Recorded on 04/30/2005, uploaded on 03/07/2012
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Sometimes referred to with the nickname “Tragic,” Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is, like its predecessor, one of his more conventional symphonies. The epithet, though it appeared in the program for the performance of the symphony in Vienna on January 4, 1907, was likely not given by Mahler himself, as was the case with the nicknames of the following Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. Furthermore, it is rather not in keeping with the period of its composition, 1903-04, which was a relatively blissful time for Mahler. Nonetheless, it is occasionally encountered in discussion of the work.
Of more worthy note is the original ordering of the symphony’s two middle movements. In its present form, the Sixth Symphony conforms to the usual four-movement design with the slow Andante movement preceding the Scherzo. However, when Mahler composed the work, the middle movements were envisioned in the reverse order. It was not until Mahler was rehearsing the first performance in 1906, and the first edition of the score had already been published, that Mahler decided to switch the order. Mahler wrote to his publisher to switch the movements in future editions of the score, and to supply errata slips indicating the change in all unsold copies. This rather significant change did not escape the notice of critics, and Mahler was not sparred from their sarcasm. Nevertheless, this ordering was observed by Mahler, as well as others during his lifetime. However, a telegram from Alma Mahler to the conductor Joseph Mengelberg in 1919 instructing him to perform the Scherzo first, has placed the surety of this order, as Mahler’s final intentions for the work, in doubt. The Critical Edition edited by Erwin Ratz, which appeared in 1963, restored the original Scherzo/Andante ordering, yet offered no justification, not even a mentioned of Alma’s telegram, for this change. Lack of conclusive evidence has thus resulted in the Andante/Scherzo ordering being adopted in the latest critical edition of Mahler’s music. Nevertheless, the issue is far from resolved, and prominent conductors lie on either side of the debate.
The opening movement, embracing for the most part the style of the march, is a regular sonata form, right down to the verbatim repeat of the exposition. A distinctive motif emerges from the outset of the work of an A major triad changing into an A minor triad over an ominous rhythmic figure in the timpani. Alongside this motif, a lyrical theme, which Alma claimed was representative of herself, provides a point a blissful contrast. The Andante second movement provides relief from the drama of the first movement and the succeeding ones. With a principal theme in E-flat major, the movement is scored in a much more delicate and lighter manner than the rest of the symphony, throwing it into poignant relief. The following Scherzo returns to the march rhythms of the first movement, and further adopts an irregular mixture of 3/4, 4/8, and 3/8 meters during its Trio. Lastly, the expansive finale loosely follows the outlines of a sonata form. Dramatic changes of mood and tempo are a defining element of the movement, as well as a three-stroke motif which Mahler described as the mighty blows of fate. Dejectedly, the symphony comes does indeed come to a tragic close. Joseph DuBose
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