Screenshot 2015-11-01 at 4.32.51 PMSo if there was a bit of a nerdy debate that goes on in Mahler circles about which version of the 10th Symphony to use (assuming you even perform it), this is nothing compared to the amount of writing and scholarship that has been done about this question: what are the order of the movements in the Mahler 6?

By way of background, most classical symphonies of the 19th century had a standard set of four movements. Movement I was a fast opening movement. Movement IV was a slow closing movement. Of the two inner movements, they would generally consist of a slow movement (to contrast with the faster movements) and a scherzo (which we discussed earlier in the blog).

The standard order of movements was usually:

  1. Fast Movement
  2. Slow Movement
  3. Scherzo
  4. Fast Movement

And less often, but also not uncommon:

  1. Fast Movement
  2. Scherzo
  3. Slow Movement
  4. Fast Movement

So, for instance, if you look at the nine Beethoven symphonies (the most famous of all 19th century symphonies), Symphonies 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 all have the slow movement in second place. The 9th Symphony (the famous “Ode to Joy” Choral Symphony) is the first one to have the scherzo in second place and then the slow movement. (Which works amazingly well, BTW.)

Now, you’ve probably already noticed with the Mahler Symphonies that we’ve heard so far, Mahler often plays fast and loose with his audience expectations about his movements and actually rarely follows either pattern. The 5th had an extra funeral march movement at the beginning. The 7th had the two night music movements instead of one slow movement. The 9th and 10th symphonies had slow movements at either end and the faster stuff in the middle.

But the 6th is a bit different, because while it is intensely “modern” in some ways, it is also the most “classical” in many ways as well. More than any of his other symphonies, Mahler very closely followed the patterns of his earlier predecessors. It was as if, standing at the opening years of the 20th century, he wanted to give his own twist on that great epic musical icon of the 19th century, the symphony.

So the Mahler 6 has four movements, first and fourth are loud and fast(ish), and in the middle is a slow movement and a scherzo. The vexed question is, though: is it the slow movement in second place and then the scherzo? Or scherzo first then slow movement?

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Surely, it says all this in the sheet music? Why can’t they just play it in the order written there?” This is a long and highly convoluted issue, but as I understand it, Mahler himself wasn’t sure which order he wanted the movements to be be in. He originally wrote the symphony to have the scherzo first, then the slow movement and this was the way it was first published.

However, he revised his thinking later, and we can see in his autograph (the original manuscript he wrote) that he had crossed out the III on the slow movement and written II and vice versa with the scherzo. And when he first performed it, he did the slow movement first and got a correction note put out with the sheet music.

But this was not enough to end all the confusion. After Mahler died, a conductor called Mengelberg wanted to perform the piece in 1919, wasn’t sure which order to use and telegraphed Mahler’s wife, Alma, to ask her. Alma replied that it was scherzo first, then slow movement. And the final nail in the coffin came in 1963 when the “critical edition” of the score was published (meant to be the definitive version for performing) and it had the scherzo in second place. This was all based on the work of one scholar who insisted that Mahler had changed his mind later in life and wanted the scherzo back in second place.

But he didn’t produce much evidence for this, so decades later, most scholars have now decided that it should be slow movement first and then scherzo. I’ve heard the piece live twice in the last 10 years, and both times it has been slow movement first. But if you started listening to older recordings from several decades ago (like the Solti recording we’re using), then you will be used to the scherzo first, then the slow movement.

So, you’re possibly asking – which order am I going to use?

Well, I’ll be up front here – while I’m all in favour of musical scholarship to help us understand what a composer’s original intentions are, and I appreciate all the work that these people do in understanding these things – at the same time, I’m also a music listener. And when it comes to listening, I’m not interested in listening as a dry academic exercise in hearing what a particular piece of music sounded like years ago – I’m actually interested in its effect on me, today, right now, while I’m listening.

And, for me, I’ve never really liked the slow movement first idea, even though I know it’s technically the “correct” way to hear it. It’s possible that I’ve just heard it too many times the other way around, and the correct version sounds too strange to me. But, for me, it’s about the pace of the overall symphony.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the first and last movements are intense and warlike. The scherzo, also, while not as full-on as the outer two movements, is also reasonably intense. By contrast, the slow movement is beautiful and heartbreaking. It’s one of those great slow movements that makes time stand still.

Also, in terms of running time, the first movement is around 20 minutes, the scherzo is about 13 minutes, the slow movement is 15 minutes and the last movement is close to 30 minutes.

So, if you do the scherzo last, that and the last movement add up to a fairly brutal stretch of around 40 minutes of intense music. Maybe it’s meant to be this intense, but I love the “calm before the storm” aspect of having the slow movement just before the final movement.

(There is also another argument that musicologists like to make about what key the music is in, which also has some bearing on the order, but this has never been as compelling to me as the overall listening experience.)

The upshot of all this is that I’ll be working through the Solti recording in its order, which is scherzo first, despite the fact that I’m technically introducing you to an incorrect version of the piece. If this totally grates, by all means, you can wait till the notes are up on both movements and then listen to it in whatever order you like. I promise not to be offended …

How can I go so blatantly against Mahler’s intentions? I don’t know – it just seems to me that once a piece of art is out there, while there is certainly copyright law, etc. to be observed, this doesn’t mean that the original artist owns the one and only take on a subject. You might like The Beatles’ version of “With A Little Help From My Friends” but Joe Cocker does a pretty mean rendition as well – possibly better. Mahler might have wanted his 10th Symphony burned, but who would not want to have that piece in circulation today?

So see what you think. Maybe try both orders? See you soon for the first movement.

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4 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: In Defence of the Wrong Order

  1. I’m willing to proceed along either path. I’ve been listening to M6 for a week now and I have one burning question:

    Is it my imagination, or does anyone else hear something like the Darth Vader theme in the opening minute of Movement I? I’ve been listening around 5:30am while I’m walking the dog. So maybe it’s just the wind in my jacket combined with the stars and dark sky, but I feel like Darth Vader has joined my walk.

    Looking forward to your commentary!

    1. I had never actually thought of the opening as Darth Vader but I could easily understand the connection, because they are both marches.

      Mahler uses the idea of a march to represent the relentless onslaught of fate. Meanwhile, John Williams (who is a very clever composer as well and also one who has no hesitations drawing on the great music of the past) chose to use a march to represent the Empire’s systematic and relentless drive to take over the galaxy. So they’re very similar musical motifs.

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