Kirill Petrenko conducts Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

25 Jan 2020

Berliner Philharmoniker
Kirill Petrenko

  • free

    Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 6 (88 min.)

  • free

    Kirill Petrenko in conversation with Martin Menking (16 min.)

Kirill Petrenko will show himself from very different musical angles during his first season as Chief Conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. At these concerts, he can be experienced interpreting Mahler for the first time with his new orchestra. The programme consists of the Sixth Symphony. The Mahler cycle that he has been carrying out since 2008 with the Symphony Orchestra Vorarlberg in Bregenz has given Petrenko the opportunity to engage intensively with the composer’s oeuvre and develop his own interpretation.

The Sixth Symphony is one of Mahler’s most unsettling pieces: turmoil and idyll, triumph and catastrophe, march and chorale, confidence and resignation, nature, life and death – Mahler combines it all to create a vast musical cosmos. “How can a man of your goodness express so much harshness and cruelty”, a friend is supposed to have asked the composer. Mahler – it is said – responded: “It is the cruelty which has been inflicted on me, and the pain which I have had to suffer!” From the beginning of the first movement with its inexorably stomping march theme to the grandiose Finale, in which Mahler symbolises the merciless striking of fate with two massive hammer blows, the composer conjures up a dark, pessimistic, even apocalyptic underlying mood that is only temporarily interrupted by bright, hopeful moments in the Andante moderato and the dancing style of the Scherzo. The Sixth Symphony is considered a prophetic work by Mahler, an anticipation of personal and societal catastrophes. “No work flowed so directly from his heart as this one,” Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow, writes in her memoirs. “We both wept that day. So deeply did we feel this music, and the presentiment it betrayed.”

When compared with the previous Fifth Symphony, Mahler significantly expanded the instruments he used. The woodwind and brass instrument groups increased substantially, and he also enlarged the percussion section: besides the hammer already mentioned, cowbells, deep bells, xylophones and rute are used. The composer stated that he was not interested in merely striving for effect; instead, he stressed that, particularly with the drum instruments, he intended to create new mixtures of sound.

Deadly Serious, Forgoing Hope

Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

“I am thrice homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians; as an Austrian among Germans; and as a Jew everywhere in the world,” was Mahler’s bitter conclusion about his status vis-à-vis humanity and, especially, art. On the other hand, he had already prophesied early on, “My time will come”, and he remained relatively sanguine in the face of setbacks that bedevilled him as a composer from the outset, putting them in a sort of historical context. He turned out to be right: for decades his works have enriched the symphonic repertoire as a core component of the music offering a reflection of the world we live in.

Military influences

Mahler spent his childhood in Iglau (now Jihlava), a predominantly German-speaking market and industrial town on the Bohemian-Moravian border. Near his family home were the barracks of an Austrian garrison whose “morning and evening calls, assembly and drill motifs he transformed into sound-images,” recalled the Moravian-born musicologist Guido Adler of his late friend. “They emerge again and again as vivid re-creations in both the songs and instrumental works of later times ... This background also explains Mahler’s partiality for march rhythms of all types; they are found throughout his work, accompanying joy and sorrow.” The far closer proximity of war and military personnel to daily life in former times is reflected in the poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn; over half of Mahler’s settings from this collection more or less deal with diverse facets of a soldier’s life. Although it goes without saying that the composer’s youthful impressions (“Military music – my delight throughout my childhood”) did not lead him to a glorification of warfare, this ongoing lifelong fascination helped Mahler to find his own “tone of voice”, one shot through with an irony that unites “joy and suffering”. None of his other symphonies feature the march as a prototype of military music as prominently as the Sixth. The taut rhythm that defines long stretches of this work stamps the whole of the first and fourth movements. Even the Scherzo occasionally tips from inscrutable burlesque into a quick march with shifts between triple and quadruple metre. The sheer weight of the massive orchestration, with eight horns, six trumpets, four trombones, tuba and huge percussion, along with frequent calls for maximum loudness, awakens the impression of powerful military companies.

Genesis in summer

Mahler wrote the Sixth Symphony during the summers of 1903 and 1904. As always, ever since he embraced the conducting profession at the age of 21 in Ljubljana (then Laibach), he had only the theatre-free months of July and August for composition. In those few weeks on holiday in the Carinthian village of Maiernigg, he needed to concentrate his creative activity, sketching and elaborating his works as far as possible, because during the season he had the energy and time only for orchestration and preparing fair copies. The composition of the Sixth was finished in Vienna on 1 May 1905.

One would imagine this to have been the happiest time of his life. As director of the Vienna Court Opera, Mahler was unchallenged, and the drudgery he had endured since 1897 to attain higher, worthy standards (“What you theatre people call your tradition is nothing but your laziness and sloppiness”) had borne fruit. As a concert conductor he was internationally renowned, especially in The Netherlands, where he conducted the Concertgebouw Orchestra for the first time in 1903. His marriage to Alma Schindler produced two daughters (Maria Anna in 1902, Anna Justine in 1904). The sun shone on his professional and personal lives. Or did it only seem to shine? In either case, the new symphony was very soon given the nickname “Tragic” – admittedly not by Mahler, though he didn’t disown it.

A long march

The first movement (Allegro energico, ma non troppo) is akin to the marching song already prefigured in Mahler’s Wunderhorn lied “Revelge”. Its three themes – a jagged opening idea, a chorale-like passage and a passionately soaring lyrical theme – all seem to be driven by the firm forward impulse. Introduced just before the chorale is the leitmotif of the whole symphony: a direct clash of major and minor chords, primed by the knocking of fate in the timpani rhythm. The development section, which begins classically by “working out” and playing with the themes, suddenly leads into a completely different world: a dreamlike recollection of something distant, highlighted by the sound of cowbells. But in the background the march is still carrying on, and it emerges again as though it had never been silenced. The movement concludes almost precipitously, its ending seeming less of a full stop than a colon.

The Andante – a more impassioned sister of the Fifth’s Adagietto – is pervaded by reminiscences of the fourth of the Kindertotenlieder (“Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen”), and the climax – both in dynamics and emotion – near the end of the movement hints at the distresses to come. The Scherzo introduces a note of quirkiness; the old-fashioned homeliness keeps stumbling over conflicting accents and metre changes. The enormous Finale seems like a reversal of what has transpired so far. Everything in the opening march that “strived for a breakthrough, for fulfilment, now gets caught up in a maelstrom of collapse and destruction” (musicologist Mathias Hansen), but even here infiltrated by islands of deceptive jubilation and arduously evoked idylls. “The bells of grazing herds are the last things a person hears while ascending the lonely Alpine peaks” – Mahler spectrally embraced this observation of his mountain walks in three of the four movements. At the Finale’s climactic points the symphony’s famous hammer blows are sounded (Mahler reduced their number from five in the draft to three in the first version and, finally, to two), until, in the radically abbreviated coda, the motifs crumble like timbers grown brittle and the movement – sinking almost inaudibly into oblivion after an epic half hour – not so much ends as breaks off with a sudden tutti outburst in A minor.

“How can I be happy?”

The musicologist Hans Ferdinand Redlich understood “Mahler’s music as an expression of the instinctive forebodings of a great artist ... who, as spokesman for the ‘suppressed and aggrieved’ of this world, could perceive the distant rumblings of the future. Seen from this viewpoint, the Sixth Symphony foretells the horrors that have arisen in this century of two worldwide conflicts and the misery inflicted on minorities ... who found in Mahler, the old-Austrian Jew, their most sympathetic interpreter. In the light of such philosophical experience, the catastrophe of the Sixth Symphony’s finale can be called ‘cosmic’ and its ‘hero’ understood as a community of all the sufferers in this world.”

Mahler was sceptical of programmes, writing in a letter that “starting with Beethoven, there has been no modern music without its underlying programme. – But no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it.” The tone of this symphony, so deeply serious, so devoid of hope, corresponds to Mahler’s guiding principle, borrowed from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov: “How can I be happy when somewhere another creature is suffering?” This motto suggests that personal withdrawal and extra-professional contentment were not possible for Mahler, that he always saw himself in a larger context, both as man and artist: one who created not outside of the world but rather from out of its midst, seeking – and this is what writing a symphony meant for him – to “create a world”. A better world perhaps. Its time is still to come.

Malte Krasting

Translation: Richard Evidon

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist