So for our next stop on the tour, we’re returning to the “middle” group of symphonies (the 5, 6 and 7) and the last one that we haven’t yet listened to – the tragic and epic Symphony No 6.

You’ll be familiar with its style after having heard 5 and 7 – big, dense orchestrations, no choirs or singers or anything peripheral. It’s not quiet and introverted like the later ones, and it contains all sorts of music.

However, it is unusual amongst all the Mahler symphonies, because it contains (spoiler alert!) the only really solid unhappy ending. Mahler symphonies either end in huge explosions of sound (especially the ones we have coming up to listen to!) or find peace and acceptance and fade out, like Das Lied von der Erde and Symphonies 9 and 10.

But in some ways, the Mahler 6 is a different beast to the 5 and 7. Both of those symphonies had devastation and blackness, but it was also offset with beauty and uproarious celebration in the end. There’s none of that here. In fact, what I hear – and what some other commentators have noticed as well – is the sound of war and battle. The first and last movements have a persistent marching motif (i.e. a musical idea) that keeps returning over and over.

But, look, they say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Here is probably the best visual description that I could give you of the Mahler 6. Below is a clip from the Russian film of War and Peace, made in the late 60s in Russia. (Not to be confused with the American version with Audrey Hepburn made in the 50s.)

The scene is the battle of Schöngrabern and the Russian army is fighting against the French army, led by Napoleon. There are no subtitles in this clip, but that doesn’t matter too much. The Russians march from left to right. The French are either marching straight towards the camera or they go from right to left, so that’s how you tell them apart. But have a watch and then I’ll come back with some comments. (Note, due to restrictions, you’ll have to pop over to YouTube to watch this; it won’t play on my blog.)

BTW, the whole film – which runs for about seven hours – is completely worth watching. But what is striking about this particular clip is the way the sound and the visuals collide. We have the swirling mist at the beginning that suddenly clears to reveal thousands of French soldiers marching down the hill. In a similar way, there is a swirling misty feel at the beginning of the final movement to the Mahler 6, before a similar onslaught begins.

Likewise, there is the striking drumbeat to which the Russians march. It is relentless, driving the forces ever onwards, even though for many soldiers, it will mean certain death. There is the clash of music, the Russian music mixing with the rather chirpy tune of the French as they march. And, as the individual soldiers on the ground move, arcing over the top of them are the cannonballs, landing and causing such savage devastation among the forces.

I have always found that this sort of imagery comes to my head when I hear the Mahler 6.  Obviously, Mahler was dead long before this Russian film came out, so there is no indication that this was what he was thinking of, but it certainly provides a good analogy to the kinds of sound you will hear. (And, speculating wildly here, maybe Sergei Bondarchuk, the director of War and Peace, was influenced in his visual style by listening to the Mahler 6?)

However, one final inspiration which I can’t help but think also featured in this symphony was a song that Mahler composed in 1899. (The Symphony No. 6 itself was composed in 1903-04.) The song was based on another one of the old Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn) poems that Mahler drew on so much in his early symphonies. (You’ll remember that one of those poems appeared as the final movement of Symphony No. 4.)

This particular song is called “Revelge” (Reveille), and tells the tale of a regiment of soldiers marching to their death. They all die, but then the drummer-boy leads them in one last ghostly march. It too has a relentless marching element to it. This rendition is pretty bad video quality, but it has subtitles, and it’s sung by the always-awesome Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, so it’s worth watching:

I think you’ll hear clearly elements of this song all through the movements of this symphony.

Speaking of movements, no introduction to the Mahler  6 would be complete without a bit of a spiel on which order the movements are in. (There’s a fierce debate that rages about this one.)  But this will take a bit of time to explain, so I’ll leave that to the next blog post.

Let me say to finish this one that the recording we’ll listen to is the always brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra, being conducted by the legendary Georg Solti. Solti’s box set of Mahler symphonies (everything except Das Lied and the Mahler 10) was the first box of Mahler symphonies I ever owned and listened to. Solti is not my favourite for a lot of them, but he opened my ears to the symphonies and if there’s one thing that Solti likes to do in a recording, it’s have an aggressive, sharp sound. It sometimes lacks subtlety, but for something like the Mahler 6, which has an awful lot of sharpness and aggression, it works really well. So that’s the one we’ll listen to over the next few weeks.


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