Mahler's Sixth SymphonyArlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
Carlos Kalmar, conductor
- Ballet Music II: Andantino
- Allegro energico, ma non troppo
- Andante moderato
- Scherzo: Ponderous
- Finale: Sostenuto – Allegro moderato – Allegro energico
THE CONCERT CONVERSATION, conducted one hour before each performance, will be presented by Music Director Carlos Kalmar and Robert McBride, host for the stations of All Classical FM. You can also enjoy the Concert Conversation in the comfort of your own home. Visit the web site allclassical.org to watch the video on demand.
Overture to Rosamunde and Ballet II, D. 797
Composer: Born January 31, 1797, Vienna, Austria; died November 19,
1828, Vienna, Austria.
Work composed: 1823 in Vienna, Austria, for the play Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus, by Helmina von Chézy.
World premiere: December 20, 1823 at Theater an der Wien, Vienna, Austria.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 9, 2005, Christoph Campestrini conducting. First performance of ballet music.
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 timpani, and strings.
Estimated Duration: 17 minutes
I pity playwrights, or at least those who decide to have incidental music commissioned for their works. So often, the incidental music outlives the play it was written to support! In the case of Rosamunde, the play itself has not survived in any form to the present day. But thanks to the efforts of the musicologist George Grove and composer Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), Schubert’s lovely incidental music not only survives, but thrives in concert halls to this day.
The overture played at these concerts
is not actually the overture which was
intended to be performed with the
incidental music. That distinction belongs
to the overture that was originally used for
Schubert's earlier opera Alfonso und Estrella
(D. 732), which was actually composed
several years prior to Rosamunde but did
not premiere until 1854. The overture
performed tonight was actually written for another Schubert opera, Die Zauberharfe “The Magic Harp,” D. 644, and it was this overture that was originally published in the first edition of the incidental music to Rosamunde.
The overture opens with an Andante introduction in the key of C minor with stern and solemn unison chords in the full orchestra. The solo oboe sounds the plaintive opening theme of the introduction proper, echoed by the strings. I always associate this introduction with the throwing off of a weight, of a darkness making way for the radiant light of the main body, marked Allegro vivace. Indeed, there is little music with so much lightness, joy and good-natured drama as this delightful overture.
The Ballet Music (II) is tinged with the feel of an Austrian ländler, a dance in
3/4 time, especially with its rustic touches and the feeling of a peasant gathering. But, being of Schubert, it is much more of an urbane dance than something that Beethoven or Bruckner (other primary exponents of the form) might have written. There is the hint of lederhosen in the air, but this is a formal dress ball instead of a country barn dance.
Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Composer: born July 7, 1860 in Kalischt, Bohemia; died May 18, 1911 in Vienna, Austria.
Work composed: Summer of 1903 - May 1905, revised 1906; re-orchestrated numerous times.
World premiere: First performance given in Essen, Germany, with the composer conducting the Essen Orchestra supplemented with musicians from the Utrecht Orchestra.
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: October 22, 1991, Jorge Mester conducting.
Instrumentation: 5 flutes, 5 oboes, 5 clarinets, 5 bassoons, 5 percussion, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 tuba, 1 timpani, 2 harps, 1 celeste, bass drum, chimes, cowbell, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tambourine,
triangle wood block and strings.
Estimated Duration: one hour, 15 minutes
The Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler is one of his most enigmatic compositions. Mahler himself wrote to a friend that ‘My Sixth will pose riddles that only a generation that has absorbed and digested my first five symphonies may hope to solve.’ While composing this darkest and least hopeful of his symphonies, Mahler was at the peak of his career and in the prime of his life. He was a conductor and opera administrator at the highest level, conducting the greatest orchestras in the world and running the Vienna Court Opera. His music was beginning to gain ever more numbers of appreciative supporters. He was married to Alma Schindler, regarded at the time as perhaps the most beautiful young woman in Vienna, and had two healthy young daughters. These circumstances belie the dark emotional tenor of the symphony, much as Mozart’s miraculous final three symphonies do not betray his absolutely dire personal circumstances at the time of their conception.
Regardless of his circumstances at the time of the composition of the Sixth, Mahler clearly was greatly affected by the process of writing, rehearsing, and performing the piece. After the final rehearsals before the premiere in Essen, Mahler was described as ‘pacing up and down, beside himself with grief, and sobbing and wringing his hands.’ Alma Mahler wrote that “No work flowed so directly from his heart as this one. At the time we both cried. So deeply did we feel this music…”
Outwardly, the symphony is in the standard Classical mold: a substantial opening Allegro energico, in sonata form (even with an exposition repeat!), followed by a Scherzo, which is in turn followed by an Andante and a concluding Finale of considerable length. A basic march rhythm pervades three of the movements – the first, third, and fourth. The march rhythm in the first movement seems to me to be an echo of the heroic marches of Mahler’s previous symphonies (especially the Fifth), but with ironic bite. Prominent are the major to minor chord progressions that sour the end of the march, a harmonic shift that Mahler carries through to the rest of the symphony. The sweeping second theme, stated in the violins, was said by Alma Mahler to represent her. In the development section, cow bells are heard for the first time, which Mahler wrote represented “the last greeting from earth to penetrate the remote solitude of the mountain peaks.” The movement comes to a close with a triumphant version of the “Alma” theme.
When composing the Sixth, Mahler had originally intended the Scherzo to fol- low the first movement. Subsequently, at the first performance in Essen, he reversed the order, placing the Andante second and the Scherzo third. Perhaps he was concerned that the opening of the Scherzo was too similar in tone to that of the first movement – both in a driving A minor key. In the end, however, the first published edition of the score kept the Scherzo in the originally intended second position. At these performances, Maestro Carlos Kalmar has decided to go with Mahler’s premiere performance order, with the Andante second, followed by the Scherzo.
The march is disposed of in the Andante, with its allusions to his grief-laden song cycle Kindertotenlieder, which was written nearly concurrently with the Sixth, between 1901 and 1904. Malte Fischer writes that this movement “stresses its intermezzo-like character to such an extent that it too begins to sound sinister. It is unrelated rhythmically and motivically to any of the previous or later move- ments, but sings itself out while having none of the intimacy of the Fifth Symphony's Adagietto.” This movement is undoubtedly gorgeous, and so effectively composed, but it is not a slow movement in which to find solace or easy answers. It is more like the representation of quiet grief – held deep within – full of dark thoughts about the nature of life and death, as in a late night vigil over a desperately ill loved one.
With the Scherzo, marked wüchtig or ‘massive’, Mahler ingeniously combines the march rhythm from the first movement with his preferred tunes in Austrian ländler style. The two intervening Trio sections are marked Altvärtisch, or old-fashioned. The music from these sections were said by Alma Mahler to represent the playing of their own young children tottering in the sand. The ‘playing’ voices become more tragic as the movement progresses, which are then interrupted by a great orchestral scream of anguish, and eventually die out at the close of the movement.
And then comes the Finale, one of the longest single movements that Mahler ever composed. Malte Fischer writes that “It is clear beyond peradven- ture that the final movement of the Sixth deals with questions of finality, death and destruction and that it holds out no promise or prospect of any improvement, no sense of comfort or consolation.” The movement opens with one of the most harrowing openings of any symphonic finale, complete with celeste and harp glissandos. The most obvious feature of this titanic movement are its great hammer blows that come at the great climaxes of the movement. Played by the percussionist with an enormous hammer slamming down on a reinforced wooden box, that should sound, “[like] an axe striking at the very root of life itself.” Mahler reduced the number from the original three to two after the initial performances. Alma Mahler would later write that this was an action taken in premonition of the three blows that Mahler would later suffer: the death of his daughter Maria from diphtheria, his forced resignation from the Vienna Court Opera, and his heart condition, which would eventually lead to his untimely death at the age of 50. For these performances, however, Carlos Kalmar has elected to perform the movement with the three originally planned hammer blows.
Mathias Hansen writes that ‘In the Sixth Symphony the joking stops, and it does so, moreover, with a decisiveness that may well go beyond all that can be depicted in art and even all that is capable of artistic expression.’ A description of the atmosphere at the close of the symphony is stated by the character of Serenus Zeit- blom in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus:
Here, toward the end, I find that the uttermost accents of sorrow are achieved, that final despair is given expression, and voice for its pain. No, to the very end, this dark tone poem permits no consolation, reconciliation, transfiguration.
© 2012 Charles Noble, Assistant Principal Viola
Recommended Recordings by Michael Parsons
Schubert – Overture to Rosamunde, Ballet ll
Claudio Abbado–Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Deutsche Grammophon 431655
Mahler – Symphony # 6
Sir John Barbirolli–New Philharmonia Orchestra
EMI Classics 65285 OR
Bernard Haitink–Chicago Symphony Orchestra
CSO Resound 901804 OR
Leonard Bernstein–Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
2Deutsche Grammophon 427697
These recordings are available for purchase during intermission in the lobby of the concert hall.