INKPOT#74 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MAHLER Symphony No.8 – An Inktroduction
| G U S T A V M A H L E R
Symphony No.6 in A minor
An Inktroduction by Roy Chan
This time, however, he had already married the young and beautiful Alma Maria Schindler, with their first child to arrive in due. (In fact a second child was to follow yet another year after.) As Alma later recalled: “He played a lot with our child, carrying her about and holding her up to dance and sing. So young and unencumbered he was in those days.”
Ironically, it was during this period of carefree and unencumbered days that he penned down the first melody of what is to become his darkest work – the terrifying Sixth Symphony. While the rest of his symphonies end either in triumph, tranquility or resigned acceptance, this work concludes catastrophically in total defeat.
The progress of the work ran swift, taking into account Mahler’s limited composing time, finishing the symphony in its entirety in just three summer holidays, on 1st May 1905. The premiere performance of the work took place a bit more than a year later at Essen on 27th May 1906 and it was during the scheduled dress rehearsals that its profoundly bleak nature showed its influence and effect on Mahler.
According to Alma, Mahler was caught sobbing uncontrollably and was in a state of nervous tension throughout the preparation especially when it came to that of the Finale. There is also another saying however, that Mahler’s personal disturbance had not caused by his emotional involvement with the work.
Instead it was supposedly due to a comment expressed by his contemporary colleague Richard Strauss, that the Finale was “over-instrumented”, hence severely shakened Mahler’s confidence and belief in himself as an orchestrator and a composer. Nevertheless, the first performance was duly proceeded with Mahler conducting the combined forces of the Municipal Orchestras from Utrecht and Essen. It was a huge success, though the critics could scarcely knew what to make of it. A total of six further performances followed between 1906 and 1907. After that the symphony was never heard again during Mahler’s lifetime.
Of his nine numbered symphonies (eleven if one is to include the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the unfinished Tenth.), the Sixth is the most classical in design, mood and treatment of material. Its orchestration is massive, though economically employed, scoring for piccolo, 4 flutes, 4 oboes, cor-anglais or English horn, 3 clarinets in D, E flat and A, 3 B flat clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, double bassoon, 8 French horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, bass tuba, 2 timpani, 2 side drums, bass drum, glockenspiel, cowbells, tubular bells, hammer, xylophone, gong, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, whip, 2 harps, celesta and a large body of strings.
The first movement (Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig, literally translated as “Quick and energetic but not too much. Violently but vigorous”) opens in A minor with a pulsing rhythm beneath a powerful, brutal march theme which is rapidly brought to a climax over side-drum trills. The “fate” motto is first heard at this point (Dum!–Dum!–Dum!Dum!–Dum!–Dum!), beaten out with six bold drum strokes on the two timpani. This motto is the crucial element in the whole work and will keep recurring throughout, at times disguised, occasionally at passages totally unexpected.
As the climax fades away, a lyrical woodwind chorale follows upon which then connects to a soaring but elusively tender F major second subject or “Alma” theme, presumably Mahler’s musical portrayal of Alma. These together form the exposition, which is repeated. (Some conductors choose to skip the repeat though).
In the development section comes the savage march rhythm once again. It soon gives way to a lyrical “cowbells” episode which is one of Mahler’s apparitions of enraptured Alpine solitude, with the cowbells heard as if from an infinite distance, conjuring up an illusory image of bliss; an oasis of calm amidst the vehement conditions. The music modulates eventually to the warm but remote key of E flat major. The real world suddenly crashes in upon it in a rapidly changing sequence of keys, forcing the music back to A major, then swiftly down to A minor for a shortened recapitulation. (The “fate” motif strikes!) A reappearance of the “Alma” theme however soothes it into D major. Ultimately, it is in a defiantly asserted A major that this movement ends.
The second movement (Scherzo. Wuchtig – “Weighty”) begins impudently in A minor with a march rhythm similarly to that of the first movement. In fact so close the resemblance is that Mahler had wanted it to be placed as the third movement. Nowadays, however, it is usually and rightly placed second, since this suitably brings its sarcastic and mocking nature to the fore and also reserves the heavenly lyricism of the slow movement for a more effective place just before the hellish inception of the Finale.
The two Trio sections marked altvterisch (literally “old-fatherly”) and in the keys of F and D major respectively, are played hesitatingly but elegantly by the woodwinds. Their asymmetrical rhythms project, according to Alma’s memoirs, who herself was not necessarily the most accurate reporter, the impression of the children’s wobbling steps. The music, after the trios, rises to a fortissimo scream before fragments of the “children’s music” fade gradually and unsettlingly, and finally ends with a whimper.
In the remote key of E-flat major, time comes to a standstill in the lovely third movement (Andante moderato). Its mood is mainly nostalgic and the warmth of the scoring (cor anglais and cowbells), brings Rachmaninov to mind. In the score Mahler demands the “realistic imitation of the bells of a herd of grazing cows which, higher and lower in pitch, sound as though they are drifting over from the distance, now together, now individually. Its bittersweet phrasing and transparent texture are often reminiscent of the Kindertotenlieder, particularly that of the first and fourth songs. The result is something altogether beautiful with its sonic islands of mysterious pastoral peace and havens of otherworldly beauty and calm.
Then comes the apocalyptic Finale (Allegro moderato – Allegro energico) with its ominous three hammer blows. The movement begins in the key of C minor with a wide-flung aspiring violin theme over eerie harmonies, a mournful hymn for tuba, a march on solo horn, and chorale for woodwind.
In fact, the same scream at the end of Scherzo, though a tone lower now, is perceived. The “fate” motto recurs and a series of modulation strives towards a victorious ending. As the music is about to open up and turn into a triumphant A major key, a hammer blow is struck, acting like a vortex and sucks all hopes and lives in, which wrenches everything back to the original state in the A minor key. Mahler wanted these hammer blows to sound weaker with each appearance and that they should be “short, might but dull in resonance, with a non-metallic character, like the stroke of an axe’.
Various methods of creating this low thud have been tried, including hitting sledgehammers and wooden mallets on special re-enforced parts of the performance platform. This is repeated and by the third and last time, the projected “hero” loses his grip and is unable to prevent the inevitable tragedy.
(Mahler felt very ill disposed towards the last hammer blow, due to superstition ground, and had it deleted from the printed score. Few conductors have opted to reinstate it though. Coincidentally, Mahler did suffer “three blows of fate” barely a year later: the death of his first daughter, his diagnosed heart problem and his forced resignation from the Vienna State Opera.)
The work ends with a bleak coda, a dissonant fugato version of the “fate” theme for trombones. Everything becomes dark and cold until the music traumatically flares up with a final crash of the “fate” motif, but now only its minor chord is heard. By this point, the ultimate tragedy has already being set. After a brief pause, a soft pizzicato A is played over a stroke on the bass drum, and the work ends.
This middle work of his instrumental trilogy, more than any other of his, is truly Mahler’s “dark night of the soul”. Its content speaks of the darkest grief and emanates a spirit of total negation. Its huge psychological swagger between movements and often between adjacent passages, closely knitted themes and structure makes it arguably one of the greatest works of the 20th century symphonic repertoire.
Bibliography/List of References: CD sleeve notes from: Bernstein/VPO (DG) Rattle/ CBSO (EMI) Szell/ Cleveland Orchrestra (Sony) Barbirolli/ New Philharmonia (EMI) Solti/CSO (Decca) Content line: Here it is, Mahler’s tragic Sixth Symphony as Roy Chan strives to clear those nasty hammer blows off his mind.
The quest continues as Roy Chan keeps seeing flying hammers….
447: 5.4.1999. up.22.4.1999
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