Thursday, March 07, 2013

Mahler's Sixth Symphony: could a student orchestra learn it?

Back in December (see posting Dec. 9, 2012), a high school student musician and percussion player told me that he had enjoyed the opportunity to read and perform the Mahler Sixth (the “Symphony #6 in A Minor” (1906)) at a summer camp at Berkshire in 2012.  It sounds incredible that this entire work could be learned in a summer by youth, but today I got out my own CD, a performance recorded in 1982 by Lorin Maazel and the Vienna Philharmonic (on Sony). 
When I was stationed at Fort Eustis in 1969 while in the Army, one of my “buddies”, having attended Berkeley, recalled a roommate who knew Mahler, and particularly had spoken about the Sixth.  That “buddy’s” called himself Rado Suhl.
And back during that lost freshman semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961, a “music friend” and composer (mentioned here January 8, 2013) had mentioned the work, as the “hammer stroke” symphony.
Yet, until the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein resurrected Mahler (and Carl Nielsen, and then his own works), most people had known Mahler only through Bruno Walter’s recordings for Columbia.  Walter never conducted the Sixth, Seventh or Eighth, considering them in a sense unfinished.  One textbook in the early 60s had called the Sixth one if Mahler’s “weakest works”.  Obviously, Bernstein’s rehabilitation of all the middle Mahler works changed the assessment completely. 
When I started working on my own in 1970, I bought an RCA Victor recording of the 6th with Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony at an RCA company store in Princeton, NJ (where I worked then). 
One of the most interesting innovations in the work is the way Mahler used to “tritone” key relationship, jumping from the A Minor of the Scherzo to E-flat major for the slow movement (which, as am “Andante moderato” is not very slow (as Bruckner would be), though passionate).  You get to this modulation by going to the relative minor twice.  The finale starts in C Minor, which is the relative minor of E-flat.  It can then pass through C Major to A minor, the home key of the symphony.  Not many major symphonies do this, although Edward Elgar does this within a single movement in the first movement of his A-flat Major Symphony #1 (where the main theme is presented in D Minor). 
The concept of two successive “relative minor” transitions (or reversed, relative major), pivoting across an enharmonic or parallel major, could be significant for song writing.  Many “pop stars” write songs in Minor-relative major format, more or less like a symphonic exposition.  The minor portion poses a question, and the major key section becomes a “refrain” that gets repeated, almost as in a church hymn. 
The first movement of the Mahler Sixth follows a strict sonata form, with the march theme in A minor moving into a transition (the “hammerstroke idea)  and then going to the “refrain”, the Alma theme (Alma was Mahler’s beloved wife), this time in F Major (the submediant, instead of the relative major, which would have been C Major). You'd better enjoy the climax of the First Movement, as there is no more joy to follow. 
The CD says that this is the Revised version of the Sixth.  I think that’s the only one performed.
I’ll talk about the Seventh another time (as well as the Fifth, whose famous Adagietto was played a lot the weekend of the Kennedy assassination in 1963).  I do remember hearing the joyous conclusion of the first movement of the Seventh while parking my car to cover a “Be brave and shave” fundraiser event at the Westover Market in Arlington.  I bought a Westminster recording of the work with Hermann Scherchen in the fall of 1962, a mono recording but the first record I ever played on my “new” VM stereo. 

It's interesting to note a comparison of the Mahler 6th to Bruckner's little played Sixth, actually in A Major, called the "Philosophical".  It is rather declamatory. I have a Denon recording with Sawallisch. 

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