Mahler, Symphony no. 6 in A Minor

Work History:

No other work came so directly from [Mahler's] heart as
this one. We both cried . . . . So deeply did we feel this music
and what it foretold us. The Sixth is his most personal
work and is also a prophetic one. In Kindertotenlieder and in the
Sixth, he musically anticipated his life. He, too, received three
blows from fate, and the last felled him. But at the time, he was
cheerful and conscious of the greatness of his work; he was a tree
in full leaf and flower.

In this passage from her 1940 memoirs, Alma Mahler* suggests that autobiographical meaning informs the content of her husband's Sixth Symphony, and on many levels, her words ring true. Gustav Mahler did, in fact, suffer "three blows from fate" in 1907: he felt it necessary to resign from his conducting post in Vienna, his eldest child Anna Maria succumbed to scarlet fever, and a doctor discovered the heart defect that would ultimately end the composer's life. However, none of these incidents had transpired when Mahler penned Symphony no. 6. Alma's memoirs, therefore, correctly interpret this symphony as something foreshadowing events yet to come.

In contrast to the devastating occurrences of 1907, the composer seemed in good spirits when wrote his Sixth Symphony during the summer months of 1903 and 1904. Because his conducting career required so much attention during the concert season, Mahler used his summers as "composing vacations." By 1901, he had acquired a villa and cabin in Maiernigg, a small village on the shore of the Wörthersee in southern Austria. Mahler devoted the cabin to his compositional activities, and in its sanctuary, he drafted Symphony no. 6.


Mahler's composing cabin in Maiernigg, now a National Memorial. Photo by Johann Jaritz.

According to Alma's memoirs, her husband seemed "young and unencumbered" at Maiernigg in 1903, "often play[ing] with the child [Maria], carrying her all over, taking her in his arms, dancing and singing." Likewise, the composer's mood proved positive during the following year's composing vacation: after delivering the couples' second daughter Anna Justine on 15 July 1904, Alma found that Mahler "could hardly bear to be parted from the children, and he had a special form of entertainment for each of them—stories, jokes or funny faces." Yet the music composed during this period of time does not reflect the joy that Mahler was experiencing in his new role as a father, and nowhere does this seem more true than his decision to complete the song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). Alma, who particularly disapproved of this work, explained in 1940:

I found this incomprehensible. I can understand that one might
compose such frightful texts if one does not have children, or if
one has lost children. After all, these shocking verses did not come
to Friedrich Rückert out of nowhere: he wrote them after he
experienced the cruelest loss of life. What I cannot understand is
bewailing the deaths of children if, a half hour before, one has
hugged and kissed those who are cheerful and healthy. At the time,
I exclaimed [to Mahler]: "For heaven's sake, don't tempt fate!"

Symphony no. 6, much like Kindertotenlieder, does not mirror the state of mind the composer exhibited towards his family in the summers of 1903 and 1904. Mahler himself acknowledged the work's poignant character by conducting the piece under the subtitle "Tragic" (though he later discarded this appellation) on at least one occasion. Furthermore, the symphony's darkness disquieted the sensitive composer during rehearsals for its premiere on 27 May 1906. Alma's memoirs record Mahler's reaction to this run-through as follows:

None of his works moved him so deeply at its first hearing as this.
We came . . . to the dress rehearsal, to the last movement with its
three great blows of fate. When it was done, Mahler walked up and
down the artists' room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control
himself. . . . On the day of the concert, [he] was so frightened of his
agitation getting the better of him that, out of shame and anxiety,
he did not conduct the symphony well. He hesitated to bring out the
dark omen behind the terrible last movement.

The "blows of fate" mentioned in this quotation rank among the Sixth Symphony's most caliginous aspects. Alma uses this phrase to describe the "Hammerschläge" ("hammer strokes") that arise at climactic points in the work's finale, each of which redirects the forward progress of the movement. Her memoirs mention three such strikes, since Mahler included a total of three in the version of the piece performed at Essen in 1906. Yet some time after this premiere, the composer deleted the last blow; only two Hammerschläge remained until some twentieth-century editions of the piece rejected Mahler's revisions and reinstated the final strike.

The composer also altered the original order of the symphony's internal movements. Initially he intended for the Scherzo to precede the Andante moderato, but Mahler reversed this sequence between the Essen dress rehearsal and concert. This new arrangement remained for the two additional performances in which the composer conducted the work: in Munich on 8 November 1906, as well as in Vienna on 4 January 1907. Unfortunately, however, confusion about the movement order surfaced by 1919. At this time, Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam contacted Alma about the movement sequence. Although Mengelberg had attended the Essen premiere of the work, the first publication of the Sixth Symphony reflected the Scherzo-Andante moderato arrangement, and many of these scores were still circulating; this likely contributed to Mengelberg's decision to inquire about which movement to perform first. Alma replied "first Scherzo, then Andante."

The twentieth-century editions that elected to position the Scherzo as the second movement did so primarily on the basis on Alma's response to Mengelberg. Nevertheless, her words about the movement sequence came eight years after the composer's death, and they seem to contradict how Mahler himself conducted the piece, as well as later publications of the score. While it certainly seems possible that Alma and her husband privately discussed reinstating the initial arrangement of movements in Symphony no. 6—and that her communication to Mengelberg conveys the outcome of this conversation—Alma never chronicled Mahler's activities with a tremendous amount of detail. Scholars have therefore questioned the accuracy of many of her statements, including the missive to Mengelberg about the internal movements of the Sixth Symphony.

Commentators maintain that Mahler reversed the order of the Scherzo and Andante moderato in order to minimize the stark contrast between the latter and the finale. Placing the Scherzo after the Andante moderato also crafts a sequence of tempos that accords to the norms of Mozartian and Beethovenian symphonies (i.e., fast-slow-dance-fast). Even the key sequence follows this historical model, since the Andante moderato-Scherzo arrangement places the first, third, and fourth movement all in the key of A minor: Eighteenth-century symphonies similarly have a single key common to their outer movements, as well as their dances.

Strong connections between the thematic materials and internal keys of the first movement and Scherzo nonetheless reveal why Mahler originally intended the Andante moderato as the third movement. A programmatic link between the Scherzo and Andante moderato would also advocate for the initial movement sequence, assuming Alma truthfully reported that Mahler meant to depict the family in certain portions of the Sixth Symphony. In her memoirs, Alma recalls that the composer crafted a theme to express her in the first movement, while

In the third movement, he represented the unrhythmical games
of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand.
Ominously, the childish voices became more and more tragic, and
at the end died out in a whimper.

Because the Mahlers' younger daughter was born in July 1904, this image of the children (plural) playing in the sand takes liberty with what really happened on the summer vacations at Maiernigg in 1903 and 1904. Yet the composer briefly quotes "Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn," the first song of Kindertotenlieder, at three points in the Andante moderato. Not only does this suggest that Mahler did intend to depict at least one of his children in the Scherzo, allusion to a lied concerning the death of a child in the Andante moderato indicates that this movement should follow the Scherzo if its program describes the loss of Mahler's daughter/s.
Finally, Alma's memoirs suggest that Mahler also outlined his own undoing in Symphony no. 6. This occurs in the finale, where the composer

. . . described himself and his downfall or, as he later stated, the
the downfall of his hero: "It is the hero on whom the three blows
of fate fall, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled."

But regardless of whether the composer actually was aiming to portray his own demise, Alma's remarks provide a metaphor for the affective content of the Sixth Symphony's ending. As the only minor-mode symphony by Mahler that concludes in the minor key in which it begins, the pessimism of this work remains unmistakable.

* Alma published her memoirs under the name Alma Mahler-Werfel to acknowledge her 1929 marriage to novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945).


RadioWest's Doug Fabrizio speaks with former Associate Conductor of Utah Symphony Ardean Watts & scholar Paul Banks to talk about Mahler & his connection to Utah Symphony.

More information:

Approximate Time in Performance:

80 minutes

4 flutes, with 2 players alternating on piccolos
-An additional piccolo player appears in the finale
4 oboes, with 1 player alternating on English horn
-An additional English horn player appears in the finale
E-flat clarinet
3 clarinets
Bass clarinet
3 bassoons
-An additional bassoon player appears in the finale

8 French horns
4 trumpets
-An additional appears in the finale
3 trombones

Bass drum
Deep Bells
Side Drum



Listening Guide for the First Movement:

After a brief introduction, Mahler's Sixth Symphony commences with a march. Its minor key, downward motion, and loud volume impart a pessimistic temperament to the music; similarly, the relentless tread of the march propels the movement forward along its dark path. Soon, however, the procession files past. The march therefore cedes to a gesture that many commentators interpret—undoubtedly after reading Alma Mahler's remarks on the finale's "Hammerschläge"—as a symbol of Fate.

This figure consists of a dramatic timpani cadence sounding against a roll in the snare drum. Trumpets then enter on a major chord, though after a mere four beats, Mahler lowers a single pitch in this sonority. The alteration effects a fall to a minor triad, and this major-minor pairing— as well as the timpani's rhythm—will recur, in varied guises, as a motto throughout the symphony.

At its initial presentation, the motto yields to a quiet woodwind chorale. In theory, this hymn-like passage acts as the transition in the movement's sonata form. Nevertheless, it remains firmly rooted in the home key of A minor. Transitions typically accomplish the modulation required of a sonata-form exposition; this movement, in contrast, abruptly switches to its contrasting key right as the second theme begins.

In her 1940 memoirs, Alma Mahler asserts that her husband composer intended to represent her through the "great soaring theme" now heard in F major. Marked as "schwungvoll" ("spirited" or "sweeping"), this new material exhibits both energy and lyricism. The former stems from the rhythmic activity that permeates this part of the score; the latter arises from its expansive violin melody, its lush harmonization, and the use of tempo rubato. Yet because the movement starts with a cynical march, the tuneful second theme cannot persist for very long. Thus, the opening of the movement returns, either because the performers have chosen to repeat the exposition (as requested by Mahler), or they have elected to proceed straight into the development.

The movement's development section resurrects many motives from the march, although their animating rhythm now derives from the motto. Sneering trills in the high woodwinds and xylophone occasionally appear as the tension waxes and wanes. But rather than building to a peak, the march now surrenders to a pastoral interlude that introduces the sounds of cowbells "in Entfernung aufgestellt" ("positioned in the distance"), as well as the celesta.
Above the aforementioned instruments, the motto's major-minor harmonies, the chorale, and a rising call emerge. Alma's theme likewise materializes, and it combines with an inverted fragment of the march to form a fresh idea. Mahler assigns a "grazioso" ("graceful") indication to this melody, and the tune soon guides the movement into the unexpected key of E-flat major for restatement of the chorale. This hymn also leads to a brusque change of key; in this case, however, the modulation interrupts the foregoing music so that the march may resume its inexorable progress towards the movement's recapitulation.

This time the march does culminate in a highpoint, and that climax ushers in the recapitulation. Because Mahler now scores the first theme (i.e., the march) and motto in the full orchestra at an extremely loud volume, much of the recapitulation seems harsher than did the parallel portions of the exposition. Yet not all of the composer's modifications imbue the music with an overwrought character. For example, Mahler enlivens the chorale by having it move at twice its original speed; he also adds the celesta to the woodwind choir in order to brighten the same melody's timbre. Nevertheless, a more substantial revision lies in the ensuing treatment of Alma's theme: Mahler drastically abbreviates this material so that he may promptly move into a coda.

This lengthy coda provides a brilliant conclusion to the movement while simultaneously counterbalancing the development section. It accomplishes the latter by recalling several of the development's motives, including the Alma-march hybrid. This grazioso melody accelerates, and the music moves into the major mode. This dispels the gloom that permeates the bulk of the march, and the movement ends triumphantly in A major.

Listening Guide for the Andante moderato (i.e., Second or Third Movement):

The Andante moderato proceeds in E-flat major, an unconventional secondary key for a symphony in A minor. Mahler nonetheless carefully prepares this atypical choice by also placing a substantial portion of the first movement's development in E flat. Likewise, the Andante moderato harkens back to the first movement—while simultaneously anticipating those that follow—by modulating to A minor during its second episode.

This episode fits neatly into the Andante moderato's rondo form, which involves three statements of a refrain (A) alternating with two contrasting digressions (B and C respectively). Overall, the movement falls into an ABABA pattern, with all statements of the refrain occurring in the home key of E-flat major. Because all share a rocking, lullaby feel, however, the listener can easily lose track of the five-part rondo structure.

The refrain opens with a lyrical melody in the violins that rides above a gently rocking accompaniment. Despite its "zart, aber ausdrucksvoll" ("gentle, but expressively") indication, this lullaby displays hints of darkness through its minor inflections; mournful timbre of the oboe and English horn; and brief quotations of a cadential figure from the first song of Kindertotenlieder. After three presentations of the theme—beginning with the violins, English horn, and French horn respectively—the refrain fades away so that the first episode may begin.

Flutes herald the start of this portion of the movement, which initially transfers to a minor key in order to develop materials from both the refrain and its accompaniment. Yet the major mode soon returns for a pastoral interlude, and, like the first movement, Mahler brings in the cowbells and celesta. The sounds of horns and trumpets also ring throughout the passage to impart a bright and joyful affect. This, in turn, casts an increased lyricism upon the abbreviated second statement of the refrain.

An unexpected change of key signals the second episode's arrival. Mahler begins this section with a brief "misterioso" ("mysterious") line for flutes and clarinets. This too modulates, and a thinly orchestrated lullaby emerges, though it soon cedes to recollections of the first episode in A and C-sharp minor. The latter of these rises to a fortissimo climax before yielding to the final appearance of the refrain.

Because this hearing of the refrain begins in C sharp, it builds towards another peak as the movement regains its base in E-flat major. A final presentation of the melody now effuses in this key, but Mahler does not allow it to attain harmonic closure. Instead, a coda gradually lowers the volume to draw the movement to its conclusion.

Listening Guide for the Scherzo (i.e., Third or Second Movement):

Mahler marks the Scherzo as "wuchtig" ("heavy"), and the movement begins with pounding timpani, offbeat accents, and a loud dynamic. This rather ominous mood only intensifies as the woodwinds stridently trill, the xylophone rattles, and the low brass snarl amidst the orchestral fabric. Yet ultimately the volume decreases as the instrumentation thins to a single oboe. The darkness dissipates, and the first trio starts anew with a "grazioso" ("graceful") character.

Most commentators connect this trio—as well as the one occurring later in the movement—with the "unrhythmical games of the two little children" described in Alma's memoirs. This association stems largely from the unsettled meter in this portion of the movement, which fluctuates between three- and four-beat patterns. The detached articulation and light scoring also impart a playful character consistent with Alma's imagery, while the "altväterisch" ("old-fashioned") indication simultaneously evokes a quaint scene. But since Alma also mentions that "the childish voices bec[ome] more and more tragic," violent outbursts periodically interrupt the picturesque moment. These gradually subsume the first trio in order to prepare for the return of the Scherzo material.

Although the second Scherzo section clearly subdivides into two portions, Mahler actually abbreviates his material. The second trio therefore arrives fairly quickly, and it initially proceeds much like the first. Fewer turbulent interjections impede upon this trio's progress, however, and the final statement of the Scherzo consequently enters rather abruptly.

Nevertheless, even this last Scherzo must subside. As a result, an extended chromatic in the horns—sounding above the pounding timpani that opened the movement—initiates the coda. Here, ideas from the trio quietly emerge over the continual pulsation of the Scherzo. But soon this too fades, and it does so in a manner that recalls Alma's comment that "at the end [the children's voices] died out in a whimper."

Listening Guide for the Fourth Movement:

Since the first several minutes of the movement elicit a mixture of emotions, the finale of Mahler's Sixth Symphony begins somewhat ambiguously. For example, sweeping gestures in the celesta and harp sound at the movement's outset, yet they arpeggiate the notes of a dissonant chord. The woodwinds then continue to sustain this same dissonance beneath a soaring violin melody, and when the horns subsequently take over the violin line— as the timpani beats out the first movement's motto—the tune grows vehement.

Next, a solitary tuba emerges with a bleak new motive. This fragment then unfolds into a fully-fledged theme quietly stated in the solo horn (preceded by cowbells "in der Ferne"). Tuba encroachments and other violent outbursts nonetheless prevent the melody from further development. Instead, a solemn chorale enters. It too proves short-lived, however, and both the rhythm and major-minor harmony of the first movement's motto soon reestablish the gloomy atmosphere.

The ideas of the solo tuba and horn now return with a march-like character. The tension escalates as the volume increases and Mahler adds more instruments to the orchestral palette. A further statement of the motto coincides with the culmination of this passage, at which point the tempo accelerates for the exposition of the movement's sonata form.

The exposition's first theme, placed solidly in A minor, derives from the tuba solo of the introduction. Now imbued with a martial temperament, these stormy materials nevertheless lead to a "fliessend" ("flowing") second theme set in a major key. Here the introduction's solo horn melody delicately resurfaces in the winds. A more impassioned statement follows in the violins, and brass fanfares then signal the impending close of the exposition.
Yet before this can happen, the development section suddenly interrupts with harp glissandi and the minor mode. Although cowbells clang as a reminder of the pastoral calm heard in the symphony's previous movements, the prevalence of motives related to the first theme result in a dark atmosphere. Still, hints of the second theme's brightness occasionally manage to shine through, and a full statement of that melody later actualizes. This increases in intensity, striving towards a peak—at which point, the first hammer blow falls.

An explanatory footnote on the score describes the hammer strike as "Kurzer, mächtig, aber dumpf hallender Schlag von nicht metallischen Charakter (wie ein Axthieb)" ("short, powerful, but dully-reverberating stroke with a non-metallic character [like an axe blow]"). Because no standard instrument exists that fits this description, Mahler himself attempt to construct his own for the symphony's premiere. Alma's memoirs record his experiments in this regard:

In the last movement, the notes of the bass drum were not loud
enough for him, so he had an enormous chest made and stretched
with hide. It was to be beaten with clubs. He had this engine
brought in before rehearsal. The members of the orchestra
crowded around the monster on the lighted stage—the rest of
the hall was in darkness. There was the breathless silence of
suspense. The drummer raised his arm and struck: the answer
was a dull, subdued boom. Once again with all his strength: the result
was the same. Mahler lost patience. Seizing the bludgeon from the
man's hand, he whirled it aloft and brought it down with a mighty
whack. The answering boom was no louder than before. Everyone
laughed. And now they brought out the old bass drum again—and the
true thunder came. Nevertheless, Mahler dispatched his chest to Essen
at great cost. It was again tried out, and finally rejected as unfit for

In the twentieth-century, there still does not exist a standardized instrument for the hammer blows of Symphony no. 6. Performances often involve the construction of large wooden blocks, which a percussionist strikes with a sledge hammer or oversized mallet hammer. Each ensemble must find its own solution, according to its conductor's interpretation the composer's intentions.


A cartoon, published in Die Muskete on 10 January 1907, in which artist by Fritz Schönpflung (1873-1951) is clearly lampooning the hammer used in Mahler's Sixth Symphony. This unconventional "instrument" rests on the drum in the illustration, and the cowbell and whip/switch used in the work also appear. The caption at the bottom reads "My God! I've forgotten the motor-horn! Now I shall have to write another symphony."

At any rate, the first hammer blow abruptly redirects the path of the movement. While the preceding portion of the development remained in a single key area (though toggling between major and minor), the music now becomes tonally unstable as the introduction's chorale recurs over a turbulent string accompaniment. This unexpectedly slides into the major mode, where fragments of the second theme briefly ring in exaltation. However, an unexpected modulation into a minor key announces the reinstatement of the ferocity that has animated the bulk of the movement. Mahler now marks the music as "Alles mit roher Kraft" ("All with brute force"), and it promptly leads to tempestuous exploration of the first theme's march. Out of this din, a stately line materializes in the French horns and violins. This quickly builds, creating an expectation for a victorious climax. But in its place, the hammer strikes once again.

Tragedy returns in the wake of this second hammer blow, and aggressive brass lines wend their way towards A minor in preparation for the recapitulation. This section of the movement nevertheless proves unconventional. Much of the introduction reappears (i.e., soaring violin melody; tuba solo, but played by a French horn in the low register; solo horn melody, rescored for trumpet and other instruments), and the second theme now precedes the first. The reversal of these materials means that the apex attained by the second theme must propel the movement into the pessimism of the first theme's march.

Yet this time the march endeavors towards a triumphant apogee in A major. The stately melody of the development now returns, and it leads to brilliant proclamations in the horns and low brass. A recurrence of the introduction nonetheless intrudes, cutting off this exultation. Although the ensuing presentation of the soaring violin theme does not necessitate reinstatement of a disconsolate affect, the subsequent hearing of the motto—which coincides with the final hammer blow in Mahler's original version of the piece—does. The brass therefore reinterprets the stately melody in the minor mode, thereby transforming it into a symbol of failure rather than heroic achievement. Exhausted hints of the march sound once more, and then the first movement's motto violently closes the symphony.

© 2015 by Bettie Jo Basinger