Myth and Reality in Mahler's Sixth Symphony

by Jeffrey Gantz

Composed in the summers of 1903 and 1904, and premičred at Essen on May 27, 1906, Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony, which has become known as the "Tragic," remains a minefield. The revisions that Mahler made in the summer of 1906 have created one level of controversy; statements that his wife, Alma, made in her memoirs have added another. Which order should the two inner movements be played in? Why did Mahler remove the last hammer blow from the Finale? And how did the symphony become the "Tragische"?

Introduction: That "Tragische" subtitle

In his "Undoing a 'Tragic' Mistake," the Mahler Sixth "white paper" that the Gilbert Kaplan Foundation will publish this spring, Jerry Bruck - who was among those who back in 1964 persuaded Alma to allow Mahler's Tenth Symphony to be performed reproduces the program for the symphony's Vienna premičre, which Mahler himself conducted on January 4, 1907, and we see the "Tragische" subtitle. On page 814 (note 44) of the English translation of Volume Three of his ongoing Mahler biography, Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907), Henry-Louis de La Grange states that this subtitle first turned up on the program for the performance that Mahler conducted, on November 8, 1906, in Munich, but there is no sign of it on the reproduction of that program that Bruck provides. We do not have the program for the Berlin premičre, which Otto Fried conducted on October 15, 1906; this is the first performance at which the subtitle might have been appended, but the absence of "Tragische" in Munich a month later suggests that it first appeared at the Vienna premičre the following January. Jerry Bruck adds that "Tragische" does not appear on any of the scores that Kahnt published, or in Richard Specht's thematic analysis.
Who was responsible for this subtitle? In his Gustav Mahler memoir (page 123 in the 1975 reprint of the 1937 English translation), Bruno Walter states that "Mahler called it his Tragic Symphony." It's nonetheless odd to think that in 1907 Mahler would be returning to titles and programs. For its 1893 Hamburg performance, he gave his First Symphony (which at the time was still a "tone poem in symphonic form") the name "Titan," after the Romantic novel by Jean Paul, and a detailed program, but by 1896 he had withdrawn it. The "Auferstehung" subtitle for No. 2 comes from the Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock text, but Mahler was not responsible for "Lied der Nacht" (No. 7) or "Sinfonie der Tausend" (No. 8), and in any case he had disavowed subtitles and programs by 1900. One can imagine his acceding to the suggestion of a plausible and promotable name like "Tragische" for the Vienna premičre, but the fact remains that he did not so title this symphony when he composed it.

Allegro energico: Does Mahler appropriate a motif from Liszt's E-flat Piano Concerto?

At bar 35 of the Allegro energico, Mahler quotes a seven-note motif from bar 17 of the third movement of Liszt's E-flat Piano Concerto. The motif goes on to play a major role in the Allegro that culminates with its peroration in the horns at bar 466.
On page 557 (note 93) of Vienna: The Years of Challenge (1897-1904), Henry-Louis de La Grange records that Mahler conducted the piano concerto, with Eugen d'Albert as soloist, in a program with his own Fourth Symphony on January 23, 1903. Perhaps the motif stuck in his mind. He finished the Allegro in the summer of 1904, but he appears to have made sketches in the summer of 1903.
What this does not explain is why the Liszt concerto appears in the second half of the Munich program of November 8, 1906, where the Sixth made up the first half of the evening. It is hard to believe that at this point Mahler was not aware of having borrowed the Liszt motif, and likewise hard to understand why he would then call attention to what he'd done unless he had a point to make. But what was that point? It would be interesting to know whether any of the Munich concert's reviewers observed the appearance of the concerto theme in the symphony.

Allegro energico: Is the F-major theme Mahler's expression of Alma?

At bar 76 of the Allegro energico, after the chorale, a soaring F-major theme appears; it serves as the movement's second subject and dominates the A-major coda. On page 70 of the 1975 American edition of her Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, Alma tells us that this theme was intended as a portrait of her: "After he had drafted the first movement, he came down from the wood to tell me he had tried to express me in a theme. 'Whether I've succeeded, I don't know; but you'll have to put up with it.' "Alma's memory in such matters tends to be flattering to herself. It would be unkind - and probably just plain wrong - to suggest that she made up this charming story, but we should remember that we do not have it from Mahler himself. It's not inconceivable that he told Alma he had written her into a theme to please her and make her feel she was part of his work.

Scherzo: Does the "Altväterisch" Trio represent the "unrhythmical games" of Maria and Anna?

Again on page 70 of Memories and Letters, Alma tells us: "In the third movement he represented the unrhythmic games of the two little children, tottering in zigzags over the sand." The first thing to note here is that by "third movement" Alma (who according to Henry-Louis de La Grange began writing around 1920) means the Scherzo; this point will be relevant when we consider her position on whether the Scherzo is meant to precede the Andante or vice versa. She's talking about the Scherzo's "Altväterisch" Trio, where the time signature keeps switching from 4/8 to 3/8 to 3/4. The problem is that the Scherzo was composed in the summer of 1903. Maria Anna was born November 3, 1902; Anna Justine was born in July 15, 1904. So they weren't both running about when Mahler wrote this music.
On page 825 of Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907), Henry-Louis de La Grange attempts to rescue Alma from her predicament by suggesting that she "wrongly wrote 'children' " and meant only Maria Anna. Such an argument does not inspire confidence in her accuracy or in the reliability of her memory.

The inner movements: "First Scherzo, then Andante"?

This must be the most vexing question facing Mahler scholars today (unless it's the matter of the hammer blows - see below). To most Mahler listeners, it's not even an issue: the Critical Edition published by the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft in 1963 has the Scherzo second and the Andante third, and with few exceptions, that's how the Sixth Symphony has been performed since.
But is that how Mahler wanted it? The facts do not support the decision that editor Erwin Ratz made. True, Mahler did conceive his Sixth Symphony with the Scherzo second and the Andante third. The usual practice in symphonic writing was lyrical movement second and dance movement third - but Beethoven reverses it in his Ninth Symphony, and Mahler himself did the same in his Fourth. He appears to have been uncertain about the Sixth, since as Jerry Bruck observes in "Undoing a 'Tragic' Mistake," at some point he switched the Roman numerals in his autograph, marking the Scherzo III instead of II and the Andante II instead of III, What we don't know is whether he made this change sometime during the composition process or not until the summer of 1906, and then merely to bring the autograph into line with the second edition of the published score.
If Mahler did in fact contemplate placing the Andante before the Scherzo at some point before he sent the symphony off to the publishers, he did not act on that impulse: the version that C.F. Kahnt published in March 1906, and that Mahler took with him to Essen, has the Scherzo preceding the Andante. During the Essen rehearsals, however, Mahler decided that the Andante should precede the Scherzo, and he instructed Kahnt to prepare a second edition and to insert errata slips into unsold copies of the first edition. That is how the symphony was performed in his lifetime, and that is how his friend Willem Mengelberg performed it with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1916.
Then in 1919, as Mengelberg was preparing for an October 5 performance of the symphony, it appears that he telegraphed Alma to ask what the order should be. On page 815 of Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907), Henry-Louis de La Grange concludes that Mahler and Mengelberg "probably" discussed the matter in October of 1909, when Mengelberg conducted Mahler's Seventh. In "Undoing a 'Tragic' Mistake," however, Jerry Bruck points out that in a letter postmarked July 6, 1909, Mahler "asked Mengelberg to send him his score of the Sixth, presumably so that Mahler could enter some further changes. Mengelberg's conducting score shows Mahler's last known changes to the Sixth, neatly entered in red ink." These changes do not include reverting to the Scherzo/Andante order of movements. And if Mahler expressed doubts about the inner-movement order orally to Mengelberg in October 1909, why didn't Mengelberg raise the question with Alma when he conducted the symphony in 1916?
More plausible is the notion that post-1916 Mengelberg came across a first-edition score that had been sold before Mahler made his errata-slip request, or else one whose errata slip had fallen out. The first and second editions bore the same plate numbers, so his confusion would be understandable. Alma replied to his telegram, "First Scherzo, then Andante," and that's how Mengelberg did it in 1919 and again in 1920 during the Amsterdam Mahler Fest. Also in 1919 and 1920, however, Oskar Fried conducted the Sixth in Vienna with the Andante preceding the Scherzo, and that remained the norm. Neither was there a peep out of Alma in 1947 when Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic played it that way at the symphony's American premičre, or when recordings with the revised order began to appear in the '50s.
In 1963, the Critical Edition of the Sixth came out from the IGMG, and lo and behold the Scherzo was back in its original second position, Erwin Ratz explaining that some time before his death Mahler had changed his mind. Ratz provided no evidence for this statement; he didn't even cite Alma's telegram. Nonetheless, few conductors challenged his edition. John Barbirolli continued to perform the piece with the Andante preceding the Scherzo, but when his recording appeared, EMI switched the movements (apparently without his approval) to conform to the Critical Edition. (In the most recent release of this performance, in its Double Forte series, EMI has reswitched them so they're back to the Andante/Scherzo order Barbirolli favored.) Harold Farberman, from 1950 to 1963 a BSO percussionist, stuck with the Andante/Scherzo order on his MMG LP with the London Symphony in 1982; when Vox released this performance on CD in 2000, however, the label switched the movements to conform to the Critical Edition (here again the conductor was not consulted). Benjamin Zander's first performance with the Boston Philharmonic (briefly available on tape in the mid '80s) had the Andante preceding the Scherzo, but on both his 1994 live BPO recording and his 2001 Philharmonia effort, he's reverted to the Critical Edition. Simon Rattle has been the most outspoken advocate of the Andante/Scherzo order, and his 1989 recording of the Sixth has become the whipping boy of uninformed reviewers.
There is, it turns out, not a shred of evidence that Mahler changed his mind about wanting the Andante to precede the Scherzo. Back in 1998, Jerry Bruck's arguments moved Glen Cortese to adopt the Andante/Scherzo order in his recording with the Manhattan School of Music Symphony; Leonard Slatkin and James Judd have done so since, Leon Botstein conducted it that way this past August at the Bard Music Festival, Mariss Jansons did so in Pittsburgh in September, and Charles Mackerras likewise with the BBC Symphony in November. The IGMG supported Erwin Ratz's decision in the Critical Edition revision of 1998, but editor-in-chief Reinhold Kubik has since expressed doubts in the light of Bruck's evidence.
What is the case for placing the Scherzo before the Andante? The most obvious argument is that this is how Mahler conceived the work. It also seems the more "modern" arrangement, conjuring not only Beethoven's Ninth and Mahler's own Fourth but also Bruckner's Eighth and Ninth. On page 373 of his essay on the Sixth Symphony for The Mahler Companion, David Matthews asks us to "note just how carefully Mahler has avoided A minor in the second half of the first movement [the "Garden" section is in E-flat, and the movement ends in A major] . . . so that the plunge back into A minor at the beginning of the Scherzo comes as a shock." He notes that the Scherzo's "Altväterisch" Trio is, like the Alma theme, in F major. And like every adherent of the Scherzo/Andante order, he stresses the importance of the transition between the conclusion of the Andante and the beginning of the Finale, since E-flat major and C minor share the same key signature, three flats. He argues (again on page 373) that the A minor that emerges in the Finale "makes very little impact if we have just heard the Scherzo" and that "the C minor of the [Finale's] introduction makes little sense as a bridge from A minor back again to A minor in a few bars."
Why, then, did Mahler switch the movements? Matthews assures us (on page 372), "It is quite possible to argue that the chief, perhaps even the only reason that Mahler reversed the order of the two movements was the same as that which led him to remove the third hammer blow in the Finale: fear of the Symphony's prophetic power, and an instinctive wish to diminish it." In the end, he believes that Mahler saw the light. "Alma's telegram," he contends (again on page 372), "would seem to imply that, some time after the Vienna performance, and possibly near the end of his life (when he worked on new versions of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies), Mahler had expressed to her a wish to revert to the original order; unless (which is unlikely but not inconceivable) Alma had made her own independent decision based on her preference for Mahler's original concept of the symphony." On page 815 of Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907), Henry-Louis de La Grange seconds this view: "I see every reason here to believe she was passing on Mahler's final decision."
Do these arguments justify replacing Scherzo before the Andante? The decision at Essen was not made lightly. A composer who premičres his symphony Andante/Scherzo immediately after publishing it Scherzo/Andante can expect a degree of public ridicule, and in his January 6, 1907, Neues Wiener Journal review of the Vienna premičre, "H.R." - probably Heinrich Reinhardt - didn't spare the sarcasm. What's more, the revised version makes its own sense in the way it moves from the A-minor Allegro energico to the E-flat-major (the heroic, redemptive key of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony and "Emperor" Concerto and Mahler's own "Auferstehung" Symphony) Andante to the A-minor Scherzo to, finally, an attempt at E-flat major (from C minor, just like the "Auferstehung") that fails. After the Allegro energico's triumphant A-major conclusion, you might expect the next movement to be in the dominant, E major (just as the First Symphony goes from the D-major first movement to the A-major Scherzo), but instead, as if that were too much Heaven to expect, it slips down a half-step to the E-flat that the "Garden" section of the Allegro energico has prepared. When the Andante briefly achieves E major, we're reminded what its key signature should have been. In the end the Andante's anguish (with its Kindertotenlieder allusions) prepares us for the Scherzo's A minor and its intimations of mortality, particularly the children's. As for the link between the Andante and the Finale, it's a clever transition, but it doesn't do much for the symphony's teleology. Where is the Finale trying to go? Its goal as annunciated by those first few bars has to be E-flat major, but that makes no sense when the previous movement has been in E-flat. The Finale is, moreover, not fated to end in A minor: it strives for both E-flat and A major.
David Matthews's contention that Mahler reversed the order of the two inner movements out of a desire to diminish the Symphony's "prophetic power" is perplexing: surely the Sixth is less rather than more "tragic" when the comforting Andante follows the discomforting Scherzo instead of preceding it. (Just as surely it is Mahler's conductors who have sought to diminish the Sixth's negative aura by putting the Andante in the weightier third position.) As for Alma's 1919 telegram, it raises a host of awkward questions. Would Mahler really have reverted to the Scherzo/Andante order without an opportunity to hear the symphony performed that way? Why would what Henry-Louis de La Grange calls Mahler's "final decision" have been communicated to Alma and not to C.F. Kahnt as well? How did Mahler expect Alma to carry out this "decision"? When was she planning to speak out? If in 1919 her opinion had not been sought, would we ever have heard from her? If it was clear in her mind that the Scherzo was to precede the Andante, why in Memories and Letters does she refer to the Scherzo as the third movement? And why did she never protest the Andante/Scherzo Dimitri Mitropoulos New York Philharmonic performances of the Sixth in 1947 and 1955, or the recordings that were made by F. Charles Adler (in 1952) and Eduard Flipse (in 1955)?
Jerry Bruck suggests that Alma's clearest memories of the symphony were those of its inception, when the Scherzo did precede the Andante. He also directs our attention to the liner note for the F. Charles Adler SPA LP release of the Third Symphony, where Alma "describes in vivid detail the furnishings and surroundings of Mahler's composing Häuschen at Maiernigg" when in fact "Mahler had composed the Third at his lakeside cottage in Steinbach, long before summering in Maiernigg or having known Alma." Matthews thinks it "unlikely but not inconceivable" that Alma's telegram expressed her own view and not Mahler's; to me it seems all too likely that she spoke her mind and not her husband's. If the matter had been important to her, she would have spoken out earlier - and later.
The revised version of the Sixth Symphony, with the Andante preceding the Scherzo, is the only one that Mahler actually conducted. In changing the order of the middle movements immediately after having the symphony published, he incurred no little expense and made himself look ridiculous in the bargain. The revised version has its own logic, and Mahler was, of course, well aware that he was discarding the logic of the original (including the transition from the Andante to the Finale). This version should be our starting point.
Given that Mahler did conceive the Sixth with the Scherzo preceding the Andante, that he agonized over switching these movements at Essen, and that he left no explanation as to why he made the switch, it's understandable that a conductor might want to maintain the Scherzo/Andante order. One reason for Mahler's ambivalence is that the symphony itself can't decide whether its redemption lies in A major or E-flat major, and that ambivalence is partly responsible for its failure to escape from A minor. If you hear the Sixth as making for A major, then there's a logic to the Scherzo/Andante order; if E-flat seems the key, then Andante/Scherzo makes more sense. But any conductor who wishes to perform or record the symphony Scherzo/Andante should be prepared to write a detailed program or liner note that acknowledges the facts and adduces evidence as to why A major and not E-flat is the Sixth's unachieved Heaven.

Finale: Two hammer blows? Three? Five?

Almost as controversial as the order of the inner movements in this symphony is the number of hammer blows. At the Essen premičre, there were three, at bars 336, 479, and 783. When he revised the symphony in the summer of 1906, Mahler deleted the hammer blow at bar 783, so that there were just the two at 336 and 479 when the symphony was performed in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna; and both Critical Editions (1963 and 1998) have just those two. On page 70 of Memories and Letters, however, Alma writes, "In the last movement he described himself and his downfall or, as he later said, that of his hero: 'It is the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.' Those were his words." This reminiscence has prompted Norman Del Mar and David Matthews to argue for the restoration of the bar 783 hammer blow; as Del Mar contends on page 152 of Mahler's Sixth Symphony - A Study, "Fate cannot still be felt to stand threateningly over the composer who has been dead and beyond her menace, real or imaginary, for over sixty years. Superstition must play no further part in what is now primarily an artistic decision." Some conductors - notably Leonard Bernstein, Georg Solti, Leif Segerstam, and Benjamin Zander - have restored this hammer blow in their performances.
The truth is somewhat more complicated. Mahler's autograph shows a note for percussion instrument written in with blue pencil at five places in the score, bars 9, 336, 479, 530, and 783. These are not identified as hammer blows, but since the three at bars 336, 479, and 783 were marked "Hammer" in the Kahnt score that Mahler conducted from at Essen, it seems reasonable to infer, as Hans-Peter Jülg does on pages 30 and 41 of his 1986 monograph Mahlers Sechste Symphonie, that the two at bars 9 and 530 were for hammer also. These two were never heard in performance because Mahler deleted them before the Essen premičre. But as Henry-Louis de La Grange points out on page 813 of Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1904-1907), the existence of five blows in the autograph undermines the argument that Mahler intended the three that were heard at Essen to have a mystical significance. Throughout the composition of the symphony, there were no hammer blows. For some period after its completion, in the summer of 1904, there were five; then there were three. By the summer of 1906, there were two. Three hammer blows were not an integral part of the Finale's conception, and they may not have been part of the MS for very long.
What's more, the placement of these five hammer blows helps explain why Mahler eventually deleted three of them. The Finale begins with an "einleitung" in which the first violins rise hopefully before the "fate" rhythm and the major-to-minor triad of the first movement crash in at bar 9. This "introduction" recurs three times in the Finale, at the beginning of the development (bar 229), at the beginning of the recapitulation (bar 520), and at the beginning of the coda (bar 773). At the beginning of the development, the first-violin melody is inverted, turning downward, so that there is no occasion for the "fate" rhythm or the major-to-minor triad to appear; the beginning of the recapitulation, however, echoes the beginning of the movement, and so does the beginning of the coda. And in each of these three cases, at bars 9, 530, and 783, Mahler wrote in a hammer blow to reinforce the "fate" rhythm and the major-to-minor triad. The other two blows, at bars 336 and 479, mark the collapse of optimistic sections in the development. It makes sense that once Mahler had decided to delete the two blows at bars 9 and 530, he would also delete the one at bar 783, since all three served the same function. The mystery is why he didn't remove this last one before the Essen premičre.
Was Mahler so superstitious that he allowed his fear of this symphony's "prophetic power" to override his musical judgment? He did not, after all, delete the third hammer blow in the emotional heat of Essen. He removed it in the course of revising the symphony in the summer of 1906; the scoring of bar 783 and environs is reworked to heighten the impact of that moment, even without the hammer. It's hard to see why this change should have been any less thought out than the many others he made.
One puzzle remains. In his 1968 Eulenburg edition of the Sixth, on page XXV of the Preface, Hans Redlich claims that Mahler decided, possibly as late as 1910, to reinstate the third hammer blow. He offers no evidence. His edition rejects most of Mahler's revisions, including the transposition of the middle movements and the deletion of the third hammer blow, but he reproduces, on page XXXI, what purports to be the Critical Edition version of bar 783. What's perplexing is that on this page, a note has been written in below the snare-drum stave - a note that looks like one of Mahler's hammer-blow notations. What score is this page from? Who wrote in the note? And when?
Arthur D. Walker, who was the Manchester University Music Librarian when Redlich was head of music there, has provided this explanation to David Pickett: "The source appears to be a hire copy, there are numerous markings by conductors. . . . Redlich died before the first issue of the Eulenburg score came out. . . . The addition of the hammer will have been made by a conductor who used the score for a performance." Pickett adds, "I think that Redlich wanted to reproduce this page of what was presumably his source for Mahler's last printed version only to show the differences between it and his own edition of the first version. I do not think that he intended the pencilled-in marks to be reproduced, since he does not refer to them in the preface." Although at first it might seem that Redlich intended this reproduction to support his claim that Mahler had decided to reinstate the third hammer blow, it turns out to have been a confusing accident: the hammer blow on page XXI was not pencilled in by Mahler, and Redlich never meant to suggest it had been, indeed assumed it would not be visible on the page. Had he lived to see his edition into print, he doubtless would have corrected the mistake.

Finale: Was Mahler struck down by the three hammer blows of fate?

You can scarcely read a liner note to a recording of the Sixth without being told that despite Mahler's attempt to ward off "the three hammer blows of fate" by deleting the one at bar 783, they fell on him all the same. These three hammer blows of fate are said to have been his dismissal as director from the Vienna State Opera, the death of his beloved elder daughter, Maria Anna, and the death sentence that he himself came under after being diagnosed with a fatal heart defect. In fact, Mahler was not dismissed from his position; he made the decision to leave Vienna, though it would be naive to believe that Viennese anti-Semitism wasn't a factor. Maria's death, from diphtheria and scarlet fever, was a tragedy but not an extraordinary one; seven of Mahler's 13 siblings died before reaching the age of three. As for his heart, which had been scarred by numerous childhood infections, it was flawed but not fatally so. Penicillin, which was not developed until 1941, would have saved him.

Coda: A "Tragic" symphony?

Commentators perhaps looking to Mahler to confirm their own view of existence have not hesitated to accept the Sixth's "Tragic" subtitle. Wilhelm Furtwängler labeled this symphony "the first nihilist work in the history of music." Bruno Walter argued that it "ends in hopelessness and the dark night of the soul . . . the 'other world' is not glimpsed for a moment." Leonard Bernstein described the Finale as the "catastrophe of homo sapiens himself."
Bernstein was being his usual hyperbolic self: the Finale might affirm the mortality of humankind, but it doesn't invent the atom bomb. And someone must have torn the E-flat pages out of Walter's score. The real tragedy of the Sixth is not its cataclysmic A-minor demise but rather the dotted "fate" rhythm that infects the symphony. This rhythm is palpable in the funeral-march openings of Mahler's Second and Fifth Symphonies, and it dominates the Allegro energico here - not even the Alma theme is immune. At the beginning of the Finale, the first violins appear to be rising free of it, but when in bar 5 they fall victim, the struggle is over.
At least, it's over in terms of human time. But if you see the universe as recursive, then that E-flat "Garden" episode is a vision out of time, untouched by mortal transience. And even on the Finale's own time = death terms, there's that section in the A-minor section of the recapitulation where the themes twice (at bars 668 and 686) deny the dominion of the "fate" rhythm and the major-to-minor triad. The moment of truth comes not at bar 783, where Mahler deleted the final hammer blow, but at bar 773, after the dotted-rhythm theme from bar 69 rises to a high A and then attempts to fall through the A-major scale. With just one note left, victory seems within reach, but then the trombones fall silent, and though the rest of the orchestra takes up the A, there's no major-key triad waiting, only that naked A, with the bass drum and the tam-tam annunciating the mystery of death. Like Faust, the Symphony dies, and there's no guarantee that God (if God exists) will intervene to save it. If that's a tragic stance, then Mahler's Sixth Symphony is indeed "Tragic."