Mahler’s Sixth

Program Notes

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3
Mahler: Symphony No. 6, “Tragic”

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216, “Strassburg”

Work composed: 1775

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 7, 2002; Pavel Kogan, conductor; Robert McDuffie, violin

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings

Estimated duration: 24 minutes

When we think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performing, we tend to imagine him seated at a keyboard. Mozart wrote nearly 30 concertos for piano, but also penned concertos for other solo instruments, including five for violin. We know less about Mozart’s violin concertos than those for piano – particularly why and for whom they were written. Mozart wrote most of his piano concertos as performance vehicles for himself. The same may be true of the violin concertos, as Mozart was a first-rate violinist, thanks to the influence of his father Leopold. In his time, Leopold Mozart had a reputation as a skilled violinist and violin teacher; his treatise on violin pedagogy is still in print.

As a young boy, Mozart traveled all over Europe as Leopold showed off his son’s virtuosity on both violin and keyboard. During his travels, Mozart also absorbed Italian musical style, with its emphasis on lyricism and bravura technique. Both qualities infuse Mozart’s violin concertos. Biographer Maynard Solomon describes them as the composer’s “serenade style … a youthful music of yearning but not of grief, imbued with an innocent utopianism, a faith in perfectibility, beauty, and sensual fulfillment.”

The opening Allegro features a melody Mozart wrote for his opera Il rè pastore (The Shepherd King), first performed in Salzburg the spring of 1775. Mozart’s use of this tune in two contemporaneous compositions – one staged and sung, the other using only instruments – lends a theatrical dimension to the concerto, recasting the soloist as the star of an unfolding drama. Continuing the analogy, the Adagio’s expressive melody becomes a wordless aria for the solo violin, as winds provide an understated accompaniment. In the concluding movement, Mozart showcases a Hungarian melody known as the “Strassburger.” This tune features an odd shift of meter – from 3/8 to 2/2 – and a corresponding alternation between G minor and G major. With these quick changes of rhythm and key, Mozart brings his third concerto to a lively conclusion.


Gustav Mahler

Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, “Tragic”

Work composed: 1903–04, rev. 1906

Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: November 5, 2012; Carlos Kalmar, conductor

Instrumentation: piccolo, 4 flutes (2 also doubling piccolo), 4 oboes (2 doubling English horn), piccolo clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, bass drum, birch rod, cowbells, cymbals, deep bells, glockenspiel, hammer, rattle, 2 snare drums, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings

Estimated duration: 80 minutes

In November 1901, Gustav Mahler entered a period of personal and professional fulfillment. He was at the height of his prestigious, high-powered conducting career in Vienna; his own music was beginning to garner more support and acclaim, and, after more than 40 years as a bachelor with a gossip-worthy personal life, he met a vivacious, artistic woman, Alma Schindler, 20 years his junior. Mahler and Alma pursued a brief, intense courtship and married four months after their first meeting.

Their first daughter, Maria Anna, arrived in November 1902; the following summer, at his lakeside villa in the Austrian Alps, Mahler composed two of the movements for his Sixth Symphony. A year later, Mahler left a heavily pregnant Alma in Vienna to return to the alpine village of Maiernigg and finish the symphony. After Alma gave birth to their second daughter, Anna Justina, she joined Mahler at Maiernigg for the remainder of the summer.

What compelled Mahler, in the midst of so much happiness and creative productivity, to write a symphony full of dark, profoundly despairing music? Mahler dithered about adding the nickname “Tragic” to his A Minor Symphony – he included it on the program of the premiere performance, and an early version of the score – but there is no appellation more apt: the music veers from doom-laden portents to moments of mounting anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, and evocations of times past filled with grief, even defeat. The Sixth Symphony was just one example of Mahler’s compulsion to create the darkest possible music: during this time, Mahler also set some of poet Friedrich Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children).

Mahler maintained a sincere belief in an artist’s ability to prognosticate or even influence future events through art, but once that artistic vision was realized, there was no escaping its fateful predictions. As the Sixth Symphony poured out of him, Mahler became frightened of what it foretold. “No other work flowed so directly from his heart as this one,” wrote Alma. “We both cried at the time; we felt so deeply what this music meant, what it forebodingly told us. The Sixth is [Mahler’s] most personal work and is also a prophetic one. In the Songs on the Death of Children and in the Sixth, he ‘musically anticipated’ his life … In the last movement, he describes himself and his downfall, or as he said later, the downfall of his hero. ‘The hero who receives three blows from fate, the third of which fells him, like a tree.’ These are Mahler’s words … He too, received three blows from fate, and the third did fell him. At the time however, he was cheerful, conscious of the greatness of his work.”

The “three blows” fell a year after Mahler led the premiere of the Sixth Symphony in Essen on May 27, 1906. After a long and vicious campaign mounted by his detractors, Mahler was forced to resign his position with the Vienna State Opera in May 1907. That summer at Maiernigg, both of Mahler’s daughters caught scarlet fever and diphtheria; Anna eventually recovered, but Maria died. In the days following her death, Mahler was diagnosed with an incurable heart ailment.

Mahler presents several themes in the first movement, some of which recur in later sections. The opening march sets the mood, a determined foray into depths unknown. Trumpets sound a bright A major chord, which shifts into an oboe chorus transforming the chord to a melancholy A minor. This brief but significant moment serves as an aural signpost, or perhaps the musical equivalent of Dante’s warning at the entrance to Hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

 “After he had finished the first movement,” Alma wrote, “Mahler came down from the woods and said, ‘I have tried to capture you in a theme; I do not know whether I have been successful. You will have to put up with it.’ It is the long, sweeping theme of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony.” The unbridled passion of Alma’s string theme contrasts starkly with the ominous music preceding it.

As was his wont, Mahler often continued revising his symphonies, even after they were premiered and published. With regard to the Sixth, Mahler experimented with the order of the two inner movements. The manuscript and first printed edition, which was issued before the first performance, has the Scherzo second and the Andante third. However, according to a contemporary of Mahler’s who was present at the rehearsals and premiere in Essen, Mahler could not decide if he should perform the symphony as written, or switch the order of the Andante and Scherzo. At the last moment, Mahler reversed himself and moved the Andante to second; when the second printed edition of the score came out, Mahler stuck to his revised ordering. There are numerous accounts of Mahler later regretting this decision and favoring his original version. Musically valid arguments can be made for either choice, and conductors continue to wrestle with this artistic conundrum today.

The Andante, the only one of the symphony’s three movements not grounded in A minor, offers a gentle escape into nostalgic memories of childhood. Its themes unwind sinuously as a pastoral idyll. Mahler uses cowbells to evoke the countryside, but their sound also triggered a series of sad childhood memories, which he described in an 1879 letter, “I go to the meadow, where the tinkling of cowbells lulls me to dreaming … Behind me in the village the evening bells chime, and their chorus is borne across to me by a kind breeze … Shadowy memories of my life pass before me, like long-forgotten ghosts of departed happiness.”

Mahler indicated the Scherzo’s tempo as “Wuchtig” (weighty or ponderous). Its heavy tread recalls the mood of the first movement. Alma said Mahler described the trio section as “the arrhythmic playing of two children, staggering through the sand. Horrible – those children’s voices become more and more tragic, and at the end there is one fading little voice, whimpering.” The abrupt juxtaposition of the trio and the Scherzo is a chilling, grotesque caricature.

The Finale sums up all the musical and psychological ideas of the preceding three movements. Although it is the longest finale in any Mahler symphony, its impact derives not from length but from an accumulation of psychic/emotional weariness. The hammer blows obliterate any lingering hope of rescue from the tragic fate Mahler conjured up with this immense, powerful music. 

© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.