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A Spotlight on Mahler's Sixth Symphony

January 2015

When one approaches the prospect of composing a symphony, the act is much like writing a novel. Pitches and rhythms are not written down in one fell swoop; rather, the composer goes through many sketches, drafts, and rounds of editing before the piece is completely put down on paper. Pieces may change considerably during the compositional process, and composers often develop a close relationship with their creations. Sometimes, composers continue to make drastic changes to pieces even after they are first performed. This was certainly the case with Mahler and his Symphony No. 6, where the composer made constant adjustments to the score in an effort to grapple with the piece’s intensely tragic ending.

Mahler made many changes to his Sixth Symphony before arriving at the version of the piece that is performed today. In 1903 Mahler began sketching out the first movement of the symphony and created short scores (condensed versions) of the inner movements. He finished the draft of the first movement along with the finale in 1904, and completed his autograph full score one year later. In 1906 the piece was copied out by Mahler’s favorite copyist in Vienna, the Stichvorlage (engraver’s manuscript copy of the piece) was sent to the publisher, and study scores were released to the public alongside the four-hand piano reduction of the symphony. The piece was first heard publicly in its orchestral version when it was premiered in Essen later in 1906.

Even after it was first performed, Mahler continued to make large-scale changes to the piece. He switched the order of the inner two movements, and felt so strongly about this modification that he asked for erratum slips to be placed in unsold published versions of the piece detailing the new order. He also experimented with instrumentation and the use of the large hammer-like percussion instrument in the last movement.

In anticipation of The Cleveland Orchestra’s upcoming performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony in Miami, I had the chance to interview Stephen Hefling, co-director of the New Complete Edition of Mahler’s works (Gustav Mahler: Neue Kritische Gesamtausgabe) and Professor of Musicology at Case Western Reserve University, about Mahler’s relationship to the Sixth Symphony and some of his changes to the score. Dr. Hefling discusses the personal meaning of the piece to Mahler, as well as some of the composer’s significant alterations to the symphony after it was first written down.

Kate Rogers: What are some ways that the Sixth Symphony differs from Mahler’s other works?

Stephen Hefling: Well, the main thing that stands out about it is the way it ends. For the first time since his very early cantata Das Klagende Lied (or “The Song of Lamentation”), Mahler allows a piece to turn entirely tragic at the end. There’s really nothing left: it’s as bleak as the conclusions of Moby Dick or King Lear. Up to that time, at least in the symphonies and most of the songs, Mahler opted for some sort of optimistic ending, but this time he let the tragic forces reign completely. It can be devastating, and for a long time I didn’t even want to listen to it.

KR: This makes me wonder about the audience reactions at the premiere of this piece. How did people react to this bleak ending when the symphony was first performed, and what did Mahler himself think of the work?

SH: The reception in Essen in 1906 was not entirely positive at all, and certainly when it was performed in Vienna in early 1907, the reaction was almost entirely negative (which had been the case with Mahler’s reception in Vienna for several years now). Mahler’s own reaction was quite an intense one. After the dress rehearsal, he walked up and down, wringing his hands, practically in tears. In an attempt to mitigate the intensity of the ending, he reversed the order of the slow movement and the Scherzo, and he deleted the third of the famous “hammer blows” in the last movement.

KR: Mahler also experimented heavily with the placement of these “hammer blows,” right?

SH: From the Stichvorlage, we can see how the whole symphony had been copied out by Mahler’s favorite copyist in Vienna for the printer with no hammer blows. Then, in the autograph score, you can see that Mahler very provisionally, in a blue pencil, experimented with five hammer blows. He eventually got that down to three in the Stichvorlage, and after it had all been printed, reduced it to two (see below).

In the Bürstenabzug (galley proof) of the symphony, we can see where Mahler has removed the third hammer blow. The line for “Hammer” (circled in black) is crossed out in red pencil, as is the note representing the hammer blow. Photograph courtesy of the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft (IGMG).

KR: It sounds like these “hammer blows” in the finale held a lot of personal significance for him. What might they represent?

SH: Our most direct account of that comes from his wife Alma, and Alma had her own way of telling the story of Mahler and his music. Sometimes she’s accurate, other times she colors things the way she wants them to be, and other times she’s outrageously inaccurate. But what she says is that Mahler said that these represented three blows of fate that befell the hero. In her book Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, Alma states that “in the last movement, Mahler 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. None of his works came so directly from his inmost heart as this. We both wept that day. The music and what it foretold touched us so deeply.”

KR: Wow, that’s a very powerful image of the piece. What advice would you give to people hearing the piece for the first time at this performance?

SH: Well, I guess I might suggest Mahler’s own advice about approaching an unfamiliar work of art for the first time, and it is simply to allow it to take over your being. That’s the best way to understand it on a first encounter. Not to think too much, not to anticipate too much, but essentially to go with it.

—Kate Rogers

Kate Rogers is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
She is a PhD student in Musicology at Case Western Reserve University.