Another scene from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. It’s this kind of carnage that I hear in my head when I listen to the epic finale of the Mahler 6.

Where We’ve Been: Movement I – Crushing militaristic movement that ended in victory. Scherzo – A cross between the military sound and a plaintive toddling music. The slow movement – a moving and melancholy piece of orchestral beauty.

And now we come to the fourth movement. I’ll be up front – I always find this movement somewhat of a struggle to listen to all the way through. (In fact, it took me a long time to warm to the Sixth Symphony in general.) I think it’s a combination of the length (half an hour!) and the grinding nature of the music – it puts us well back into the military sound world of the opening movement.

But if you can get through it,  it’s an astonishing piece of music. Listening to this movement is like watching a devastating war film. It’s violent, tragic and everything ends badly. If you’re in the mood for it, it’s one of the most spectacular things that Mahler ever wrote.

So you’ve got a feel for where it is going, it’s roughly in sonata form, so there is an exposition section, a development section and a recapitulation section. However, these sections are quite long, so you could be forgiven for getting lost in the middle of everything. Each section opens with a mysterious swirling intro before the real action kicks in.

You’ll also hear the return of the major/minor seal idea which we first heard in the opening movement of the symphony  (this is the chord that starts out in major and then slides into minor, reinforcing the idea of an inescapable fate).

Finally, the most noticeable and spectacular part of this movement is without doubt, the hammer. Mahler originally wrote in the movement three moments where a massive hammer blow rings out. He wanted it to be huge and cracking, but not resonating and metallic like a drum. So to achieve this effect, most performances use something like a large wooden box and a giant sledgehammer to get the effect. Something like this guy:

However, after the premiere, which featured these three hammer blows, Mahler apparently got a bit superstitious and decided to cut it down from three hammer blows of fate to two. (Though as always with these stories, the truth is probably more complex.) But Solti here – always keen to make a big noise – has all three. I’ll point them out as we go along.

Let’s get into it!

Exposition – Intro
(0:00) The opening is like a cloud of dust with a dark sunlight somewhere behind it. Listen out for the decaying major/minor chord, and the military drumbeat (0:24). This part is slower and mostly quiet, but it introduces some of the ideas that are to become important in the main part of the movement, like the three-note repeated pattern on the tuba (0:44). Cowbells at (1:33).

(1:55) The French horn plays a quiet version of the main theme, which gets interrupted by a spooky tremolo (that shimmering sound on the violins, which came to be a favourite for scary movies in the 30s and 40s). Essentially, you’re listening to a chamber ensemble version of the hell that is about to be unleashed in the exposition. At (2:44), the low woodwinds play a chorale (a song-like section that sounds like it’s written for a choir) that is also going to be important later on. It’s blown to hell by the decaying chord and the drumbeat (3:30). Another build-up and then the chord again.

Exposition – Main Section
(4:44) A scurrying repeated pattern kicks off the exposition. (And a repeated pattern like that is called an ostinato, without which we’d have no Dark Knight soundtracks, which are almost completely ostinato from beginning to end.)  I love this opening. It’s so dramatic, as little three-note motifs from all over the orchestra converge in a massive march. I can’t help but think of a platoon being mobilised, especially once the military drumbeat arrives.

I love the epic horn theme (5:55) that soars over everything here. The theme starts to become more triumphant, as if Mahler’s army is winning whatever battle they are in. (7:00) But then everything collapses in decay.

(7:18) Over fluttering flutes, the chorale theme enters, now in a quiet version, which leads to a big sweeping romantic theme. (This is a very similar exposition to the first movement, you might have noticed – militaristic sound, leading to a big sweeping second theme.) Big build up, which suddenly collapses …

(8:23) … back to the twilight world of the opening. Tuba, cowbells, quiet hints of the main themes. The march tries to start but doesn’t take off.
(10:29) A wonderful, glittering version of the hopeful theme, with luscious runs on the harp and every other bit of Romantic-era glory you can think of. A build-up to a grand finale again, the same way the exposition ended. This time, it sounds more hopeful that the music might make its breakthrough and reach a glorious ending. But …
(11:55) ENORMOUS hammer blow shatters the theme to pieces and we’re straight back into the battle. Clearly the war is not over yet.
(12:34) One more try to be hopeful.
(13:20) The troops starts to gallop once more.

(13:37) Now we’re well and truly back in the thick of things. You’ll hear the sound of the rute (a bunch of sticks used by the percussion that causes that distinctive clicking sound).
(15:20) Chorale-like moment of beauty, before the climb begins up the hill towards glory. But again …
(16:01) SECOND ENORMOUS HAMMER BLOW! It’s like a shock-wave to the orchestra, because the music goes spiraling back into battle action again, but this time with an even grimmer edge to it. You start to feel that our heroes might not win this war.

Recapitulation – Introduction
(16:50) Introductory swirling music again. Decaying chord, drumbeat, tuba, cowbells. You know the drill by now. Continues on for several minutes in a chamber music fashion – only a small group of instruments.
(19:57) Build-up to a beautiful, loud brass version of the chorale.
(20:16) Climbing, struggling music, which leads to …

Recapitulation – Main Section
(21:01) The military battle music again. Absolutely spectacular. Constant tussling from many of the instruments sounding like foot soldiers on the ground, while long, arcing melodies trace back and forth over the top like the arcing of cannon balls over the battlefield. That said, by this stage, we’ve been listening to this for more than 20 minutes, so you may find that you feel more exhausted than exhilarated by this movement. I can’t prove it, but I’ve sometimes wondered whether Mahler wrote the movement this long to provoke a sense of exhaustion in the listener.
(23:17) Heading to the more Romantic part of the theme, but it sounds a bit old and tired after the long battle.
(24:23) Beautiful climb to the summit. It this were a typical Mahler symphony, this would be where good triumphs over evil …

(24:45) … but instead, a huge drumbeat smashes down and we head back to the swirling mists of the introduction. And then, at the (25:08) mark Mahler throws in his third hammer blow.  The nasty thing about it is that it occurs, not at the climax where we switch over to the coda, but a few seconds later where the music has quieted, as if you’ve been hit while you’re already down.

(25:30) Doleful brass calls. Whatever this war was about, our side has lost.
(27:03) To cap it all off, Mahler hits us over the head with the decaying chord and the drumbeat. An absolutely devastating way to close a symphony.

And there you have it – the tragic finale of the Mahler 6, the only really unhappy ending in Mahler’s collection of symphonies. What did you think?

2 thoughts on “The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 6: Movement IV

  1. Admittedly long, but the soaring quality to it made for a great way to spend some time on New Year’s Eve.

    I had just turned up the volume on the speakers so I could lean in to hear the last minute or so. Holy cow, those last few seconds were dramatic!

    Happy New Year!

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