Mahler’s Symphony No. 6
Notes by TŌN harpist Cheng Wei (Ashley) Lim
Main Character Energy
As a “Gen Z-er” the best description of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony that comes to my mind is “main character energy,” but crippled with intense feelings of trepidation. Whether you’re a Boomer, Gen X, or Millennial, everyone can relate to the shared tragic fate of life; undeserved suffering, primal doubt, and eventual death. Despite such harsh realities, all of us still persevere in search for quixotic meaning and fulfillment. This is exactly what Mahler puts his courageous protagonist through, accompanied by his own Mephistopheles, in his most psychologically oriented and pessimistic symphony.
Ironically written during a family vacation in the Austrian alps, and a relatively happy period of his life, Mahler places the spotlight on his subconscious tormentor. The symphony begins with a grim march that shortly reveals the ever-so-present theme led by the strings. The rhythms Bum . . . Bum . . . Babum bum bum played by the timpani underscores the pass of harmonies from major to minor, preparing us for the next section, a complete swing in mood: a more fervent melody that his wife, Alma, said was intended to represent her. Major to minor, light to dark, hope to tragedy, as the two themes develop and circle around each other—it reminds us of a basic principle in life, that we require balance and equilibrium and should not be blinded by just one.
Now comes the middle sections where conductors have to exercise their judgment to decide the order of the middle movements. Should the Andante or Scherzo come first? Mahler couldn’t make up his mind as well, having revised and experimented with the order of two inner movements multiple times. In these performances, we proceed with the dreamy Andante moderato, a balm, free of the turmoil of the rest of the work. One might liken this movement to gentle and safe nostalgic memories of childhood and the countryside. With the harp ever-so present, lulling you to sleep, and distant sounds of cowbells reminiscent of pastoral, idyllic farms. Although there are occasional impassioned moments, its overall serene mood still prevails.
The timpani introduces the scherzo, revealing a macabre, unsettling, and diabolical atmosphere, much like the first movement. Again, the darkness is relieved, this time with a trio section. Here, imagine two young children playing in the sand. Still not fully developed, their movements are a little clumsy and irregular. And while playing, a dark omen looms over them. The two different sections circle and juxtapose each other abruptly throughout the movement, forming a chilling caricature. Mahler describes the end of the Scherzo: “Horrible—those children’s voices become more and more tragic, and at the end there is one fading little voice, whimpering.”
Now the movement we’ve all been waiting for, the finale. A summary of the preceding three movement’s musical and psychological ideas. Although opened with scintillating glissandos from the harp, something still feels a little alien. Terror swiftly envelops. Our protagonist goes forth to conquer but is faced with demonic violence. Both dread and hope are presented again but on a far greater scale with noticeably greater intensity. The outcome of the protagonist’s struggle remains uncertain until the symphony’s final moments. Headstrong and unyielding, he ventures further, but in the height of his confidence, a literal hammer-blow strikes him down. Frenzy ensues, only to be halted again by a second hammer-blow, sealing the fate of our protagonist.