Note: This is part six of a continuing review of the greatest symphonies in western classical music.
When it comes to Great Sixth symphonies I must depart from my usual course of noting five worthy symphonic compositions and crowning one as the best of all. The quality of the Sixths blogged about here is such that the field of competition is considerably tighter and smaller. There are only three Great Sixths worthy of consideration. Placing any others in the companionship with these great works of art would be a slight to those selected.
The Sixths of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler far surpass any other consideration for this numerical category. Moreover, any one of these Great Sixths could be considered the best of all. It is literally a three-way tie in my mind.
So, let’s take them in chronological order with Beethoven being the oldest, composed in 1808. This was one of Beethoven’s few “program” symphonies, following a specific theme and was subtitled “Recollection of Country Life” at its premiere. That is a good summary of how this symphony feels. Eventually, the secondary title "Pastoral" became the primary reference for this composition.
The first movement is upbeat and cheerful, it even skips along for a bit. The listener can easily envision the undertaking of a journey out into a sunny, comfortable day. There are elements of excitement, contentment, freedom, and openness set in a natural landscape through the course of the movement. The opening is my favorite part of the symphony. This gives way to a more stately, contemplative second movement. In the program notes this movement was given the title “By the Brook.” The movement meanders along easily. Beethoven’s orchestration is, as always, incredibly rich and balanced between strings, winds, and horns, at times making use of solo instruments to mimic bird calls.
This is a truly classically constructed symphony, so the third movement is a scherzo. Here Beethoven works in the human element of country life. Not the working, agricultural aspects, however. That would not fit with the theme and tone of the work. Instead we have an examination of folk dancing and celebration. It is a fun movement to listen to and has a tendency to leave me humming the basic theme. A wonderful listening experience.
The fourth movement shifts gears quite a bit. This is Beethoven’s famous depiction of a thunderstorm. The storm comes upon the listener suddenly, proceeds into higher levels of violence before dissipating into far away cracks of thunder and, perhaps, a rainbow at the end of this comparatively short musical moment which extends without pause into the strong finale. The main theme is expressed again with nice variations threading the sections into a unified whole.
Beethoven’s Great Sixth is musically sophisticated yet not in any way complex. It is a relaxed, direct experience, simple to the extent that the country life it attempts to reflect is a simple way of life. This is in sharp contrast to the other two Great Sixths, however.
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth is his greatest symphonic accomplishment. Dubbed as the "Pathetique” symphony, for me it is not so pitiable and morose as the title might have you believe. In Russian, the truer meaning is “passionate”. Certainly, the symphony has rather somber, bleak moments, which I find beautiful in their own way. But, more often I find it is intense throughout. It is widely thought that this symphony contains the frustrated musical musings of Tchaikovsky’s unconsummated love for his nephew Vladimir Davydov. Like any stillborn affair of genuine passion, this one deeply troubled the composer. His pain and melancholy is reflected in this Great symphony.
This melancholia is reflected immediately in the opening movement by a deep solo bassoon, slow and brooding, supported by bass strings. But, there are soon touches of lightness that gives way about five minutes in to a beautiful, enraptured theme, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest musical moments. Being slightly over 20 minutes in length, this is one of the composer’s longest symphonic movements and he displays his deftness with a variety of explorations from soft to surprisingly abrupt to powerful to sublime. A very satisfying movement and the best part of the symphony.
The second movement begins with a delicate, waltz-like quality, contrastingly carefree when compared with the opening. Strings dominate the sweeping composition with steady percussion driving the movement forward, the early lightness becoming a bit heavier, though richer and with only the slightest hint of gloomy undercurrents. All-in-all this passage is very relaxing, which contrasts with the third movement. This one is purposeful, mostly a march, masterfully building to a victorious climax.
The fourth movement is a terrific finale to this great work. It begins with full orchestration, slowly expressing a theme tinged with what I find to be a sweet sadness. The solo bassoon returns again further in the movement, not to restate the original theme, but to transform it into a kind of substantial acceptance, perhaps even resignation though without becoming overly weighty. Like the entire symphony, this a very melodic movement with several rich and loud full orchestral build ups. That is, until we reach the final three minutes. Then the symphony suddenly transforms into a very introverted and reflective composition using various sections to gradually wind the momentum down to a crawl before the bass strings slowly fade into silence at the end.
Mahler’s Great Sixth, while complex, serious and ultimately “Tragic”, is not as introspective as Tchaikovsky’s. It is more metaphysical and symbolic, yet its intimate moments are just as passionate. It begins with a heavy, march-like rhythm that ultimately defines another of Mahler’s heroic struggles. The individual is pitted against the burden or the challenge, however you might wish to perceive it.
Mahler’s symphonies, as a rule, are rife with controversies but none more so than his Sixth. Mahler, a constant tinkerer and revisionist of his own work, was particularly unsettled about this symphony. For one thing he could not definitively decide whether his Scherzo movement should be performed second, before the Andante movement, or after it. In its earliest performances what is today the second and third movements were reversed. Though the Andante is commonly performed as the third movement these days, it is unclear as to whether this was the composer’s ultimate intent. He waffled on the matter.
Moreover, in the magnificent finale, Mahler originally placed three great “hammer blows” in the composition. The hero overcomes all obstacles being struck by a violent blow only to rise again, to overcome, and then be struck again. The hero finally succumbs to the third blow, the great “tragedy” at the end of the symphony.
But wait, Mahler later changed his mind. He thought the third blow was too much and was unnecessary. So he reworked the last part of the movement to reflect only two hammer blows. In fact, the official score is written this way, there is no “official” third hammer blow. But, many conductors believe Mahler’s original intent is a better reflection of what he meant for his symphony. Personally, I prefer the third and final blow. It makes more sense to me.
Beyond this, Mahler never specified what instrument the hammer blow was actually supposed to be performed with. He had a special drum made for the premiere of the symphony but he was dissatisfied with it. Benjamin Zander, whose interpretation of this symphony I like best, uses a large lead pipe and a wooden packing crate. It gives quite a startling effect when you hear his recording of this great work.
Controversies aside, Mahler’s Sixth is a 80 minute masterpiece composed in 1903-1904. The first movement sets the tone for the great struggle that unfolds with a driving force that is accented wonderfully by a beautiful, lyrical passage which Mahler touchingly wrote for new wife Alma. The second movement (or the third if things are reversed) rides right on the heels of the first. It is forceful, striving, before allowing itself to be transformed into several slower more melodic passages.
The Andante is probably my personal favorite of anything Mahler ever composed. It is touching, slow yet intense, lovingly nurturing without being overly sentimental. It builds nicely into a strong, sweet string section supported by equally powerful horns. It makes a wonderful use of cowbells to signify its grounded quality while nevertheless attempting to soar. Its major theme is stated twice, the second time far more intense and commanding, with a host of layers, than the first. It is the best example of how Mahler can be so acutely romantic yet never become self-indulgent or sappy.
The final movement with its hammer blows is a wonder. Here there is repeated struggle, twice triumphant, yet, whether the final hammer blow is performed or not, Mahler chose to conclude the symphony in resignation. It is these final 3-4 minutes of the symphony that gives it a truly tragic quality. Had he chosen to be slightly more elevated at the end the symphony would have ended on a heroic high like his Great First. But, instead, Mahler chose to rival Tchaikovsky’s resignation. The symphony fades, suggesting the hero is overwhelmed.
As I mentioned before, any of these three symphonies could be labeled the best of breed for Great Sixths. Though the Tchaikovsky and Mahler compositions are ultimately disheartening that does not lessen their achievement as symphonies worthy of repeated exposures. There is much to appreciate and even inspire in each of them. The Beethoven work is far more positive. It is much simpler in what it accomplishes and is an easy, superb classical experience because of it.