Daniel Harding conducts Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

06 Dec 2014

Berliner Philharmoniker
Daniel Harding

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 6 (92 min.)

Gustav Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony from 1903 to 1905. After conducting the work’s premiere in Essen in 1906, Mahler undertook to revise the musical text, leaving the question open as to the order in which the two middle movements are to be played. With its four-movement structure and a first movement whose exposition is to be repeated as prescribed by the composer, the Sixth Symphony superficially follows the classical form, unlike any of Mahler’s other symphonies. The composer was nevertheless convinced that the piece would “pose riddles only to be solved by a generation which has assimilated and digested my first five symphonies.”

Indeed, because of its complex movement structure and innovative expressive depth, it was the Sixth Symphony that has given future generations the most difficulty. The Finale places particular demands on both musicians and audience: its abrupt ending, which throws into question the course of the movement until that point, has led to the epithet Tragic being conferred upon the symphony. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is conducted at these concerts by Daniel Harding, conductor laureate of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Where’s the Hammer?

Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

O Sorrow!

Like an explosion, the A minor chord in the Sixth Symphony’s third-to-last bar bursts in and again reinforces the reality that this work is not something for pleasure seekers – and even less for the composer’s easily startled contemporaries. There is hardly another passage making a similar effect in any of Gustav Mahler’s other works. It is true that his first large-scale composition, the cantata Das klagende Lied (1880), ends with a nearly identical – and just as suddenly broached – A minor chord. Preceding it are the sung words “Ach Leide!” – “O Sorrow!”. Mahler otherwise conspicuously avoided minor endings. Even Kindertotenlieder ends in benign D major, while all the symphonies conclude either in triumph, rapture, transfiguration or joy – always in major and often far removed from the key in which the work began. Only the Sixth is different. Three of its four movements are in A minor. It has gone down in history as the “Tragic” Symphony and in its negative impact remains a difficult work to grasp. The composer was not mistaken when in autumn 1904 he wrote to the musicologist Richard Specht: “My Sixth will propound riddles whose solution can be attempted only by a generation that has absorbed and truly digested my first five symphonies.” And two years later he grumbled to the Dutch conductor and adventurous Mahler exponent Willem Mengelberg: “My Sixth seems to be another tough nut which the critics’ feeble teeth will be unable to crack. Nevertheless it somehow manages to muddle its way through the concert halls.”

Soft shell, tough kernel

One of the curious aspects of this “tough nut” is the superficially familiar shell in which Mahler encloses his music. The Sixth makes the most self-contained impression of all his symphonies, not only because movements 1, 3 and 4 are in the same key. Structurally, the opening movement could serve as a model of traditional first-movement sonata form, and true to Viennese Classical style Mahler calls for a full repeat of the exposition. Yet this typical adherence to old models does not necessarily signify a reversion to classicism. It seems that the composer is not seeking to smooth down the boldness and power of his musical language but rather to make it more comprehensible – in much the same way that the Mahlerian composer Arnold Schoenberg later clad his first twelve-tone works in Baroque form. The Allegro energico’s energetic main theme and lyrical second theme expose the two essential characteristic elements of Mahler’s music – the march and the lied. The world of the lied unfolds in the second movement, Andante, as an idyllic intermezzo, whose E flat major is miles away from the symphony’s home key. The world of the march wins out in the Finale, a monumental sonata-allegro movement with a slow introduction. The Scherzo, one of Mahler’s strangest inspirations, amalgamates lied and march in a bizarre dance of death, which with its “wrong” accents represents an undisguised parody of the first movement. In the categories of narrative, this would be called a gloss – in those of drama, a moment of retardation.

In terms of sonority, the Sixth is probably Mahler’s most advanced work. Alban Berg’s and Anton Webern’s sets of Opus 6 orchestral pieces would both be unimaginable without this model. Mahler coaxes previously unheard colours out of the gigantic apparatus, most notably when creating “alpine” musical landscapes in the transitional passages. These occupy considerable space between the regular formal sections and dissolve any tendencies to structural order. Distantly positioned cowbells do the rest, according to Mahler’s own indication, “in realistic imitation of the higher and lower bells of a grazing herd, sounding from afar, sometimes combined, sometimes singly... It must be expressly stated that this technical remark allows no programmatic interpretation.”

In addition to many striking timbral mixtures, a conspicuous ingredient in Mahler’s instrumentation is the wooden hammer that crashes down twice in the Finale, again according to the composer’s indication, “short, mighty, but dull in resonance, with a non-metallic character, like the stroke of an axe.” Bells and hammer will not fail to make their effect, and they left Mahler open to reproaches – often based on anti-Semitism – of cheap sensationalism. We who have long since “absorbed and digested” his symphonies, by contrast, must take Mahler seriously in his restless search for new sources of musical sounds.

Joyfully perish

Its self-contained layout and meticulously composed score notwithstanding, this Sixth Symphony has had to endure a chaotic history. Peters, who had brought out Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, refused to match the fee of 15,000 gulden (roughly the court opera director’s entire annual salary) that had been offered him by their competitors C.F. Kahnt. Even before the premiere, Kahnt issued a study score in which the Scherzo was placed second, the Andante third. There the troubles began. Between the final rehearsal and the premiere in Essen in 1906, Mahler decided to reverse the order of the two inner movements. That is how the conductor’s score was printed, and that was how Mahler left the situation during the remaining years of his life. Of the five hammer blows originally intended for the Finale, only three were heard at the premiere, and when Oskar Fried and the Berlin Philharmonic gave the second performance on 8 October 1906, there were just two. Later the discrepancy between the study and conductor’s scores was noticed, and in Erwin Ratz’s first critical edition, published in 1963, the order of the inner movements was restored to Scherzo – Andante. This may seem to be a rather academic issue, but it shows how easily a foreign hand can impose confusion on a work of art. Moreover, the order intended by Mahler and observed in today’s performances seems dramaturgically more convincing because it is more varied and lends greater significance to the Scherzo coming third. Played second, there is a danger of it acting not as a caricature of the opening movement but merely as an imitation of it.

Although the nickname “Tragic” cannot be traced directly back to the composer, it was at least sanctioned by Mahler in the programme leaflet for the Vienna premiere in 1907. Hammer blows or not, the diminution of the major chord into its minor version can be construed here as a symbol of the tragic. Many have puzzled over the worldliness of this work by an otherwise so spiritual composer. The musicologist Arne Stollberg has recently analysed a text that could be of decisive importance in understanding Mahler’s conception. In a lecture delivered in 1878, the philosopher Siegfried Lipiner, his friend since their student days in Vienna, had this to say: “The tragedy is religion. The individual becomes religious when confronting tragic art because he sees himself in it, how he destroys reality and perishes joyfully into appearance – joyfully, because in this perishing, and only in it, does he sense that which cannot perish, and in dying he feels his resurrection as a god.” Thus can one divine how Mahler overcame the dark final chord of his Sixth Symphony and, by way of the Seventh’s twilight, reached the Eighth Symphony’s radiant Faust setting.

Olaf Wilhelmer

Translation: Richard Evidon

Daniel Harding was born in Oxford and began his career by assisting Sir Simon Rattle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which he himself conducted for the first time in 1994. He later worked as Claudio Abbado’s musical assistant, and in 1996 became the youngest conductor to appear at the BBC Proms in London. That same year he also made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Berlin Festival, conducting works by Berlioz, Brahms and Dvořák. After holding appointments as principal conductor with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in Norway, as principal guest conductor with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra in Sweden, as music director of the Deutschen Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (1997 – 2003) and principal conductor of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (2003 – 2011), Daniel Harding is now music director of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, principal guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra and music partner of the New Japan Philharmonic. In constant demand in the world’s leading centres of music, he has appeared with many internationally acclaimed orchestras and conducted opera performances in houses as prestigious as the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, Milan, the Vienna and Munich State Operas and the Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. In 2002 Daniel Harding was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government and in 2012 he was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. As a guest conductor with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Daniel Harding last appeared with the orchestra in December 2013, when he conducted three concerts with Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.

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