I can never hear anything other than a relentless military march in the opening of the Mahler 6. (Painting by Alexander Pock (Nutzungsrechte: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum Wien), via Wikimedia Commons)

So to listen to the first movement, a couple of things you might want to review because I’ll be referring to them throughout this post:

The latter are particularly important, because right near the beginning, Mahler introduces a motif (a musical idea) that consists of a chord (a group of notes) that starts in major. Then one of the notes slides down and converts the group into a minor chord. This particular motif is known around the traps as the Major/Minor Seal of the 6th Symphony. It all happens in a couple of seconds, but the slide makes the difference between a feeling of determination (the major chord) and a bad feeling that everything is going to go wrong (the minor chord).

And that is essentially the drama of the symphony right there, in a nutshell. The whole thing plays around with the idea of heroism (which is why I think the military sound is so prominent – warriors and soldiers continue to be held up as a symbol of heroism, even to this day) and the idea of an Inescapable Doom. While in real life, much tragedy is unexpected and shocking, if you think of the great tragedies of the past – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance – what makes them particularly poignant is that we can see the bad ending coming from a mile away. It is, in fact, the build-up that makes the sad ending work so well. And that’s what is happening here.

But let’s get started …

Exposition: Theme 1
(0:00) Marching theme, very military in sound. This symphony uses the largest orchestra of any of the Mahler symphonies, and you can hear it (especially in the Solti recording). The strings provide the tramping of feet, the woodwinds feel like pipers out the front leading the charge and the brass simply crush everything in their path. Listen especially for the Major/Minor Seal that I mentioned earlier (1:52).

(1:56) The march goes away but not the rhythm for this next bit, which is an awesome moment for the woodwinds and pizzicato (plucked) strings. This serves as a sort of transition into:

Exposition: Theme 2
(2:28) This theme is much more sweeping and romantic. Some people have called it a love theme for Mahler’s wife, Alma. I’m not 100% sure about that, but it’s definitely a bit Gone With The Wind. So Love Theme will do to give it a name. It’s a marked contrast to the first theme. It builds up to its own little joyous climax, but notice that elements of the first theme (especially the military beat) are never too far away.

Exposition: Theme 1 Repeat
(4:20) Back to the march again. It wasn’t uncommon in older symphonies to repeat the Exposition exactly note for note the way it was played the first time. Most of the time, Mahler never repeats anything without varying it. But in this symphony, he calls for an exact repeat of the Exposition as we’ve heard it. It thus clearly establishes this symphony as being very “classical” in form. The only other symphony that calls for a straight repeat of anything is his first symphony. It also increases the sense of inevitability.

(6:02) The Major/Minor seal.

(6:09) Pizzicato strings and woodwinds again.

Exposition: Theme 2 Repeat
(6:43) The Love Theme again, with its rapturous strings and big climax.

(8:35) The Development begins with the dum, dum, da-dum-dum-dum beat that’s so familiar to us now. Everything is quiet, but the mood is still sinister.
(9:12) AWESOME loud version of the March Theme on the brass. (This is why I picked Solti and the astonishingly precise brass of the Chicago Symphony  Orchestra!) There are mocking xylophones in reply, followed by a plaintive song from the strings above it all (9:38). The strings are playing in the style of Theme 2, while the rest of the orchestra is marching along in the style of Theme 1, which is just one more reason this development is so great.
(10:13) This is very clever. We still sound like we’re in the march, but the low strings are playing snippets of the Love Theme. Everything comes to a nasty head, and then fades out into …
(10:44) … another one of Mahler’s great mystical quiet moments (with the ever-present sound of the cowbells, which he always liked to break out in his most mystical sections). These moments are so well done, that they’re just luxurious to listen to. If you notice, the woodwinds soon begin to play a very beautiful, delicate version of the March. So if the opening of the development was the Love Theme being transformed into the March, this section is the March being transformed into the sound world of Love. It all builds into a beautiful song without words on the flutes (13:02), which is a close relative of the transition theme.
(13:34) Then we’re suddenly thrust back into the world of the marching, but slightly more intense and spiky, and re-orchestrated yet again and this all builds up …

Recapitulation – Theme 1

(14:37) … to a huge brass moment as the proper recapitulation begins.

(16:02) The Major/Minor Seal, followed by a varied version of the woodwind interlude, now with a slightly twitchy gait to it.

Recapitulation – Theme 2
(16:32) The Love Theme sneaks in a little bit quietly, but then slowly builds. It’s not quite as majestic as the last time we heard it.

(17:52) The March theme builds up slowly and then takes off. It’s like a recap of every marching idea we’ve ever heard and is so long that it almost counts as another repeat of Theme 1.
(19:57) A triumphant brass version of the Love Theme breaks through and leads into a rather upbeat ending. It seems like the dark side has lost this time. But for how long?

3 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: Movement I

  1. This will be the one where I start regretting using the iPhone headphones to listen: it seems like it’s missing much of the detail, especially when it’s quiet.

    That marching is really ominous. At the risk of reducing everything to star wars, there’s a little bit in there from which John Williams must have borrowed.

    And the ending seems drawn out. Land the plane!

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