1904: Mahler Symphony No. 6 (TRAGIC) in A minor

MONDAY, November 9, 2020 – 5:06 AM

(I changed my mind again about this symphony tonight. I ultimately decided a few months ago that it wanders to much, and therefore it is too long. That would make it seriously flawed. Tonight, in a very different mood, it seemed perfect. I think this points out that listening to music is a kind of pact. We agree, emotionally, to try to accept what the composer wrote and to understand it. But if we are tired, or impatient, or in any way unreceptive, we may reject what we are hearing because we are not in the right frame of mind to understand what we are listening to.)

Symphony No. 6 (TRAGIC) in A minor, age 44

It was composed in 1903 and 1904 (revised 1906; scoring repeatedly revised). Mahler conducted the work’s first performance at the Saalbau concert hall in Essen on May 27, 1906. It is sometimes referred to by the nickname “Tragic”. Mahler composed the symphony at what was apparently an exceptionally happy time in his life, but quite obviously this very dark symphony reflects something quite different.

Try this slow movement first…

24:50 III. Andante moderato

This one movement is about 18 minutes long, longer than some entire symphonies by Mozart. For me it stops time.

Then try this one

43:36 II. Scherzo: Wuchtig

It’s strange, but it has a ton of energy. It’s pretty straight forward, and you can see how Mahler got to this from what Beethoven did. It is essentially A B A, meaning that there is a first part and that comes back to mostly play through the same way, but there is very involved middle section, and those parts repeat forming something more like A B A B A, and with many additional complexities.


  • piccolo (used only in movement 4), 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling 2nd and 3rd piccolos), 4 oboes (3rd and 4th doubling 2nd and 3rd cor anglais; 2nd cor anglais used only in movement 2, cor anglais (used only in movement 4), E♭ clarinet (doubling 4th clarinet),3 B♭ and A clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th used only in movement 4), contrabassoon
  • 8 horns, 6 trumpets (5th and 6th used only in movement 4), 4 trombones (4th used only in movement 4), tuba
  • 6 timpani (two players), bass drum, snare drum (used in movements 1 and 4), cymbals, triangle, cowbells (offstage in movements 1 and 4, onstage in Andante)
    hammer (used only in movement 4), tam-tam, rute
    deep, untuned bells (used only in movement 4, offstage)
  • glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta
  • 2 harps
  • Strings

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

1st movement

From the start the feeling is ominous. It clearly starts out in A minor, and it’s something like 24 minutes long. Essentially it is sonata form, but a very complicated variety. The second theme is in F major. After about five minutes you hit a repeat and the expo repeats. So a bit under 10 minutes you hit the development. Almost 6 minutes that development is done, bu in the middle of it is some of the strangest music you will ever hear, and it foreshadows what will happen in the last movement. It’s very hard to tell if the recap has extra ideas, or if that part is part of the development. But soon it’s very clear that he’s in the 1st theme section, and this time instead of moving to F major he wants to get to A major. There is just a little feel of that, but this time it’s a minor feel for awhile, and somehow he ends up in D major. It’s probably the most “un-major” major you will even heard, totally ominous leading to a very long and complicated coda that wanders all over the place but finally settles down in A major with a bizarre march. I’m not quite sure how he gets back to A major, but he does.

2nd movement

This movement is much tighter than the 1st and 4th movements, which are terribly complex and hard to track. It’s pretty clearly based on a couple sections, and it’s loosely based  on Beethoven’s scherzo idea, but there are at least a couple of ideas in the A section, and there are some very odd things rhythmically. It’s supposedly in 3/4, but in places it is phrased very differently so that the meter continually changes. When the B section arrives, the same rhythmic changes take place in this much slower section, which is now in F major. There are so many key changes that I don’t care even mention them, but the interplay between the A and B section is the main idea.

3rd movement

A move from A minor to Eb major is a huge lurch, and for this reason I think this movement cannot be placed in 2nd place. When it finally ends in Eb, after a very long and complicated evolution, a lurch back to A minor, with no preparation does not work well. Instead, this should lead into the 4th movement, which starts on an Ab7 chord, which also contains the common tone of Eb, and that allows the morph.

4th movement

It starts on an Ab7 chord, which is an abrupt transition from very peaceful Eb major, where the previous movement started and ended. It then morphs to an A chord that quickly morphs to A minor, and after a long and very errie intro it settles down not to A minor but to C minor. It eventually gets to A minor, but there is a huge amount of wandering in keys, impossible to even track here. This is an incredibly complicated movement, and several times it builds up to huge climaxes that sound like we might get to a happy ending, but always something interrupts. There are some of the most spectacular wind sections you will ever hear. My 1st impression when I first listened this was it had about 10 “almost finishes”, and exaggeration, but that was how it seemed. Someday I may go through this with time stamps, as it is very unlikely that I’ll find another performance I like as well as this one. What was going on in Mahler’s head when he wrote this at a happy point in hi life?

Nickname of “Tragic”

Mahler did not title the symphony when he composed it, or at its first performance or first publication. He had, as well, decisively rejected and disavowed the titles (and programs) of his earlier symphonies by 1900. Only the words “Sechste Sinfonie” appeared on the programme for the performance in Munich on November 8, 1906. By contrast, in his “Gustav Mahler” memoir, Bruno Walter claimed that Mahler called the work his “Tragic Symphony”.  Additionally, the program for the first Vienna performance (January 4, 1907) refers to the work as “Sechste Sinfonie (Tragische)”.

Hammer blows

There is a controversy over how many there should be in the last movement. Originally there were five, then three, and finally two. But many think the deletion of the last blow was a mistake. I’m on the fence, because where that 3rd hammer blow would be there is huge percussion which sort of does the same thing on steroids.

There is a also a huge controversy about which movement should come second.

The slow movement is sometimes placed second, and sometimes third. Mahler himself never fully made up his mind, so conductors and Mahler lovers argue about it. My preference is for the slow movement in 3rd place, and I have time stamps set up this way. I always play each of the movements in this order.

Do you have to listen to all of a symphony?

I have mentioned this before. It’s almost an unwritten musical commandment: Thou shalt not only play or listen to only one movement of a symphony. With rare exceptions we are discouraged from listening to just a favorite movement. This is colossally stupid: not only is it a good idea to start with just one movement – any that you are interested in – but any great movement can and should stand on its own. Often some of the best music in the universe is buried into the whole of a symphony that overall is not of the same quality as just one movement. Even when a symphony is consistently good from start to end, that’s no reason why we can’t pick our favorite and only that at any given moment.

Now, of course I am not discouraging anyone from listening to this whole symphony…

In fact, I got to know the whole symphony in high school. I had a reel-to-reel tape deck, and at the time just about the best recordings you could buy were released on tapes. The recording I had at the time was of Leonard  Bernstein, who was one of the first famous conductors to make a name for himself recording Mahler. This symphony was so long, I had to flip the tape over to get to the second half.

Mahler is tough to listen to…

For some his music is just too long. For them his music is flawed by being padded, over-extended and sort of musically bloviated. I myself have to be in just the right mood to take a whole symphony in.

For many this symphony is one of the most difficult to listen to, or understand…

After listening to this on and off for decades, I come back to the same conclusions: you have to let this in slowly, over time, concentrating on only one movement. Take that in, then if you find yourself starting to like the music, try another.

3 thoughts on “1904: Mahler Symphony No. 6 (TRAGIC) in A minor

  1. Music that calms you and makes you feel good is good music. It’s difficult to write a piece that’s can most likely appeal to the masses while also giving everyone a similar feeling. Great piece.

  2. For me, the 2nd movement that you highlighted had a greater effect after the energetic first movement, somewhat like a peaceful garden with rainbow, flowers and grass glistening wet, after a wild, woolly (but safe) thunderstorm. You appreciate the tranquility more than if it’s been that way all along. It is a beautiful movement on its own, but even more so after coming in after the storm.
    The only movement I found tedious is the last one. I’ve pressed pause at 1:02 and it may stay paused. The scherzo (III) is brief. 1st movement has contrast, but keeps coming back to familiar things and that kept it fresh for me.

    Thought: The average football game lasts 3 hours, but people get up to get a beer. I listened to this while doing things in the house. Mahler does not seem to be music to *sit down* to. Esp. the vivacious parts.

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