David Matthews composer

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The order of the middle movements in Mahler's Sixth Symphony

January 2016

A recent biography of Alma Mahler by Oliver Hilmes (Malevolent Muse, Northeastern, 2015) suggests that Alma's wish for dominance over her husbands and lovers extended to interfering with Mahler's compositions. For example, when Willem Mengelberg in 1919 asked Alma about the correct order of the middle movements of the Sixth Symphony, Alma telegrammed back 'First Scherzo, then Andante'. She knew the history of the work: that Mahler composed it with the Scherzo second and the Andante third and that it had been published before the premiere with the middle movements in that order, but that at the rehearsals Mahler had decided to change the movements round, and at two subsequent performances during the next seven months he kept to this revised order. He did not conduct the Symphony again after January 1907. So was Alma's telegram merely an expression of her selfish wish to control her husband's music? It could have been, though there are other possibilities. We do not know whether, at some point before his death in 1911, Mahler had changed his mind again and told Alma. But even if he had not, Alma was a competent musician, a composer who, quite possibly, recognized that the original order was musically more convincing than the revision.

In my chapter on the Sixth Symphony in The Mahler Companion (OUP, 1999), I argue for the order Scherzo - Andante on musical grounds. Mahler composed the Symphony with the Scherzo second, and he knew what he was doing. The second half of the first movement largely avoids a clear A minor: much of the recapitulation of the first subject group takes place over a dominant E pedal, and the full A minor chord with A in the bass appear only in two bars. Even the A major/minor motto that pervades the Symphony is presented over an E and thus loses something of its finality. There is no A minor at all in the last 137 bars of the movement, which ends triumphantly in A major. So when the Scherzo begins in A minor, it comes as a shock, a chilling reminder of the major/minor motto. It is absolutely necessary to the Symphony's dramatic scheme that the music should not relax at this point. The right moment for an easing of tension comes when the Scherzo has exhausted itself: the E flat major slow movement is, at last, a temporary safe haven. E flat was the key of the 'visionary interlude' of the first movement, where the music takes refuge among mountain heights with the gentle sounds of cowbells and celesta. The music reaches a radiant climax in A major before returning to E flat. The Finale opens in C minor, the relative minor of E flat major, but soon there is a sudden and quite unexpected return to A major/minor for the reappearance of the motto, like the spectre at the feast. The devastating power of this reappearance depends almost entirely on our not having heard A minor since the Scherzo, but it makes very little impact if the Scherzo, which begins and ends in A minor, is placed third. The C minor of the introduction makes little sense as a bridge from A minor back again to A minor after a few bars.

Why did Mahler sacrifice this carefully planned tonal scheme? Alma is an unreliable biographer, but her account of Mahler's state of mind at the premiere - that he was frightened by the terrifying power of what he had composed - is convincing, and leads to the possibility that he was compelled to diminish it for reasons that were primarily superstitious. It is hard to believe that Mahler should have wanted to weaken the musical argument of what may be his greatest work. But who knows what was going on in his mind during the anxious rehearsals for the premiere. At the same time as he reversed the order of the middle movements, he also removed the third hammer blow from the Finale. In another credible passage from Alma's memoirs, she records that Mahler told her that the dramatic scheme of the Finale concerned "the hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled". Originally there were five hammer blows, but three is the symbolically correct fateful number. Did Mahler believe that by removing the third blow he could outwit fate? The third hammer blow should be restored in all performances today. As Norman Del Mar wrote in his study of the Symphony: "Superstition must play no further part in what is now primarily an artistic decision."

Until 1963, the Symphony was generally played with the Scherzo third, which is how I first encountered it. But that year the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft's new score, edited by Erwin Ratz, reverted to the original order. In his editorial preface, Ratz claimed that "outside influences" had led Mahler to reverse his original order, but that he had later realized his mistake. In 2004, the Kaplan Foundation published The Correct Movement Order in Mahler's Sixth Symphony, edited by Gilbert Kaplan. The book contained a chapter by Jerry Bruck, which showed conclusively that Ratz's evidence was false: it seems that Ratz had simply made it up to justify his own preference for the original order. He should of course have said this openly instead of inventing falsehoods. Curiously, neither Bruck nor Kaplan base any of their argument for restoring the revised order on musical reasons. I have to concede, however, that since there is no direct evidence that Mahler changed his mind, their case for playing the Scherzo third is a strong one, if its composer's apparent wishes are to be respected.

In spite of this, I am convinced that Mahler was wrong. I would not say so if I were not certain that, in his original conception, he had produced one of the greatest of tragic symphonies, the only one of his symphonies to use a classical tonal scheme, with three of the four movements in A minor. Following a first movement in the minor with a scherzo in the same key is a characteristic of two great symphonies that Mahler knew: Beethoven's Ninth and Bruckner's Ninth. Can one imagine Beethoven's Ninth or Bruckner's with their scherzos third? Unthinkable! I would suggest that it is not impossible that a great artist can make a mistake. Dickens changed the ending of David Copperfield; in his case, it seems, to please his public rather than for artistic reasons. Most readers now prefer the original, 'unhappy' ending, which is both more credible and more satisfying than the artificial 'happy' ending that he substituted. Mahler's reasons, as I have suggested, were surely not purely artistic ones. What worries me is that conductors will, I expect, now largely revert to the revised order of the middle movements of the Sixth without questioning whether it is musically superior. I hope that some of them at least will use their own independent judgement and perform the Symphony as it was conceived.