The Music Plays On

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Mahler in 1904

Mahler began work on his Symphony №6 in the summer of 1903 at his composing hut behind his summer villa in Maiernigg. The previous season had seen enormous success in his role as General Music Director at the Vienna Hofoper, and the publishing house of C. F. Peters, one of the largest in Europe had agreed to publish his Symphony №5. According to Alma Mahler’s recollection, he composed the second theme of the first movement, in which he evoked her energetic personality, now called the Alma Theme. He also completed the inner two movements, the Andante and Scherzo. During the following summer of 1904, he completed the outer movements, as well as the song-cycle, Kindertotenlieder. German text with English translation are at the end of the article.

At the end of summer, Mahler wrote confidently to his friends Guido Adler and Bruno Walter that he had completed his sixth symphony, but he was also equally aware that this symphony would be as misunderstood as his fifth: “My Sixth will pose conundrums that only a generation that has absorbed and digested my first five symphonies may hope to solve.” Here is the Mahler Festival Online mini-documentary.

There are a couple of conundrums still left to performers and audience. One is a completely fabricated nuisance and the other is a sad superstitious omission. While Mahler originally published the symphony with the scherzo as the second movement and the andante as the third, he clearly and quickly changed his mind and always conducted the symphony with the andante as the second movement and the scherzo as the third movement. Unfortunately, Alma Mahler and the editor, Erwin Ratz, changed it back to the original order after Mahler’s death. They were both wrong to do so. Mahler would also omit the third hammer blow out of superstition. Whether or not conductors respect this or not is less worrisome or consequential.

It was premiered in Essen, German, in May 1906 with Mahler conducting. It has four movements, as discussed above, but the first and, especially last movements are quite lengthy.

Here are my favorite performances:

This performance by Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic is, for me, simply the most cogent I’ve ever heard, particularly of the last movement.

Leonard “Fear the Beard” Bernstein

Poems by Friedrich Rückert

Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn

Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn, Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn! Das Unglück geschah nur mir allein! Die Sonne, sie scheinet allgemein! Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken, Mußt sie ins ew'ge Licht versenken! Ein Lämplein verlosch in meinem Zelt! Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!

Now the sun will rise as brightly

Now the sun will rise as brightly as if no misfortune had occurred in the night. The misfortune has fallen on me alone. The sun – it shines for everyone. You must not keep the night inside you; you must immerse it in eternal light. A little light has been extinguished in my household; Light of joy in the world, be welcome.

Nun seh' ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen

Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen Ihr sprühtet mir in manchem Augenblicke. O Augen, gleichsam, um in einem Blicke Zu drängen eure ganze Macht zusammen. Doch ahnt' ich nicht, weil Nebel mich umschwammen, Gewoben vom verblendenden Geschicke, Daß sich der Strahl bereits zur Heimkehr schicke, Dorthin, von wannen alle Strahlen stammen. Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen: Wir möchten nah dir immer bleiben gerne! Doch ist uns das vom Schicksal abgeschlagen. Sieh' recht uns an, denn bald sind wir dir ferne! Was dir noch Augen sind in diesen Tagen: In künft'gen Nächten sind es dir nur Sterne.

Now I see well why with such dark flames

Now I see well why with such dark flames your eyes sparkled so often. O eyes, it was as if in one full glance you could concentrate your entire power. Yet I did not realize – because mists floated about me, woven by blinding fate – that this beam of light was ready to be sent home to that place whence all beams come. You would have told me with your brilliance: we would gladly have stayed near you! But it is refused by Fate. Just look at us, for soon we will be far! What to you are only eyes in these days – in future nights shall be stars to us.

Wenn dein Mütterlein

Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein, Und den Kopf ich drehe, ihr entgegen sehe, Fällt auf ihr Gesicht erst der Blick mir nicht, Sondern auf die Stelle, näher nach der Schwelle, Dort, wo würde dein lieb Gesichten sein, Wenn du freudenhelle trätest mit herein, Wie sonst, mein Töchterlein. Wenn dein Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein, Mit der Kerze Schimmer, ist es mir, als immer Kämst du mit herein, huschtest hinterdrein, Als wie sonst ins Zimmer! O du, des Vaters Zelle, Ach, zu schnell erloschner Freudenschein!

When your mother steps into the doorway

When your mother steps into the doorway and I turn my head to see her, my gaze does not alight first on her face, but on the place nearer to the threshhold; there, where your dear face would be when you would step in with bright joy, as you used to, my little daughter. When your mother steps into the doorway with the gleam of a candle, it always seems to me as if you came in as well, slipping in behind her, just as you used to come into the room! O you, a father's cell, alas! too quickly you extinguish the gleam of joy!

Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen,

Oft denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen, Bald werden sie wieder nach Hause gelangen, Der Tag ist schön, o sei nicht bang, Sie machen nur einen weiten Gang. Ja wohl, sie sind nur ausgegangen, Und werden jetzt nach Haus gelangen, O, sei nicht bang, der Tag ist schön, Sie machen den Gang zu jenen Höh'n. Sie sind uns nur voraus gegangen, Und werden nicht hier nach Haus verlangen, Wir holen sie ein auf jenen Höh'n Im Sonnenschein, der Tag is schön

Often I think that they have only stepped out

Often I think that they have only stepped out – and that soon they will reach home again. The day is fair – O don't be afraid – They are only taking a long walk. Yes: they have only stepped out and will now return home. O don't be anxious – the day is fair. They [are taking]1 a walk to those hills. They have simply gone on ahead: they will not wish to return [home]2. We'll catch up to them on those hills. In the sunshine the day is [fair]3.

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus

In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus, Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus; Man hat sie getragen hinaus, Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen! In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus, Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus, Ich fürchtete sie erkranken; Das sind nun eitle Gedanken. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus, Nie hätt' ich gelassen die Kinder hinaus; Ich sorgte, sie stürben morgen, Das ist nun nicht zu besorgen. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Graus! Nie hätt' ich gesendet die Kinder hinaus! Man hat sie hinaus getragen, ich durfte nichts dazu sagen! In diesem Wetter, in diesem Saus, in diesem Braus, Sie ruh'n als wie in der Mutter Haus, Von keinem Sturm erschrecket, Von Gottes Hand bedecket.

In this weather, in this windy storm

In this weather, in this windy storm, I would never have sent the children out; They were carried outside – I could say nothing about it! In this weather, in this roaring storm, I would never have let the children out. I was afraid they had falllen ill, but these thoughts are now idle. In this weather, in this cruel storm, I would never have let the children out; I was worried they would die the next day – but this is now no concern. In this weather, in this cruel storm, I would never have sent the children out; They were carried outside – I could say nothing about it! In this weather, in this roaring, cruel storm, they rest as they did in their mother's house: they are frightened by no storm, and are covered by the hand of God.