“It is music that is full of human frailties,” Copland observes, “... so ‘Mahler-like’ in every detail. His symphonies are suffused with personality – he has his own way of doing and saying everything. The irascible scherzos, the heaven-storming calls in the brass, the special quality of his communings with nature, the gentle melancholy of a transitional passage, the gargantuan Ländler, the pages of an incredible loneliness... Two facets of his musicianship were years in advance of their time. One is the curiously contrapuntal fabric of the musical texture; the other more obvious, his strikingly original instrumentation.”

This second episode of our review of Gustav Mahler's complete symphonies is dedicated to the Sixth, written between 1903 and 1904, and described by his wife Alma in the following terms:

“After [Gustav] had drafted the first movement, he came to tell me that he had tried to express me in one of the themes.  ‘I don't know if I've succeeded, but you'll have to put up with it’. This is the grandiose second theme of the first movement. In the third movement [the scherzo], he evoked the arhythmic games of the two youngest children as they tottered in zigzags across the sand. The children's voices became increasingly tragic and ultimately faded into a whimper. In the last movement, he described himself and his downfall or, as he said later, that of his hero. ‘It's the hero, who receives three blows from destiny, and the last fells him as a tree is felled’: those were his words. None of his works rose so directly from his heart as this. We both cried that day. The music and what it forecast moved us deeply...”

Though written during a period of happiness and professional success, this is Mahler's most sombre, belligerent, anguishing, searing work (along with his Kindertotenlieder). The result is a score which is colossal in structure but also premonitory for just a year after the premiere he lost his four-year-old daughter Marie. Mahler was cruelly punished by fate: after his daughter's premature passing, his mother-in-law died during the child's funeral, he lost his post at the Vienna Staatsoper and developed the heart condition that was to end his life. His music is tinted with the deep hues of tragedy. Mahler was undoubtedly doomed and tries to explain this throughout his works.

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  • Approximate running time 2h

Artistic profile



April 2023

Turn T


Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 6