Mahler 6: Some of the reasons why I conduct Scherzo-Andante (and why I could be wrong)

There are few more contentious subjects amongst Mahlerians than the order of movements in the 6th Symphony. As part of the Performer’s Perspective series last year, I tried to explain what a big and fairly complicated question it is. More recently, as part of my interview with Erik Klackner the other day at Everything but the Music, I attempted to thread the needle and explain the competing rationales for the two possible orders, before coming down on the side of Scherzo-Andante. I thought it might be of some interest to excerpt that part of our conversation here as a stand-alone blog post. For a long time, I’ve wanted to find the time for a proper analytical post illustrating the musical reasons for the original order (Scherzo-Andante), and why I think those might ultimately militate against my adopting Mahler’s published wishes (Andante-Scherzo). This is not yet that post, but it gives a little sense of the arguments on both sides. In fact, I was so even-handed that some readers thought I had decided on Andante-Scherzo. Hopefully, the title of this post clarifies things a little. Until I have time to write something more detailed, I refer readers to the final volume of de la Grange’s Mahler study, which has a whole chapter on the issue (de la Grange endorses, cautiously, Scherzo-Andante)

I’ve also clarified some of my language from the original interview with Erik.

“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. As far as we now know, the last word of Gustav Mahler was Andante-Scherzo.  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 he later perform it any other way. Gilbert Kaplan also told me something very 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. Kaplan 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, Mahler 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 thematically 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 for why Mahler switched to Andante-Scherzo 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? The length is part of the meaning. 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 presented so far 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, almost 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? Maybe he did tell her he had changed his mind one more time? We may yet find that he did.

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, in many ways superhuman 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. Right now, knowing what I know and having read what I could find, 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.”

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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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8 comments on “Mahler 6: Some of the reasons why I conduct Scherzo-Andante (and why I could be wrong)”

  1. Pingback: Scherzo - Andante or Andante - Scherzo in Mahler's Sixth?

  2. Dan

    Great entry.

    I always prefer listening to it Scherzo-Andante – the only unconvincing thing to me is the massive affirmative A major climax at the end of the first movement not having any positive effect against the start of the Scherzo. But the placement of the Andante just before the Finale works beautifully; you have the far-off cloudy nostalgia which seems to dispel the forceful and violent first and second movements as a bad dream; also, the Finale starts with a low C minor chord, linking perfectly into its relative major from the end of the Andante, E flat major. It then moves straight back into the violent A minor, via the wispy mysterious atmosphere following the celesta flourish.

    The only aspect I need to get to grips with, as I’ve said, is the transition of the A major in the first movement to the A minor return in the first few bars of the Scherzo. But it works much better than sticking the Scherzo in third, which seems to stick out like a sore thumb if placed there (to me, anyway).

    Must go and have another listen, and try and understand that transition! Keep writing Kenneth, ’tis a wonderful blog.

  3. George

    You mention the view that having the Scherzo second would be too demanding for the audience because it would mean having two adjacent stormy movements but surely it is even more demanding to have the Scherzo third where it then combines with the massive finale? I’m not saying you’re wrong with your liking for the order S-A. It’s just that I’m coming from the opposite direction i.e. I think that S-A gives the audience a “breathing space” before the massive finale. It also gives the symphony a sense of symmetry in that the Andante – the only calm movement – is then in the centre of the piece, the finale being equal in length to the first movement and Scherzo combined.

    As far as I know Beethoven’s 9th was the first symphony to reverse the traditional order of the inner movements and I assume it was for the same reasons given above i.e. to give a breathing space before an unprecedentedly massive finale and also for the sake of symmetry.

    Finally – since I always felt that Mahler’s Andante has a nostalgic feel it makes more emotional sense to place it later i.e. through the ordering S-A.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    I’m not sure I myself actually think that having the Scherzo 2nd is more tiring or strenuous, but I’ve certainly heard many people who do find it to be so. Perhaps they feel that the similarity of the Scherzo and first mvt is too much? Anyway, I certainly agree with you that Mahler knew what he was doing when he wrote the piece, and I doubt very much he would have changed the order had it not been for Bruno Walter’s pressuring him at the premiere…

  5. George

    I think it’s pretty aggravating that Bruno Walter should have had such an influence over the order of movements in this symphony and then have the nerve NOT to perform it!

    I’ve also heard that the reason Otto Klemperer never conducted it was that he couldn’t understand it. And yet Klemperer is always being described as the great stoic among conductors. You’d think the Mahler 6 would be right up his street!

  6. Craig Kowald

    Ken, great analysis, as always. S/A also makes more sense to me musically, mostly how the Andante seems like a last night with your lover before you head off to the horrors of war. I have heard convincing performances both ways. When we performed this 4 years ago at the Northwest Mahler Festival with Darko Butorac, we did S/A. I liked how it worked. My goodness the Scherzo is the hardest thing to count. I kept getting lost in the meter changes! In fact, the 6th is the most physically and emotionally draining music I’ve ever played. I’ve run 10Ks that weren’t as hard.

  7. Frederik De Groeve


    I’m a factory worker at the old continent and my knowledge of music theory is far below average, so to contribute to this discussion on that basis is something I will not do. But as a listener, who is searching and finding so much while listening to Mahler’s music on many, many occasions, I want to thank Mr. Woods for this contribution to the debate. The way Kaplan/Bruck/Kubik approach this big and difficult question is the way a lawyer approaches a court of law. I completely understand that we need a clear overview of the facts as far as we know them. But just like the law often fails to bring true justice, we can’t expect for one moment that a question so profoundly philosophical as this one can be answered based on historical facts only. Approaching Mahler’s music in this way is a tragic mistake.

    I don’t know much, but I do know for sure the answer, whether we’ll ever find it or not, is in the music. Otherwise it wouldn’t be Mahler we were discussing here.

    That’s why I want to thank mr Woods, who made, in my opinion, an important contribution which was personally very helpful.

    I want to apologyse for my poor knowledge of the English language.

  8. Ron Wilson

    This has been my favorite symphony since I was a child. Now having listened to the works of hundreds of composers, it is still a piece that fascinates and terrifies. At 50 I can tell you that the 6th is the end of the Haydn symphony evolution and in a way the beginning of neo classicalism. I personally like the third hammer blow, as long as they get softer each time to represent a truly debilitating shock. The inner movements must be S-A to get all the things right that Kenneth addresses above. The end of the 1st movement gets an utter sneer from the S beginning and you can hear the children on the beach so vividly. The A in e flat is wonderful with almost any tempo or interpretation. I prefer a more stoic approach, but the materials are so well developed that this movement along with the Rondo Finale of the 7th always amaze me.

    And the finale is such a tremendous movement following A — just doesn’t work with S preceeding. Thanks again Kenneth for all your insights.

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