Mahler’s 6th Symphony: The Catastrophe of Civilisation

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This is the greatest piece of music ever composed. That is a sweeping statement, I know. But I have believed this ever since I first heard it more than thirty years ago. There are a few other contenders for me (e.g. Bach’s Mass in B minor, Mozart’s Symphony #41, Schubert’s String Quintet, Brahms’ Piano Quintet, Bruckner’s Symphony #8, Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, etc.). But I always come back to Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony; for at the end of it, when the final pizzicato notes have died away, I think to myself “How on earth did any human being ever conceive of that, let alone write it?”

This is a symphony which has you sitting on the edge of your seat in rapt wonder. To listen to a Mahler symphony is to go on a journey, and his Sixth is one hell of a journey! To put it in modern terms, it is like watching a film which has every emotion one can experience within it. (John Williams, the composer of film scores for movies such as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, E.T., the Indiana Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, the first two Jurassic Park films, Schindler’s List, and the first three Harry Potter films, has always said that one of his key influences is Mahler). There are highs and lows, glory and damnation, angels and demons, death and life, destruction and renewal. Way ahead of its time in terms of structure, orchestration and instrumentation, this is an innovative and involving work which still operates within the confines of classical tonality, though one is aware of being in the presence of a genius who stretches the boundaries.

The nickname this symphony has received is “The Tragic”. That wasn’t Mahler’s title. He refused to disclose any programme for it. Maybe it should also be subtitled “The Enigmatic”. Mahler himself recognised its enigmatic quality in a letter to the musicologist and writer, Richard Specht. “My Sixth will propound riddles the solution of which may be attempted only by a generation which has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.” So here we see that Mahler was aware his Sixth Symphony contained riddles for which there was a possible solution. What he meant was that there would need to be a certain openness to receive the tough message of the Sixth. Having absorbed the previous five symphonies would certainly help; but if one has already achieved that depth of openness via other means then that would work too. In a letter to the Dutch conductor, Willem Mengelberg — who was an early champion of Mahler’s symphonies in the Netherlands — Mahler wrote: “My Sixth seems to be yet another hard nut; one that our critics’ feeble little teeth cannot crack”. Presumably, then, some strong big teeth can do so.

His wife, Alma Schindler, wrote about her husband’s sixth on many occasions but I frankly find her to be an extremely unreliable source. At least one of the things she said is provably untrue and was actually a lie. And when she attributes the (very romantic) second theme in the first movement to herself (resulting it being called “the Alma theme”), I have to take that with a typically narcissistic grain of salt.

So here’s where I lay my own interpretive cards on the table. After studying and listening to this symphony for more than thirty years, I believe that Mahler’s Sixth is a stream of consciousness social commentary which is both contextual and prophetic. By “stream of consciousness” I mean that the work was being streamed (some might say “channelled”) from somewhere beyond the composer’s own mind. For any artist who is tuned into the deep things of life and pledges to be used by a higher force for his or her output will inevitably be surprised by the outcome. After the first performance of this symphony, Mahler was found sobbing, wringing his hands and pacing frantically up and down his dressing room. He knew he had created a work of art which asked some terrible questions and concluded in catastrophe. Yet, his artistic integrity meant that he could never change it. The irony was that, at the time he wrote it, his own life at home and at work was at its most stable and happy. How was he to reconcile that with what he had composed — an eighty-minute journey of gothic proportions which ends in seeming catastrophe?

So, would a better title for this symphony be “The Prophetic”? The era in which Mahler was writing his Sixth was the harbinger of great change. A few years into the twentieth century, Vienna — where Mahler was conducting the Vienna Opera and Philharmonic — was a hotbed of extraordinary artistic activity which was like a magnet for talented artists of all kinds. Mahler mixed with them all. For example, the artist, Gustav Klimt, was a friend of the composer who was commissioned by him to paint the famous mural on the wall at the Vienna Opera House. Vienna itself, like many of Europe’s capitals, was falling into an increasing decadence, which we hear lampooned in Mahler’s scherzo movements, where the tunes in ¾ time sound like drunken bacchanalias and dances macabres — including here in the scherzo of the Sixth, where the music fades away arrhythmically into nothingness. But this was also the pre-era to an event which would change the face of Europe forever: The First World War, which began just eight years after the Sixth was published and only three years after Mahler’s death in 1911. It is well-known that great art can record or eulogise tragic events. But can it foreshadow them? Is Mahler’s Sixth Symphony a warning of the mayhem that was to come — an event which, in poet Wilfrid Owen’s words, killed “half the seed of Europe one by one”?

I believe that is partially the case. But there is more to it than that. For the First World War, and then the Second World War just two decades later, were smaller-scale architypes of the events which will surround the end of this present civilisation — a necessary catastrophe which we can already feel approaching in our own time now. This symphony is ultimately a symphony of catastrophe — the catastrophe of civilisation. Despite the huge surges of life and love-affirming spirit, together with great beauty and powerful joy, the work ends in disaster more than any other musical work ever written. (In the concert on YouTube that I have attached to these words, the audience sits in stunned silence for almost a minute after the shocking musical outburst at the conclusion of the work). This was not Mahler’s last word musically by any means, as he went on to complete a further three symphonies, none of which end in anything like this vein. But this is a message which must be stated and heard, for it serves as a warning which should spur us on to higher living, working together in creating a new civilisation out of the dust of the old.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is conventionally in four parts (movements). The first movement throws the listener in at the deep end from the first note. A pounding march rhythm instantly thrusts its way into your consciousness like an army marching to a ferocious destiny. This alternates with a passionate outburst theme which seems to grasp the whole wondrous beauty of life and love. It is like a heart rising on the wings of passion and an unquenchable zest for living. This sums up the ambivalent nature of the symphony (and, indeed, the whole of Mahler’s musical output): One minute we are pounding out a rhythm like a choreographed metallic army on the way to a battlefront — the next minute we are either being ravished by soaring strings or flying on the heights of the mountains to the accompaniment of shimmering tremolando strings and the sound of jingling cowbells (yes, Mahler really does call for multiple cowbells in the score!). The movement ends on a positive affirmation of the life and love theme.

The second movement here is marked “andante”. It’s a slow movement but andante is faster than adagio so there is nothing slushy or sentimental here. I believe it is one of Mahler’s greatest slow movements, which are always powerfully moving, taking the listener to the extremes of rhapsodic ecstasy. (Just for information, the slow movement adagietto for harp and strings from Mahler’s 5th Symphony was played at JFK’s funeral). But this movement is a mere intermezzo (interlude) from the fray to which we were introduced in the first movement. For the third movement scherzo starts in the same pounding marchlike rhythm as that first movement. Only because it is in ¾ time, it feels bizarre and even macabre. One cannot help envisaging hysterical dancers at a Viennese ball.

The fourth and last movement is, in my view, unequivocally the greatest symphonic movement ever written. Thus, we have the greatest symphonic movement in the greatest symphony ever written. Its scope is staggering — its momentum relentless. At thirty minutes long, it is longer than a whole Mozart or Haydn symphony! The first few minutes present a series of tableaux to set the scene with the various themes which will follow. It seems like a theatre is being played out on a vast canvas. One is taken through huge climaxes which, on two occasions, culminate literally in hammerblows. There is no more awesome sight than a percussionist stepping forward in the orchestra to slam a two-metre wooden mallet down onto a big wooden soundbox! Mahler ordered that the sound of the hammer should be “brief and mighty but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)”. There are people who surf to Mahler symphonies on YouTube just to witness the hammerblows and they make great memes out of them! One of them wrote: “I came here just for the hammer but I stayed for 80 minutes!” That is how mesmerising this whole symphony is. People often discover Mahler “by accident” which then opens up for them a whole adventure of musical discovery. I remember seeing a comment on one Mahler symphony which said: “I’m a sixteen-year-old death metal freak but I’ve just discovered Mahler by chance and it’s blown me away!” That is the power of this music. All ages, all types, all nationalities. Mahler’s music blows away boundaries and limitatons.

The version here is played by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Switzerland, conducted by Claudio Abbado. I believe this is the greatest live version you can find on the internet. (Christoph Eschenbach with the Orchestre de Paris is a close second, but the constantly-darting video is distracting). When Abbado built this orchestra, he based it around his Mahler Chamber Orchestra, plus some of the greatest musicians in Europe — many of whom are famous soloists in their own right who would not normally play in an orchestra but their love of Abbado and Mahler brought them in. It’s extraordinary to see the likes of Russian concert cellist, Natalia Gutman, or German world-class clarinet soloist, Sabine Meyer, sitting in the ordinary ranks of an orchestra (along with her entire wind quintet).

The professionalism and commitment of these players more than does justice to this thrilling, overwhelming symphony. This is spiritual music with a philosophy of life and love in every note, and which doesn’t turn away from any aspect of reality, no matter how beautiful, glorious, uncomfortable or challenging. To listen to it is a life-changing experience, because Mahler’s music unlocks previously hidden doors in the hearts of those who are open to it. A new universe opens up which is both terrible and awesome, formative and inspiring. At the same time, it’s as if this music already dwells within you, waiting to be released. When I listened to it for the first time (circa 1982), I said to myself “I know this music. Why have I never heard it before?” If you aren’t familiar with it, I hope this happens to you too.

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© Alan Morrison, 2017
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