The Curious Problem of Mahler’s Sixth

November 2007

Introducing new evidence in an old case can reawaken the judiciary process in legal matters. In musicological circles, a newly written, succinct and coherent presentation of “old” facts can throw performing artists into mini crises. Exactly that is what happened to me after reading Jerry Bruck’s essay “Undoing a ‘Tragic’ Mistake”, recently published by the Kaplan Foundation. I suddenly found myself confronted with the type of musical challenge that “doth murder sleep” — one that has cost me tortured hours. The prospect of facing myself in the mirror, denying the evidence, became a waking nightmare.

The order of the inner movements of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony has been a knotty problem for many decades. Having written the symphony with the Scherzo (S) as the second movement and the Andante (A) as the third, Mahler then switched the order, and never reverted to the original order again. All subsequent performances until 1919 were in the order A/S. Then Willem Mengelberg, on the “authority” of Mahler’s widow Alma, changed to S/A. He was the only one, however. There would have been no ambiguity, except for the 1963 publication by the International Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft of a critical edition by Erwin Ratz. Ratz posited that the order, as originally conceived, should be respected. Consequently, in the past 40 years, the symphony has been performed more often than not S/A, contrary to Mahler’s own practice. Ratz based his entire “historical argument” on Alma’s 1919 telegram to Mengelberg —  “First Scherzo, then Andante”. But, as revealed in his own correspondence, he already doubted Alma’s credibility, as have many others.

British scholarship and musicians were way in front on this issue and got it right from the beginning. Deryck Cooke, Norman Del Mar, Colin and David Matthews and Sir Simon Rattle all took the A/S route.

I first conducted the Sixth in 1975 and have since performed it (in the context of hundreds of performances of Mahler symphonies) probably more that any other symphony. I return to it over and over, because its view of life and death closely reflects my own predisposition. And instead of proposing a more hopeful alternative, it evokes in me a profound visceral wrestle with man’s search for meaning. The prospect that it is all for naught ignites an incendiary 80-minute fire, which consumes and exhausts itself and me —  and lays to rest, at least for the rest of that day, those torments.

Until this summer I have always performed it in the order Scherzo/Andante. If I have had it wrong for 30 years, at least I feel I am in excellent company: Bernstein, Boulez, Haitink, Levine, Solti and Tennstedt to name a few. More than a decade ago, troubled by this question, I spoke with Henry Louis de la Grange, the author of the great three-volume biography of Mahler. At the time he felt that, given the degree of ambiguity, I should continue to follow my instincts.

After reading Jerry Bruck’s essay, I became convinced that there is no longer any historical defence for Rat’s position. This summer, after 30 years of conducting the Sixth in the order S/A, I switched to A/S for a performance at a Mahler/Freud Symposium at the Aspen Institute and Music Festival. Two weeks later I repeated the experience with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival as a part of a multi-year complete Mahler cycle. This experience has provoked a dramatic challenge to the performer in me: what to do when your brain is convinced of one thing, and the “habits of a lifetime” as well as your heart tell you something else.

To change positions on the weight of historical evidence is easier for the historian or musicologist than it is for the performing artist or the avid music lover. The moral imperative for a historian is to view history dispassionately. The musicologist studies music without necessarily directing that study towards performance. The performing artist, however, can be weighed down by emotion, and by the deep subjectivity of his perceptions, however objective he might strive to become. The greatest difficulty is in changing the view and relationship to a work which the artist has loved and admired, and with which he has communed and identified in one form. The challenge is to surrender an older view of the proportions, chemistry and implications for a newer one.

The first moral mandate for a performing artist is, in my opinion, to render a work as closely as possible to the perceived intentions of the composer. Following that premise, even while loving the work in its “wrong form”, I feel obliged to retrain my feelings until I can “feel” the new form. There should be no further question once the composer’s intentions are plain. The history is clear and there are also strong musical arguments for the A/S order. The Sixth is in many ways the most “classical” symphony, with its overall sonata-form structure, first-movement repeat and in the A/S version, the key relationships (first, second and fourth movements in A minor and third in E flat). This last is in sharp distinction to Mahler’s characteristic progressive tonality.

On a purely subjective level, I found the contrast between the first movement and the beginning of the Andante much more satisfying than once again hearing the repeated thumping of the timpani immediately after the first movement. Its reappearance at the beginning of the third movement is far more effective. Yet, to my mind, the emotional climax of the entire symphony, Mahler’s most personal self-revelation, is to be found towards the end of the Andante. In the A/S order I feel it occurs prematurely. The connection from Scherzo to Finale seems weakened.

Even on a more objective level, I still cannot completely accept the argument that there is no musical defence for the order S/A. It is more complicated than simply rendering a definitive judgement on the basis of performance practice alone, especially, as de la Grange suggested to me, Mahler’s own objectivity might have been much clouded at the time. Historical and musical evidence must be considered together. As a patently absurd comparison, little is known of the history surrounding the writing and performance of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Let us say that a letter was found indicating that Mozart had chosen to reverse the order of the middle movements, or an even sillier idea, that the Finale should be placed in the middle. The letter might be authenticated, but its content would fly in the face of everything we know of the period, and hence a performance following these indications would and should be rejected as ridiculous.

For me, by far the strongest musical argument for S/A is not to be found in the Sixth alone but by study of all the symphonies. From the beginning, following the model of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler showed a predilection for placing the slowest movement in penultimate position preceded by a scherzo. On several significant occasions, (No. 3, No. 9 and Das Lied von der Erde) the slowest movement would actually be the last. The deeply emotional slowest movement is always to be found towards the end of the symphony.

Whether grotesque and ironic (Symphony No. 1), meditative or spiritual (Nos. 2 and 4), sentimental and confessional (Nos. 5 and 6) or nocturnal and lyric (No. 7), the slow movements usually open the way to a vast dramatic last movement or in the case of the Fourth, a mystical space. In turn, these last movements chart a course from a human confrontation with the gods and eventual triumph (the First Symphony), and apocalyptic/spiritual finale (the Second), a child’s vision of Paradise (the Fourth) and a joyous life affirmation (No. 5), to a musical romp (No. 7). Symphony No. 9 defies comparison by placing the faster movements between two slower movements, and the Tenth Symphony would seem to follow suit.

In all of these cases the slow penultimate movement is directly preceded by the movement in 3/4 or 3/8. These movements, combinations of Ländler, scherzi and songs, usually have strong satiric or ironic content, and precede those powerful slow movements. Dad Lied von der Erde alone has two examples of S/A (first to second movement and fifth — although in 4/4 — to sixth).

This would all point to an obvious conclusion. The order Scherzo/Andante is not the exception to Mahler’s practice. It is the rule! There is not a single other example of interior movements in the order A/S. One could argue that the second movement of Symphony No. 2 is slow followed by a scherzo but, I would argue back, it is not the slowest movement and it falls in the category of the 3/8 Ländler. This symphony simply has two inner movements in three and they both precede the slow movement. And even the Third Symphony, with its six movements, parallels the Second with a 3/4 movement in second place, followed by another scherzo in 2/4, both preceding a slow nocturnal movement, and then again a luminous angelic allegro (not a scherzo but at least light and joyous in character), that precedes the final Adagio.

None of this proves that Mahler was wrong to want to change the order of the inner movements of the Sixth. By definition, he cannot be wrong: the composer’s wish is our command. But for me, it boils down to this — should the order be S/A because it is a fundamental Mahlerian characteristic, or A/S, precisely because it is the exception and that its unique status makes it special?

The formal debate argues A/S. The emotional and dramatic debate is simply put: do you prefer or not to have the Andante (with its meditative beauty passing to personal confession and ending with anguished outcry) precede the Scherzo (which is, in turn, acerbic, ironic, charming and humorous, then crepuscular)? Do you want the soul-searching first and the op-ed page second, or vice versa?

The paradox to all of this is, though it matters terribly what Mahler wanted, that the cataclysmic effect of the Finale obliterates all that preceded it. When the last crash comes, nothing, including the order, seems to matter at all.


Photo: Chester Higgins

“James Conlon’s career is the story of brilliant promise fulfilled brilliantly.  Few artists have consolidated early success with the sustained and enduring excellence Conlon has achieved…When Conlon is leading a performance, music and drama never seem to be at odds….All of it is marked with a joyous sense of urgency that bespeaks the prodigy he once was – and a richly satisfying command that reflects the master he has become.”

Opera News
Awards Issue, November 2005