Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
About the concert
The vacillation between absolute and programmatic music typical of composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was evident in Gustav Mahler in his first four symphonies, which show off extra-musical aspects to their advantage through the reference to the ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ (‘The Boy’s Magic Horn’) song collection, the use of voices, and titles of works and movements discarded later. The following trilogy of the purely instrumental Symphonies Five to Seven, on the other hand, is free of such ambivalences, and only for the Sixth has an epithet established itself in the history of reception – albeit one that did not come from Mahler. Hardly anyone listening to the work will find the designation “the Tragic” inappropriate. In fact, Mahler composed an uncompromisingly gloomy worldview here, despite idyllic and song-like interludes.
The symphony, premiered in Essen in 1906 under Mahler’s direction, is an example of a phenomenon that can often be found in music history, namely of particularly dark music that composers wrote in actually happy phases of life. By this time, Mahler had established himself as a generally recognised director of the Vienna Court Opera and had also become a family man at a comparatively late age. Thus the content of the work is often interpreted as a visionary outlook of horrors to come. The first movement is dominated by an unrelenting military air, and marching rhythms also punctuate the scherzo. The main theme of the slow movement was regarded by Mahler admirer Arnold Schoenberg as the ideal case for a melody that was both free and “tangible”. Both the brutal hammer blows in the finale, which lasts almost 30 minutes, and the ringing of bells in three movements are considered harbingers of death. Regarding the bells, the composer explained, “The sound of the bells of the grazing herds is the last thing you hear when ascending to the lonely peaks of the Alps.” The concert will be directed by DSO honorary conductor Kent Nagano, with whom the orchestra has already performed Mahler’s Second and Ninth Symphonies and recorded the monumental Eighth Symphony for CD.