KW Interview at Everything but the Music

Erik Klackner, author of the interesting, even addictive blog “Everything but the Music” has run Part I of an interview we’ve done over the last couple of months. He’s also fulfilled one of my career goals, by labeling me a “raconteur,” which is something I’ve strove to become since I first learned the joys of listening to the colorful ramblings of old cowboys as a youth.

He’s asked some big questions, and given me a chance to go on the record with my decision about the movement order in Mahler 6, and the reasons for my current point of view.


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, 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.

We also touch on Bruckner, Gal and the Green Bay Packers. Who knows where we’ll go in Part II.

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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.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “KW Interview at Everything but the Music”

  1. David galvani

    Good to read your article in BBC Music Magazine Ken.
    I have a theory about car radio music. The attention we give to CDs at home varies as we go about our homelife. Unless we deliberately sit and concentrate on a piece we often miss things. In a car, the random choice of music can so completely demand our attention whilst we perform the semi-automatic function of driving, that we hear pieces anew. On many occasions I have been struck anew by pieces in the car that have been well-known to me on CD. In particular, tracks in the middle of a CD may not get as much attention. Like you, I have had to pullover and give the radio my full attention. Does being in the car give us a different ear?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi David- good to hear from you. I haven’t seen the BBC piece yet. I hope I made sense!

    I quite agree with you about the power of the car to create a bit of mental space to hear music with fresh ears. It probably goes for travelling generally. When I’m away from the distractions and demands of home, I can often find time and space for really focused listening, be it on the plane with the noise-canceling headphones or at the hotel.

    Hope all is well there.

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