LSM Newswire

Friday, May 22, 2009

Mahler's Monumental Sixth Symphony

In the final Masterworks Gold concert of the Symphony Season, Maestro Bramwell Tovey leads the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Schuberts beautiful Ballet Music from Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus and Mahlers monumental masterpiece Symphony No. 6. Concerts take place on Saturday, June 6th and Monday, June 8th at 8pm at the Orpheum Theatre.

Franz Schubert composed the incidental music for Rosamunde, Princess of Cypress, a play by the eccentric German playwright Helmina von Chzy, in 1823. The score includes an overture, entractes, ballet music, choruses, and a romance for soprano. The play was so bad that it was pulled from production after two performances, and only the vocal numbers were published during Schuberts lifetime. The orchestral selections dropped from sight until 1867, when English musicians Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir George Grove made a pilgrimage to Vienna, specifically in search of forgotten nuggets of Schubertiana. We have them to thank for this enchanting musics survival and its entry into the repertoire.

Gustav Mahler began his Sixth Symphony during the summer of 1903, completing it a year later. This was one of the most idyllic periods of his life: his fame as a conductor reached its apex; regular and well-received performances of his music were taking place across Europe; and the companionship of his wife Alma and their two daughters was giving him great joy. Yet the music he was writing represents an enormous gulf between reality and his creative world. Symphony No. 6 is a sombre, even tragic work. It turned out to be a disturbingly prophetic one, as well.

Regarding the Symphony, Alma Mahler wrote in her memoirs, In the last movement he describes himself and his downfall; or, as he later said: It is the hero, on whom falls three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled. On him too fell three blows of fate, and the last felled him. This refers to the events of 1907: the death of their older daughter Maria of diphtheria and smallpox, aged four-and-a-half; Mahlers being driven from his job as Music Director of the Vienna State Opera; and the diagnosis of his life-threatening case of heart disease. To represent these blows of fate, Mahler included a hammer in the orchestration of the Sixth Symphonys finale. The sound he wanted from it wasnt clangourous and steely, but a non-metallic thud, like an axe stroke.

But at the time he was serene; he was conscious of the greatness of his work, Alma continued. None of his works came as directly from his innermost heart as this one. The music and what it foretold touched us so deeply. The first performance took place on May 27, 1906, in Essen, under the composers direction. According to Alma, Out of shame and anxiety he did not conduct the symphony well. He hesitated to bring out the dark omen behind this terrible last movement.

Mahler later made changes to the symphonys orchestration, the most important of them the deletion of the last of the three hammer blows. He superstitiously feared it might hasten the arrival of the disaster that it predicted for him. He also harbored some uncertainty about the sequence of the inner movements. On every occasion that he conducted it, the sequence was Andante first, followed by the Scherzo. The symphony was published with that order reversed, but Mahler didnt authorize this. The critical edition of his complete works that is sanctioned by the International Gustav Mahler Society uses the Andante/Scherzo sequence.

Mahler gave the Sixth Symphony the subtitle Tragic. In overall terms it is an appropriate designation. Yet it is only in the Finale that the works catastrophic nature becomes clear. The opening movement contrasts a menacing, march-like subject with a passionate second melody. Alma recalled, After he had drafted the first movement, he came down from the forest to tell me he had tried to express me a theme. Whether Ive succeeded I dont know; but youll have to put up with it. This is the great, soaring theme of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony. In the middle comes a peaceful interlude, atmospherically coloured with the sound of cowbells (Mahler may have included them as a recollection of his happy youth in central Europe. They will be heard again in the Andante and Finale). The Alma theme crowns the movement triumphantly.

The slow movement is a serene, gorgeously melodious lullaby. The climax, in contrast, is a searing outpouring of emotion. In the Scherzo, he represented the un-rhythmic games of the two children, tottering in zigzags over the sand, Alma wrote. Ominously the childish voices become more and more tragic, and at the end die out in a whimper. This is one of the bitterest and most bizarrely scored scherzos in any Mahler symphony.

The colossal, overwhelming Finale opens with an eerie, unsettling introduction in slow tempo. The movement proper is restless and striving. It consists of a series of waves of vigorous activity, each of which is crowned catastrophically by one of the hammer blows of fate. There is no recovery from the third and final climax. The music, its tragic destiny fulfilled, subsides into utter darkness.


Masterworks Gold Series:

Classical Blockbuster: Mahlers Titanic

Saturday & Monday, June 6 & 8, 8pm, Orpheum Theatre

Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Tickets $25 to $78.50 (Student, Senior and Subscriber discounts available)

Tickets available by phone at 604.876.3434 or online at

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