Simon Rattle’s farewell with Mahler’s Sixth

20 Jun 2018

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 6 (95 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (9 min.)

The exploration of Gustav Mahler’s symphonic oeuvre represents a constant in the now 30 year-long artistic collaboration of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker. In 1987, Sir Simon made his debut with the Philharmoniker with a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and for his inaugural concert as artistic director of the orchestra in 2002, he included Mahler’s Fifth on the programme. The performances of all of Mahler’s symphonies in the 2010/2011 and 2011/2012 seasons, acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, marked one of the many highlights of the collaboration of Sir Simon and the Berliner Philharmoniker. And so we come full circle: for his last concert in the main auditorium of the Philharmonie as chief conductor, he has once again chosen to present the symphonist’s visionary Sixth.

In her 1940 Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, the composer’s widow wrote about the work, written between 1903 and 1905, that “no work flowed as directly from his heart as this,” and added that the Sixth was “the most completely personal of his works, and a prophetic one too”. Yet Mahler struggled with its final form. Following the premiere in Essen in 1906, the composer made several revisions to the score, including changing the order of the two middle movements. On the surface, Mahler’s Sixth appears to be more committed to the classical genre tradition than any other of the composer’s symphonies: it is in four movements, has a clear, harmonic disposition (three of the four movements are in the principal key of A minor) and it opens with a first movement whose exposition is repeated as specified by the composer. Nevertheless, Mahler was convinced his Sixth would pose “riddles that can be solved only by a generation that has assimilated and digested my first five”.

Mahler’s Sixth was indeed to prove to be the work by the composer that initially caused the greatest difficulties to posterity due to the complex structure of its movements and its new forms of expression. The monumental finale, whose abrupt end calls into question the whole course of the movement and led the Sixth even during Mahler’s lifetime to be known as the “Tragic”, is particularly demanding. Yet only two years after the premiere of the work, no less than Alban Berg declared that notwithstanding Beethoven’s Pastoral, “there is only one VI.” – and that was Mahler’s!


“...inexhaustible like the world and life”

Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Back in Vienna from his retreat near Maiernigg on the Wörthersee, Mahler reported to a friend at the beginning of September 1904: “My Sixth is finished. – So am I!” As was his wont, the Vienna Court Opera director had used the summer break for composition, not for recuperation. In the seclusion of his “composing hut”, within a few weeks between two “lightning excursions” to the Dolomites, he drafted the finale of his Sixth Symphony. The great exhaustion referred to in the 44-year-old composer’s letter was presumably caused not only by his enormous workload but also by the complexity and content of the symphony, which he had begun during the previous summer. Mahler wrote: “My Sixth will pose enigmas that can be solved only by a generation that has assimilated and digested my first five.”

From Essen to Berlin

Against this background, it isn’t surprising that the composer carefully considered where his new symphony should be given its first performance. After completing its orchestration, he received an invitation from Ferruccio Busoni to hold the premiere in Berlin. Mahler replied in September 1905: “So far I have published five symphonies. All of them were failures in Berlin, except for the Third, which I should be happy to place at your disposal.... My Sixth Symphony ... is verydifficult and complicated.” It may seem surprising that, shortly thereafter, Mahler decided in favour of the industrially important but culturally rather insignificant Ruhr city of Essen for the premiere, but he deemed the 42nd Tonkünstlerfest contemporary composers’ festival of the General German Music Society a more conducive setting for the satisfactory performance and reception of his Sixth than the imperial capital’s fast-paced concert scene. Essen granted him seven full rehearsals with a 111-man festival orchestra, a public dress rehearsal and the festival’s prestigious final concert, which took place on 27 May 1906. In order to allow interested parties an opportunity to acquaint themselves in advance with the complex work, the four-hand piano reduction and study score as well as a thematic analysis appeared in the weeks leading up to the event.

By the time of the first Berlin performance, on 8 October 1906, the printed study score was already out of date. During preparations for the premiere, conducted by the composer, he had undertaken numerous alterations, largely affecting the instrumentation and performing indications but also the sequence of inner movements. In the first editions of the study score and piano reduction, the order is Scherzo followed by Andante. Just before the premiere, Mahler decided to bring forward the lyrical slow movement, which functions as an oasis of tranquillity, and to move the bizarre Scherzo directly before the Finale. In this configuration, the work was given in all performances directed by the composer himself, and it will be heard in this form at today’s concert as well.

The audience at the Essen premiere greeted Mahler’s new symphony with “vigorous and prolonged” applause, but the Berlin listeners were divided; the press reaction – in contrast to the mixed reviews from Essen – was almost completely negative. It was not only the heterogeneous musical language and the work’s complexity that flummoxed its first audiences, but also its sheer ferocity. Hardly a single critic failed to mention the mammoth scoring, the arresting and – for a symphony – unusually large and distinctive percussion section, as well as what one reviewer called “the oppressive impact of waves of sound, at times assaulting the listener with elemental force”.

From the streets to infinity

“For me,” Mahler famously said, “a symphony is the construction of a world with all the available technical means.” His words are provocative not only because of his aspiration to create works that were “inexhaustible like the world and life” but also because of his declared intention of utilizing all available means in the process. This meant not limiting himself to the instruments, compositional techniques, forms and tonal palettes used heretofore in symphonic music but radically expanding the artistically permissible material for creating his worlds. In one of the earliest books on Mahler, the Viennese music critic Paul Stefan wrote in 1910: “The encounter with the cosmos in Mahler’s music begins in the streets and ends in infinity.” Relating to the domain of the street are the marches, so beloved by Mahler, with which he grew up in the Moravian garrison town of Iglau (Jihlava) and even heard on occasion in the distance from the woodland solitude of Maiernigg. In the Sixth Symphony, he deploys this material with an intensity that had likely never been witnessed before. Both of the extended outer movements are pervaded by marchlike characteristics, themes and rhythms.

An alternative world to the march domain is the so-called cowbell episode in the development section of the opening movement. Within just a few bars, the music takes us into a new realm of sound and expression in which time seems to stand still. Cowbells are the acoustical cipher for this otherworldly region, used by Mahler for the first time in a symphony orchestra, albeit offstage. Untuned and without prescribed rhythms, their irregular peal stands for the pure sound of nature, free from artificial moulding. At the same time, however, the use of the bells is extremely artful, its interplay with the instruments positioned onstage creating a complex musical space in which different planes of remoteness seem to be overlaid: the movement’s chorale theme on muted horns removed to an imaginary distance; signs and fragments of the soaring subsidiary theme in varying instrumental colours to suggest nearness or distance; and finally the offstage sound of cowbells, which are indicated in the score to move nearer and then farther away in the course of the episode.

A shattering world experience

Whereas the first movement ends, at least superficially, triumphantly in A major, the monumental Finale culminates in catastrophe. Symbolizing the movement’s musical and emotional violence is the hammer that Mahler has introduced into the orchestra. Moreover – as formulated by the critic Paul Bekker – it stands for “the utmost possible physical force”, and Bekker also referred to it as the intervention of “something overpowering, fateful, against whose shattering, supernatural effect one can no longer struggle”. Perhaps the most provocative as well as most modern aspect of this last movement, however, is its already indicated inversion of traditional symphonic formal dramaturgy. Instead of ending in victory or transfiguration, the Sixth Symphony concludes in blackness and hopelessness. A last attempt to achieve fulfilment – in a sonorous A major passage – is dashed by the abrupt onset of the coda. Recalling the movement’s introduction is a final complete statement of the symbolically charged major-minor chord change that has pervaded the entire work. The instrumental colours now grow increasingly dark and the musical lines and gestures become slower and more fragmented. Before the music finally dies away in the depths of the bass register, there is one last unexpected outburst. Against the two timpanists’ martial rhythm, the full orchestra exclaims a version of the harmonic motto now reduced to just the A minor chord.

Tobias Bleek

Translation: Richard Evidon

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