Charles Petzold

Don't Neglect the Mahler 6th

October 25, 2007
New York, N.Y.

I hope Raymond Chen's Guide to the 2007/2008 season of the Seattle Symphony doesn't dissuade anybody from attending the performance of Gustav Mahler's 6th Symphony because he classified the work as "polarizing" (meaning that "Some people will love it; others will hate it").

To me, the closing concert of Seattle's 2007/2008 season is a no-brainer: First up is Wagner's multi-orgasmic Liebestod and then (presumably after the intermission) 80 minutes of pure relentless Mahler. Mahler's 6th Symphony isn't quite as life-altering as the 2nd or 3rd can be, but it packs a wallop regardless. Deirdre and I saw a performance conducted by Lorin Maazel with the New York Philharmonic two summers ago, and we were talking about it for weeks. (It still comes up in conversation occasionally!) There are few fixed rules in life, but one of them is this: Never pass up the opportunity to attend a performance of a Mahler Symphony.

The Mahler 6th is dominated by march rhythms, and the one that opens the symphony is terrifying. This is no Sousa march, nothing you might hear on a football field. This march trudges forward with dread. Although the 6th symphony was premiered in 1906 (five years before Mahler's death at the age of 50), I've always identified the initial march in this symphony with World War I — much in the same way that the works of Kafka seem to presage the Holocaust and totalitarianism.

Within minutes, however, the march falls away to reveal more lyrical passages, including a wonderfully surging melody that reputedly is Mahler's music portrait of his wife, Alma. Mahler can shift moods rapidly, and when the march rhythms return later, they are accompanied by a brittle xylophone melody that has always sounded to me like skeletons have joined the march of the dead. Yet later we are transported to an idyllic Alpine scene, and quiet cowbells sound in the distance.

As to what follows the 1st movement, it's not quite clear. After the first performance of the 6th Symphony, Mahler changed his mind about the ordering of the 2nd and 3rd movements, and perhaps later changed his mind again, and now nobody knows what to do. The 6th Sympohony is usually performed with the Scherzo as the 2nd movement and the Andante as the 3rd, but more conductors these days seem to be experimenting with the reverse order. When Lorin Maazel led the New York Philharmonic in the performance we saw two summers ago, he followed the 1st movement with the Andante and then the Scherzo, and it made much better sense to me.

At any rate, the Andante is simply gorgeous — a quiet pensive respite from the chaos of the first movement. We are back in the blissful comforts of nature with birdsong and cowbells. The soaring rushing climax that ends the movement seems almost agonizingly painful — more like a wish for peace rather than a fulfillment of it.

The Scherzo toys with a syncopated triple-meter version of the march rhythms of the first movement, with a return of that scary xylophone sound. At times the Scherzo is fun, at times cruel and frightening, often tricky and deceiving, with surprisingly shifting tempos that never lets us get complacent.

Whatever the ordering of the 2nd and 3rd movements, now it's time for everyone in the concert hall to cough once, shift in their seats, and get comfortable, because the real show is about the begin. All that has passed has just been an extended prelude for the final 30-minute movement. Here Mahler goes deeper into his psyche than any composer has ever dared. This last movement of the 6th Symphony has been compared to a Bildungsroman — a journey of a young person through life as he encounters a dizzying mix of triumph and tragedy — except that a Bildungsroman usually has a happy ending.

The 4th movement begins with a dissonant shimmering chord that that reaffirms Mahler as a composer of the young 20th century rather than of the old 19th. We are set adrift on a long uncertain journey as fragments of melodies and sounds seem to jostle for position. The music is almost suspenseful as slow climaxes seem to resolve into at first into relief, and then despair and even horror. As the music starts to pick up speed and momentum, there's no turning back.

Mahler calls for a special sound in 4th movement — a hammer of sorts referred to in the score as "Kurzer, m├Ąchtig, aber dumpf hallender Schlag von nicht metallischem charakter" or "Short, strong, but dull resounding blow of not metallic character." Traditionally, this hammer sound is supposed to resemble... well, something like a head being chopped off with an axe.

The New York Philharmonic uses a specially designed "Mahler Box" for this sound, but apparently the old Mahler Box was seriously damaged the last time they performed Mahler's 6th, so two years ago they had to build a new one. The Mahler Box is only used two, maybe three, times — it's another case of Mahler changing his mind — and part of the drama of attending a performance of this symphony is seeing the percussionist raise a large wooden hammer high above his head and then drive it down.

To be sure, there is much joy in this final movement. Even following the first hammer blow of fate, the music is thrown into turmoil but recovers quickly. The episodes that follow seem almost optimistic. After the second hammer blow, however, nothing is quite the same. The music enters a deep psychic depression, only shaken alive again by the return of the cowbells. Even when the music regains its speedy hopefulness, ominous tympani rhythms pound underneath the texture.

In the closing half-dozen minutes of the sympony, the struggle over adversity is seemingly stronger from the defeats it had suffered earlier. Mahler's music here exhibits its greatest versatility, fearlessly roaring through the terrifying landscape with courage and conviction. Nothing can get in the way now, and that final triumph comes so close, so very very close.

Well, that's life, I guess.

No at-home experience is quite like attending a performance of Mahler's 6th Symphony, but numerous good recordings are available. Leonard Bernstein is a perennial favorite for Mahler, although not exactly subtle. My favorite Mahler conductor is Georg Solti, and I also enjoy Pierre Boulez's intelligent and idiosyncratic interpretations.

If you're listening at home, keep in mind that Mahler is not background music. Give him the attention he demands and deserves.