear it played one way rather than another. But as yet, there is no such evidence and we have to trust musical instincts.

    Taken to a wild extreme, you could imagine hearing the first two movements (The march and scherzo) played on stage, but during the Andante a door opens and we hear floating from off-stage the E-flat major movement played by another orchestra. This door closes again for the finale, and all trace of the slow mvt. vanishes like something that was never quite real. Perhaps we should not think of this movement as belonging in a fixed time sequence, but as inhabiting a different physical space or realm. Perhaps that was Mahler’s idea, but it was hard to express it in real time – hence the confusion.


  6. R.A.D. Stainforth

    I will be at the Bridgewater Hall on 27 March to hear the magnificent BBC Philharmonic Orchestra perform this symphony.

    My own benchmark recording is by Sir John Barbirolli, who takes the first movement at an extremely measured pace, so it always seems to me that everyone takes this way too fast, especially Sir Simon Rattle, who conducted the CBSO the last time I heard the Sixth some years ago. (Opportunities to hear this piece do not come round too often.)

    Remember, Alban Berg declared this to be “The only Sixth, despite Beethoven” and ran off with Mahler’s baton after the first performance.

  7. Craig Kowald

    I had the rare oppotunity as an amateur orchestral horn player to play Mahler 6 last year. It was both the highlight of my musical life, and the most difficult and arduous piece I had yet played (Alpine Symphony gives it a run for the money). We played Scherzo/Andante, which just makes more sense to me, because we need the Andante to precede the Finale. It just fits better as a place of solace, kind of like a last night with the family before being shipped off to war. The Scherzo is also better placed after the 1st Movement, especially with the pounding tympani at the beginning. One thing though is I never change the order that a particular conductor used for a recording.

    Many people have commented at how bleak the 6th is. I just don’t see this as unremitting bleakness. Yes it ends badly for our hero, but that’s life. So much is really exhilarating, and very fun to play and hear.

  8. Zoltan

    While reading the comments (which are very reasonable and can’t be denied) I had the following thought: But of course there’s a key relationship that makes more sense if the scherzo is played second. It was composed as such in the first place! The real question might be, regardless of any finality in his decision, what his reason(s) were to change the order of the movements at all? And I haven’t heard or read of any yet …
    (Hm, this made ma have an idea: play the symphony without the andante at all! Too bleak?)

  9. Peter

    I heard the sixth in Glasgow last night played by the RSNO. The Andante was played as the second movt., and well, it remains a wonderful expression of melancholy and spiritual yearning wherever you place it, but the over all impact was as predicted; to lower the emotional intensity of the work as a whole and weaken its tonal architecture

    If you read David Matthews essay in the Mahler Companion about the Sixth, he suggests plausibly Mahler was so emotionally overwhelmed by the work and its prophetic meaning, that he changed the order to diminish the work’s intensity – to make it more bearable. Accounts of his conducting the work reveal that he was reduced to sobbing and ringing his hands, pacing up and down nervously. He was quite over-wrought by the occasion, which was very unusual for Mahler.

    Like Ken, I don’t find this work totally cynical or nihilistic, but just a corrective to the progressive empiricism of science and the naive optimism it encourages. If you read Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (as Mahler did), you will find all the aesthetic background that might have encouraged Mahler to write this work. Tragedy as the ancient Greeks understood it was a rite of Dionysus – the dismemberment of the old god to bring about renewal through catharsis. The individual is torn to pieces that he might be remade.

    If the sixth was truly just nihilistic, Mahler could not have gone on to write the seventh and eighth – so you sense that through this trial by hammer Mahler sheds another skin on his Faustian journey. There are connections also with Byron’s Manfred (Mahler quotes Tchaikovsky’s Manfred in the last mvt and Schumann’s Manfred Overture in the first). Manfred is the outsider who is so depressed that he wants to forget or die. He knows too much of life’s misery and he has offended some law of nature which means he has lost his beloved. In the end, he welcomes death and shuns conventional religion and redemption. His only escape from his pain is found by retreating to the mountains and into the bosom of Nature.

    No coincidence perhaps that Byron was influenced by both Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. The Goethe opens with Faust in a similiar state of abjection. And to close the circle, Nietzsche also based Zarathustra on Manfred – the superman willing to forego ordinary life and who embraces death with joy. From out of that literary and philosphical well came Mahler’s sixth symphony. We might say, it is the abjection, the fall into the abyss which we don’t get to hear before the second part of the eighth symphony, that which requires Faust to be redeemed. When Faust gives up his struggle, the Eternal Feminine comes to rescue him. So bleak as Mahler’s sixth is, we should hear it as the necessary fall of the hero which necessitates his being made anew in the eighth.

  10. Kenneth Woods

    Quite strong thoughts on the subject here-

  11. daoud

    Hello, I have just discovered your site and I enjoy your commentary on the 6th. I am pleasantly surprised to see you state it as your consistent “favourite” Mahler symphony, seems such a rare choice. It is my favourite too! However, do I find it to be the bleakest piece of music I know, there is no hope in this work to my ears. It could have echoed a similiar transcendent, uplifting ending of Bruckner’s 8th, the music was on its way there (itself echoing a very common trope in Western music since Beethoven at least), but to cut that possible ending, so savagely, so violently, so absolutely as it does, it comes as a complete shock every time I listen to it. I know nothing else like it.

    I do prefer the order of scherzo-andante, regardless of whether Mahler’s final decision would have been andante-scherzo, it is my preference, though I do enjoy recording and performances in either order.

  12. Kenneth Woods

    There is a good bit more discussion of the movement order of the 6th Symphony in this interview with me and Erik Klackner at “Everything but the Music”

    “Let’s keep it narrow- On AS-SA (Andate/Scherzo or Scherzo/Andante): In my opinion, here is an instance where the usual rules break down. 99 times out of 100, or more like 999,999 times out of a million, the last word of the genius is always right. The current research from Bruck/Kubik/Kaplan makes a pretty compelling case for Andante-Scherzo on historical grounds: Mahler changed the order from S-A to A-S at the first performance and never looked back nor did it any other way. Gilbert Kaplan also told me something interesting- apparently Mahler had also written the 2nd Symphony with the Scherzo and Andante movements in reverse order from what we know now. With that in mind, the change in Mahler 6 looks less like an aberration. He thinks that had it not been for the malfeasance of Erwin Ratz, nobody would even be debating the question. He may well be right.

    I’ve tried in every symphony of Mahler’s I’ve done to track all the changes between the first version and where he’d left off when he died. It’s very time consuming, but very, very interesting. Of course, he didn’t believe in “final versions.” All of his works were one performance away from revision at any time. What is really striking is that in all these tweaks and edits, one can almost always see what he was after with the changes, and the changes are just about always clear and obvious practical improvements. Even in situations where the record is contradictory, like his indecision over whether to slow down, speed up or slow down at the end of the Adagietto of the 5th, one can see what he was after: that music is so passionate that it does want to push and pull at the same time.

    However, I still have yet to see a compelling musical rationale for the change of movement order in the 6th. Not so in the 2nd- the anticipations of the Finale in the Scherzo are much stronger when placed as they are, rather than just after the first movement. In fact, that relationship makes the change of order in the 6th look more suspect. Just as the Scherzo of the 2nd Symphony is closely linked with the Finale, the Scherzo of the 6th is most closely linked with the 1st movement. In the end, Mahler decided the links in the 2nd Symphony made the most sense if those two movements were close to each other. Surely the same is true in the 6th?

    Most rationales I’ve heard have to do with perception and accessibility- that somehow the original order makes for an overly monotonous or depressing first part of the symphony, that the listener needs the variety of the Andante after the first movement. To me, this rationale borders on pandering to the worst instincts of the audience- it’s the same reason people start cutting great works by Schubert, Bruckner and Rachmaninoff. When someone says the Schubert E-flat Piano Trio is too long I want to kill them- don’t they think he knew how long it was and knew what he was asking of his audience? Likewise Rachmaninoff in his 2nd Symphony- surely the scale is part of the point, so why cut it? It’s not that one can’t find reasons that people think Mahler was right to change from S-A to A-S, it’s that I think the answers are pretty superficial.

    Still- who am I to doubt Mahler’s final word? This brings me back to the well-travelled ground of intrinsic versus extrinsic aspects of score study. Yes, all the historical evidence gathered at this moment would seem to point to A-S, but what if tomorrow we found a letter from Mahler to Kahnt written in 1911 saying that he wanted to revert to his original plan? Would we be surprised? I’m as much an Alma skeptic as the next guy, but she did tell Mengelberg that Mahler’s final wish was S-A, and Mengelberg knew the Mahler’s well enough to have a sense of when Alma could and couldn’t be trusted. He was the closest thing Mahler had to a peer among conductors, and was completely dedicated to Mahler’s music. Surely he wouldn’t have written to Alma and asked if he didn’t have doubts about A-S.

    Intrinsically there are a whole lot of signs that’ S-A is the true shape of the symphony. The key relationships between the first mvt and the Scherzo and the Andante and Finale ought to be like a big neon sign saying S-A! The whole symphony is based on the idea of the collapse from A major to A minor. The most dramatic example in the whole work is the collapse from the triumphant ending of the 1st mvt in A major to the violent and desolate opening of the 2nd mvt in A minor. It seems like his whole original concept of the symphony hinged on that moment- on the failed triumph of the first movement. He then reinforces the conflict between the two movements by making them from the same stuff- the Scherzo is almost like a second development of the 1st mvt. The “altvaterisch” trio section of the Scherzo is essentially the opening theme of the first movement turned upside down, with the repeated low A’s flipped up to the top of the orchestra. The motivic connections between the first movement and Scherzo really only make sense if the two movements are paired.

    Still, normally I would probably ignore my instincts and go with Mahler’s stated wishes (Andante-Scherzo) on the theory that it is my shortcoming in not being able YET to understand why he made the change, but for one other thing- we know that he was not his usual self when he made the changes, and was under tremendous pressure to make them. Bruno Walter, who never got nor performed the 6th, told Mahler he thought having the Scherzo next to the first movement was too much. Of course it was too much!!! I think that’s kind of the point of the music. In this instance, I think Mahler lost his nerve– he was human. Barely human, from a musical perspective, but human nonetheless. He knew he’d just composed the end of the symphonic tradition that Haydn invented and Beethoven perfected. That’s quite a burden to carry. Did he lose his nerve? Did he conclude the original movement order was too technically challenging or physically draining for the orchestra or too demanding for the audience? All I know is that, it’s just about the only change in the Mahler symphonies that doesn’t seem to make musical sense. It makes a mess of the tonal relationships and the motivic relationships. I’m sure he would have gone back to S-A as performing standards improved. That is why I conduct it in the original order- Scherzo/Andante.”

  13. daoud

    Sorry if I’m out of place here, but based on what you’re saying, I don’t understand why you (emphasis on you) wouldn’t perform it scherzo/andante. That’s the way you best understand the work, I wouldn’t want to hear a performer perform a work in a way against their own musical instinct. Also, regardless of the historical analysis, the performance (live and recording) practice seems pretty evenly split between S-A and A-S, so I don’t think you would run the risk of being seen as an iconoclast and alienating critics or listeners by performing it S-A. Even if it was decisively proved Mahler wanted and intended A-S (and I don’t think the claim is that strong yet), maybe it’s still actually better S-A! Mahler was human after all. I enjoy a lot of “historically informed” performances but slavishly trying to follow historical performance, and the “text” is a bad thing for music in my opinion. And it certainly was *not* the case in Mahler’s own time and his own conducting!

  14. Kenneth Woods

    Hi daoud.

    You’re not the first one to do this, but you’ve slightly misread me. I conduct it Scherzo-Andante. When I say that normally, I would go with the text (Andante-Scherzo as he changed it for his own performances), that is disqualified when I say “I’m sure he would have gone back to S-A as performing standards improved,” that means that’s how I do it- Scherzo -Andante.

    As far as critics, writers and listeners- one can’t worry what they think. You’ve got to do what you think is right. I do, however, think the text is still the most important thing. Mahler changed one aspect of the text- he did swap the movement order. However, the key relationships and motivic relationships, to me a more important part of the text, just scream Scherzo-Andante. So, even though I prefer Scherzo-Andante as a matter of taste, that’s not why I conduct Scherzo-Andante. I conduct Scherzo-Andante because musically, there is more in the text (to me) that validates that order than Andante-Scherzo.

    I hope that makes sense!

  15. daoud

    Ah, sorry, I did misread it, I thought you said *despite* your musical reasons for doing S-A, you would go with A-S, my apologies. Ironically, possibly my favourite recording of the 6th is Barbirolli’s with the New Philharmonia, which does do A-S.

  16. David


    Peter, I am curious about the Tchaikovsky Manfred quote that you refer to in the Finale of Mahler 6th, is it the horn solo in the 3rd mvt. of Manfred? I hope you don’t mind me asking. I am doing research on this topic and would be interested to know if it is this or a different motive.

  17. Peter

    Dear David

    There is a recurrent figure in the Tchaikowsky around the rising minor third (often heard as a sotto voce horn). It first occurs in the first movement and is quoted in the third, although much of the material is derived from the same motifs. We hear this idea slightly re-rhythmicised in the Mahler fourth movement (int eh tuba and horns at first) and it is used in a lot of the march music later on.

    As so often in Mahler, it is an echo of another work which has some programmatic parallel, but he does something quite different with it. Yet, the form of the Manfred symphony does seem to influence the Mahler and, but for its contrived transcendent close, could easily have ended with Mahlerian bleakness.

    Here’s a thought – the Manfred symphony is definitely Scherzo Andante although the Tchaik Scherzo has a very different atmosphere. But assuming it was a model for Mahler 6, it would make a case for Scherzo Andante.

    To be honest, the arguments on either side simply create a situation where performers don’t trust their instincts, and that is always a bad thing. I’d say, do what you believe is right musically and let the academics argue because that is what they are paid to do.

    In Mahler, the opposites are always in collision, and this is how is music drives forward. If you switch to Andante Scherzo you water down the extremes and this is a work that is all about extremes, violent juxtapositions and relentless intensity. Any watering down feels defensive now, as it was in Mahler’s day. You can imagine he felt disturbed by the message of this music and by what it may have told him about himself. We all get coy when we think something we don’t like about ourselves is being broadcast to the world. Mahler was confronted with his own negative shadow – an angry pessimist, Manfred-like – perhaps feeling utterly alienated from life and Nature with suicidal leanings. Now that would scare anyone and make you defensive. But it doesn’t change the truth, and we should hear the truth.

  18. David Rahbee

    Dear Peter,

    Thanks for answering- this is indeed the motive I thought you were talking about. I drew very similar conclusions regarding the scherzo-andante order, and I do find other parallels as well. I would love to discuss them further, but would prefer to discuss them in private emails, so if that is OK with you please write to me at
    many thanks

  19. Gschladt

    I’m currently studying the score and am facing the S-A/A-S dilemma…In researching that issue, I read something interesting on the MahlerFest website, a 2003 article by Jeffrey Gantz.

    « […] the revised [Andante-Scherzo] version makes its own sense in the way it moves from the A-minor Allegro energico to the E-flat-major (the heroic, redemptive key of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and “Emperor” Concerto and Mahler’s own “Auferstehung” Symphony) Andante to the A-minor Scherzo to, finally, an attempt at E-flat major (from C minor, just like the “Auferstehung”) that fails. After the Allegro energico’s triumphant A-major conclusion, you might expect the next movement to be in the dominant, E major (just as the First Symphony goes from the D-major first movement to the A-major Scherzo), but instead, as if that were too much Heaven to expect, it slips down a half-step to the E-flat that the “Garden” section of the Allegro energico has prepared. When the Andante briefly achieves E major, we’re reminded what its key signature should have been. In the end the Andante’s anguish (with its Kindertotenlieder allusions) prepares us for the Scherzo’s A minor and its intimations of mortality, particularly the children’s. As for the link between the Andante and the Finale, it’s a clever transition, but it doesn’t do much for the symphony’s teleology. Where is the Finale trying to go? Its goal as annunciated by those first few bars has to be E-flat major, but that makes no sense when the previous movement has been in E-flat. The Finale is, moreover, not fated to end in A minor: it strives for both E-flat and A major.»

    Does that make sense?

    The rest of the article tackles a couple other controversies about the Sixth, notably the deleted ”last” hammer stroke.

  20. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Gschladt

    Yes- I remember reading that article.

    I’ve made my own decision for now about the movement order, but I’m very aware that I am going against a great deal of evidence so I wouldn’t presume to argue that anyone else adopt my position.

    That said, I think the article misses out some important things about the original order and how, to me, it more completely embodies the almost suffocatingly intense logic that is typical of the piece on just about every level. To me, the most important reason for keeping the original order is the collapse from A major at the end of the first mvt to A minor in the second. That modal relationship is the crux of the entire symphony, and that is the most important and large scale manifestation of that relationship. Not just because of the shock of the moment when you start the Scherzo but because it sets these two movements, one that ultimately attains A major and one that fails to side by side. That sense of the major-minor relationship writ very large is so important.

    It also speaks to the role of the tonic in Mahler 6. In a “normal” piece of tonal music, the tonic is the place you want to be- all the drama in Beethoven and Brahms is about the struggle to return home. The dominant is an expression of that struggle.

    In Mahler 6, the dominant doesn’t exist to take you to the tonic, A minor, but to take you to A major. A minor is reached not by the release that comes from resolution from dominant to tonic, but from the collapse from major to minor.

    I also disagree with the author that the transition between the Andante and Finale is not that big a deal- it’s clear Mahler spent a lot of time thinking about how to get from E flat into the harmonic world of the Finale. On the other hand, there is no evidence of a structural plan for getting between Scherzo and Finale.

    Finally- in Mahler, E flat is not the heroic key of Beethoven, but an embodiment of something like life after death, as heard in the 2nd and the 8th. It’s the key of Heaven. It makes perfect sense that after the macabre death, decay and dissolution of the Scherzo that the music would reach out towards a vision of a world beyond death where we are delivered from suffering. That’s what the 2nd symphony tells us to expect- just when all seems lost, there is E flat major. Not so in the 6th. The message of the Finale is clear- the world of the Andante is wishful thinking. The end is as black and hopeless as it is inescapable, no matter how heroically we struggle against it.

  21. Gschladt

    I just wanted to see your opinion on this specific attempt at explaining the logic behind the A-S setting.

    Indeed, my personal feeling is that the collapse from A major to A minor between the two movements is of the utmost importance, given it is the principal musical idea of the symphony.

    Also, Gantz’s theory on the transition from the scherzo to the finale looks all good on paper, but is it what I hear when listening to it? Not really. Analysis should never forget to take into account the way a works actually sounds.

    I also think the Andante has more impact when placed after the scherzo. It gives more importance to this movement, a moment out of time and space, the nostalgic character of which I believe is essential to emphasize by contrast the drama of the whole symphony.

    That theory may explain, however, Mahler’s décision. Wheter we find this logic better or not than the one supporting the original setting, I believe it is a more convincing explanation than the theory of Mahler being afraid of his message, or his work being not accessible for musicians and listeners of the time. I can’t believe he did not see a solid musical logic supporting his choice.

  22. Bill R.

    Very insightful stuff — I stumbled upon your page and look forward to reading your other thoughts on Mahler. I’ve been listening to No. 6 almost every day for months. I’m starting to think it’s the best (or at least take the view it’s my favorite).

    And historical evidence aside, I think it has to be Scherzo-Andante. The Scherzo is so good — and powerful and relentless — after the exhausting first movement. And the Andante is a wonderful calm before the storm that is the final movement.

  23. Brent

    Kenneth and company,

    I’d like to add a few thoughts to this fascinating discussion.

    Long before I knew that there was any debate about the placement of the Scherzo and Andante, I found the placement of the Scherzo immediately after the first movement unsatisfying. The transition from the end of the first movement to the beginning of the Scherzo simply sounds trite to my ears. The first movement has been a successful struggle from darkness to light. To go right back to the pounding A minor simply negates the achievement of the first movement and, to my ears, short-circuits the drama of the symphony.

    The metaphor of dark and light panels doesn’t seem to work for this symphony as it does for the fifth. The first movement of the sixth is not just a dark panel that could be augmented with a dark Scherzo to form a larger panel. Nor is it a light panel that naturally forms a unit with the Andante (which isn’t light anyway, but a bleak, melancholy sort of grey). The first movement is a successful journey from darkness to light, and the final movement is a failed attempt to make that journey on a larger scale, for higher stakes. What the symphony requires in the middle is a contrasting section. The Andante provides that; the Scherzo unfortunately does not. As compelling as the Scherzo is on its own terms, I might half-jokingly argue (as a mirror image of Zoltan’s suggestion above regarding the Andante), that the Scherzo could be dropped entirely.

    (I’ve never actually heard the symphony performed with the Scherzo in the third position. Maybe I’ll program my CD player & try it. I’m not confident I’d like it; I am sure I would miss the exquisite transition from the Andante to the Finale.)

    I realize that in hearing the A major – A minor transition between the Allegro and the Scherzo as a structural weakness rather than a harmless transition or even an essential element, I’m in the minority here. But I want to throw the thought out there. Who knows, maybe Mahler perceived the same problem and it was one reason he swapped the inner movements. I recall that a similar sort of apprehension in Mahler’s mind (about the effect of the transition from mm 1 to mm2) caused him to insert a long pause after mm1 of the Second Symphony. Kenneth, I completely agree that every conductor must make up his/her own mind about issues like this, and I’m thoroughly enjoying reading your insights.

  24. Ford

    My experience agrees with Brent’s, above. On first hearing the 6th, knowing nothing of the issues, the scherzo immediately following the first movement sounded wrong, because it was basically “more of the same”.
    OTOH, I find having the scherzo arrive to disrupt the serenity of the andante to be very effective. The semitone drop from the scherzo’s A minor to the finale’s G# major opening chord* is also very effective as an unsettling device.
    I wonder about the difference in opinions between “naive” listeners and those who’ve been listening to scherzo/andante for 50 years….

    *Yes, the first note is C but the CHORD is G#, and the music sounds in G# for the first 8 bars up to the double lines. I’ve yet to see a discussion of the key issue that acknowledges this.

  25. SocraticGadfly

    between used CD stores and YouTube, I’ve sampled at least three dozen different M6 recordings, or at least the opening movement.

    And, more than any other symphony, getting the opening movement correct is key. Normally, I have a very good understanding within 2-3 minutes of just how good, or bad, a first movement in general, and likely a whole M6 in general, will be.

    Too many conductors pay too much attention to the “Ma non troppo” and not enough to the “Allergo energico” notation of the first movement. Among those that do pay attention, half or more of them don’t nuance the tempo enough (listening to Bernstein now, with just that problem). And, for a few who get the whole first movement more than halfway correct on “snappy but nuanced” on tempo, and on good volume, usually either get one or the other of the middle movements a bit wrong, or get the finale way wrong.

    That said, per this topic, I like the Scherzo first.

  26. David McDuff

    Perhaps in a way one doesn’t have to approach the Mahler symphonies as entirely finished works. Like
    Dostoevsky novels, each of them is an experiment with time and space and characterization, each rolling into the next in an open-ended quest. They are extended notebooks for something greater that lies beyond a musical or literary context. And so the order of some of the movements isn’t necessarily fixed, for each movement is itself an individual work, related to the others.

    As you make clear in your excellent post, Mahler’s own extemporizing attitude to his symphonies, especially the Sixth, seems to support this perception.

  27. Alberto Lupo

    Have you ever tried a parallel with Beethoven’s Fifth (in reverse)?

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