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Totally Unrelated Blog-a-thon: Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

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Totally Unrelated Blog-a-thon: Gustav Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Although I’ve long outgrown the typical trick-or-treating and extravagant costume-wearing of Halloween, my, uh, adult-ness doesn’t stop me from getting somewhat into the spirit of things by firing up a CD player—or, in more 21st-century terms, an iPod—and spinning a scary piece of music on October 31. But this Halloween, you won’t be hearing old Halloween standbys like Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” or Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Danse macabre”—or, heck, maybe even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” most likely with the music video—emanating from my speakers. Instead…you’ll be hearing Gustav Mahler’s unsettling Sixth Symphony blasting away.

What? you may be asking. A symphony—especially one that runs nearly 90 minutes long? And why Mahler? He may have been a neurotic, he may even have been plain crazy musically, but his music isn’t necessarily what is considered scary or frightening in a traditional sense. Well, depends on what you consider scary: a programmatic depiction of a magic trick gone awry—as Paul Dukas’s popularized-by-Fantasia tone poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is—or an abstract evocation of a tragic fall from grace, as Mahler’s Sixth is? One might shock and dazzle in the moment, but the latter might just keep you up at nights pondering its bleak, dark depths amidst its severe military marches, its despairing major/minor motifs, and its overwhelming sense of pessimism ultimately untouched by its episodes of dreamlike serenity and repose. Did I mention that this amazing piece was written during what outwardly seemed like one of the happiest times in Mahler’s life?

The music of Mahler (1860-1911), the Austrian-born Romantic-era composer/conductor, holds a special place in my heart in my (relatively limited) musical experiences, much in the same way that films like Mean Streets and Band of Outsiders hold special places in my experience of the cinema. In the same way that those films expanded my sense of what movies could achieve, Mahler’s sprawling symphonic epics shook my previous notions of the range of personal expression possible in all music, not just classical. The grinding dissonances that bring the development section of the first movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony (also known as the “Resurrection”) to a close, the joyous yet tensioned expression of love of the Adagietto of his Fifth, the stop-start dying away of the final page of the Ninth (his last completed symphony)—all these idiosyncratic yet deeply personal musical moments (and plenty more) point to a composer who tried to work off his neuroses, fears and ecstasies through brilliantly conceived and orchestrated music.

Having grown up believing that Mozart’s classicism was the high point of the Western music, Mahler’s symphonic music pierced my preconceived notions about classical music and went straight for my gut. So this is what music can accomplish: the emotions it can express and the worlds it can convey leave little doubt that every note comes from the composer’s own bleeding, troubled heart. “A symphony must be like the world,” Mahler famously wrote during his lifetime. “It must embrace everything.”

Perhaps the reason his Sixth Symphony—famously, and aptly, known as the “Tragic,” although Mahler didn’t coin that name for the work—continues to be less performed and less popular than his early ones is that the musical world he depicts within it is so decidedly odd. In its dissonant harmonies and small structural peculiarities, it sounds almost eerily modern; yet, listen to it carefully and you might realize that, in its broad outlines, the Sixth is a very classical work. Its outer movements are structured as classic sonata-allegros (exposition-exposition repeat-development-recapitulation-coda) and its inner movements are likewise formally traditional (second-movement scherzo and trio; slow third movement that alternates and varies between two themes of subtly contrasting character). In addition, Mahler, for the Sixth, decided to eschew his typical progressive tonality—ending a work in a different key from the one in which it began—and instead to begin and end it in A minor, another typical classical-era custom.

This unconventional clash between straight classicism and ear-shattering modernity suggests an aural battle between intellect and emotion, between Apollo and Dionysus, that is played out in all sorts of different, fascinating and terrifying ways throughout the Sixth Symphony. The forms may be familiar, but the sonorities are definitely not—even at its most serene, the work nonetheless seems to inhabit another world entirely. To wit, consider some of the motifs and effects Mahler comes up with throughout the score within his self-imposed classical boundaries:

• One of the symphony’s major musical motifs is that of an A major chord suddenly souring into A minor. Simple, really—except, every time it appears, the two-note motif seems to have the effect of momentarily fooling the unsuspecting listener into thinking something positive, musically speaking, may be on the horizon.

• Severe, strict military marches characterize whole chunks of the opening movement and finale. Mahler, however, lightens the mood via dreamlike episodes that feature cowbells ringing in the distance—as if he intends to bring us to a higher plane, only, of course, to bring us crashing back down again when the march rhythm sets in.

• Mahler often transforms his motifs and themes in disturbing ways. For example, the sweeping, romantic, string-driven second subject of the first movement—which Mahler dubbed “Alma’s theme” in dedication to his wife—is, with the development section underway, transformed into something more sinister. The opening rhythm is sharply parodied in the beginning of the Scherzo, with a different meter and an even darker tone. Even those previously heavenly cowbells reappear at the climax of the otherwise slow movement (usually performed as the third movement, although Mahler had second thoughts later on and switched its position around with the Scherzo) in a more anguished, tension-filled setting.

• The Scherzo—which, Alma suggests, depicts the Mahler children at play as their voices become ever more tragic—features perverse trio sections that include col legno string playing, in which the players tap the strings with the wood part of the bow. The effect, combined with a slow waltz meter, sounds like skeletons awkwardly trying to dance.

• And the finale features three (or two, since he later decided to delete the third) “hammer blows” that seem to stop the triumphant forward progress of the music dead in its tracks. The final hammer blow seems to fell the musical hero, as it leads into a mournful brass-led coda that takes on the character of a funeral dirge. One final fortissimo chord puts a startling exclamation point (it rarely ever fails to make me jump, since it comes out of nowhere) on the piece.

And many more…

I have only scratched the surface of the myriad details of Mahler’s Sixth, but all of these musical ideas are perhaps the closest symphonic music has ever gotten to Greek tragedy, one that exhilarates in its intensity and invention as much as it inspires pity. Though Mahler was always, to a certain extent, fascinated in juxtaposing order and disorder in his works, nowhere is this brought into sharper relief than in the Sixth: in pitting classical forms against his more forward-sounding motifs, themes and sound effects, he almost sounds as if he’s trying to make some kind of desperate sense of a world that has gone mad. In that way, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony may well be one of the key classical works of our troubled times (and the fact that it ends nihilistically makes it arguably more relevant to our current national mood than any new album by Radiohead or any new horror allegory like 28 Weeks Later). No wonder so many 20th-century composers—Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich, and others—find the Sixth so appealing (“the only Sixth, despite [Beethoven’s] ’Pastoral,’” claimed Berg): in their own ways, those composers were trying to express something similar even as world wars and brutal dictatorships swirled around them.

I noted before that this Sixth Symphony—which was begun in the summer of 1903 and completed the following summer—was written during what was apparently one of the composer’s happiest times of life. Indeed, according to Alma Mahler, 1903 saw Mahler in a good place emotionally, enjoying the company of his young daughters during vacation at the Wörthersee in Maiernigg. Yet, even at a relatively peaceful time, Mahler was composing works like the Sixth Symphony and his song cycle Kindertotenlieder—“Songs on the Death of Children.” (“I cannot understand how one can sing about the death of children if a half hour before one has hugged and kissed those who are cheerful and healthy,” Alma wrote.) Even more startling: three years after the completion of the symphony, Mahler suffered three major tragedies: the sudden death of his older daughter, his bitter resignation from his conducting post at the Vienna Opera, and the diagnosis of a heart disease that ultimately killed him. In essence, the three hammer blows of the finale of his Sixth had uncannily come true.

Had he somehow foretold his own fate through music by composing the Sixth Symphony? Mahler may well have thought so later on. But the thought that a composer can somehow glimpse his own future through his own composition? That, my friends, is arguably scarier than ghosts in any haunted house.

Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.