Hammered: Pounding Out The Excess In Mahler's Sixth Symphony

Nov 12, 2016
Originally published on November 14, 2016 8:12 am

I've written about Gustav Mahler and his monumental symphonic achievements before, but right now I'm not sure there has ever been a more fitting symphony for our time than Mahler's Symphony No. 6.

Today, as we have become immune to shock, where nothing seems too extreme and where hyperbole rules, Mahler and his Sixth Symphony seem to fit right in.

Mahler was a man of excess, spectacle, illusion and indulgence. Most likely a narcissist, he was also devastatingly brilliant, a shameless self promoter and a man of enormous contradictions who fed off conflict and constructed delusions of grandeur.

By the 1890s, Mahler was a veritable rock star – a celebrated conductor accompanied by throngs of adoring fans wherever he went. But even this constant attention could not satiate his need for acceptance as a composer.

For most audiences in his day, Mahler's symphonies were bewildering and virtually unintelligible. While he was personally devastated by the public and critical dismissals of his work, he maintained a messianic conviction that posterity would recognize and embrace his greatness. A conviction that history has indeed borne out.

For many, Mahler was a savior, for others a tyrant. Without a doubt, he was an extraordinarily complex man.

My introduction to Mahler came through my musical mentor, and hero, Leonard Bernstein. An equally complicated man, he related to Mahler's struggles on a profound level. Bernstein was torn between composing and conducting; torn coming to terms with his Jewish heritage; torn by love and personal relationships and torn by loss and a lifelong search for meaning in a frequently meaningless world.

For Mahler and Bernstein music was both a refuge and an answer — albeit an abstract one — to many of life's questions. "A symphony must be like the world," Mahler said. "It must contain everything."

Mahler finished his Sixth Symphony in 1904 and premiered it two years later. His insecurity about the impending public reaction was evident at every turn. He kept changing his mind about the order of its four movements. And then there are the terrifying hammer blows in the finale. Overly superstitious, Mahler couldn't decide how many he wanted: first it was five, then three, and finally he settled on two.

The genesis of the Sixth Symphony's nickname "Tragic" is somewhat ambiguous, considering that Mahler wrote it during one of the happiest periods in his life.

The Symphony, in many ways, had been Mahler's most traditional work in years: four movements, with the first following the standard exposition repeat formula. The ideas, too, are simple and straightforward. The primal conflict is conveyed through the paradox of major vs. minor keys – happy vs. sad, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.

Contrasting with the thunderous hammer blows are Mahler's offstage cowbells, emerging to evoke an idyllic existence. It's a feeling lost on many us today but it was probably quite a nostalgic moment for listeners in Mahler's time.

In the Sixth, Mahler seems to be searching for meaning in a rapidly changing, complex world while worrying about potential annihilation by fanatical forces. Sound familiar?

Bernstein used to say that Mahler was "The prophet of the 20th Century." Maybe we should amend that to include our own 21st Century.

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In a week in which many people were shocked and surprised by a news event, maestra Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform Mahler's 6th Symphony, replete with cowbells and hammer blows. Marin Alsop joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Marin, thanks very much for being back with us.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: And you are joined, I understand, by the distinguished BSO percussion player John Locke.

JOHN LOCKE: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: And nice to meet you, Mr. Locke. Could we hear a cowbell?


SIMON: Thank you. Thank you. We'll get to that explanation. We were just listening to a recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Do you think, Marin, that Mahler's 6th just somehow fits our times?

ALSOP: It couldn't be more perfect, especially for this week, where we've had so much upheaval, so much conflict. And we've come to a place that we didn't expect at all. And that's what this Mahler symphony is all about.

SIMON: John Locke, how do cowbells come into the symphony?

LOCKE: Well, the cowbells are placed in a bucolic passage. You have the imagery of this small town in the distance. And there are church bells ringing. Then the cowbells enter and bring the listener to this very special place.


ALSOP: A hundred years ago, I think this would've immediately brought people into their childhoods or, you know, an afternoon out in the country if they didn't live in the country. And so it was a reference, I think, to a better life or an idyllic existence.

SIMON: And, John Locke, I guess I've been kidding you a bit about the cowbells. But they're still musical instruments - the way you use them, right? You just can't stand up and - forgive me - shake it.

LOCKE: Well, that's been one of the problems. If they're not shaken properly and not imitative enough, it sounds like the junk man coming down the road...

SIMON: (Laughter).

LOCKE: ...Rather than this beautiful scene out in a meadow.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit of the second movement now.


ALSOP: I think the beauty of Mahler was his ability to really splice moods. So this movement, the scherzo movement, goes from this very demonic kind of orchestration and approach to this very lighthearted, almost party-like atmosphere.

SIMON: We will move ahead to the last movement 'cause this is where the hammer blows are.


SIMON: John Locke, do we know what Mahler had in mind when he scored this?

LOCKE: Mahler suggested that it was to imitate the sound of an axe striking a piece of wood or lightning striking a tree. Those are great images. But the actual act of doing those things does not produce the sound that Mahler wanted.

In the first performance, in rehearsals, he went backstage and, you know, smacked the box a couple of times and was furious and stormed off into his dressing room, saying, this isn't what I want. This is - I need a bigger sound. I need more.

ALSOP: But I think he'd get what he wanted this week for sure (laughter).

LOCKE: Well, I tried to do that.

ALSOP: So John actually built this, Scott.

SIMON: It's a box.

ALSOP: He built the box.

LOCKE: It's a box. But it's made of maple. It's 3 feet by 3 feet by about a meter tall. And it has a port in it like a subwoofer would have - basically shakes the entire symphony hall.

SIMON: And you have a - you have a hammer artist there, I gather.

ALSOP: I do. I brought my star percussionist. This is Brian Prechtl.

SIMON: How do you do, Mr. Prechtl?

BRIAN PRECHTL: Very good. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And you tell people, yeah, I play the hammer for Marin Alsop?


PRECHTL: That's right. That's my soul-calling card. No, as percussionists, we're called on to do a variety of things. That's actually one of the greatest things about being a percussionist.

SIMON: How do you go about performing?

PRECHTL: This particular spot is incredibly climactic. So there is a lot of energy in the room. I'd say there's a lot of adrenaline, too, because, you know, you know you're the focal point. And, basically, everybody on the stage, short of 100 people, are going to come together at this one moment.

It's an interesting moment because I'm used to always following whatever Marin does. But I know when I get that ax going that she's kind of - we're kind of doing this together...

ALSOP: Yeah.

PRECHTL: ...Because, you know, there's no way for me to make a slight adjustment. Once you start this long arc, you know, when it hits - we've been right on the money so far this week. So it's a very easy moment, actually, to play in terms of executing. But, you know, there's some exposure.

ALSOP: (Laughter) Yeah, no kidding.

SIMON: I understand our friends at the BSO have provided us with a recording. So let's hear the hammer.


SIMON: Ah. Oh, I'm sorry. I'm fine.


SIMON: It just...

PRECHTL: It sounds far louder than that when you're standing next to it, I can assure you.

SIMON: I gather we also have a recording of the Vienna Philharmonic. And here's how they used, I guess, another hammer.


ALSOP: For Mahler, every symphony he wrote - he said it had to contain the world. And this is a symphony to me about fate and the inescapability ability of fate. You know, we all face the ultimate fate. We will all die. And Mahler is already thinking about that, even though he's only 36 years old.

And I think the fact that these hammer blows - you know, because he couldn't express enough. I mean, we've got 120 people on stage. And we're making a lot of noise. But even in 1906, it wasn't enough. He can't get our attention enough. It's a very depressed kind of ending with sort of one last shock...


ALSOP: ...One last outcry in a way. I think it's something that we can all relate to in the world we live in today because we live in a world that is filled with spectacle and fear. And, you know, because we have these nuclear weapons, I have that sense that Mahler knew this was coming.

SIMON: Marin Alsop is music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - also joined by John Locke, who's a percussionist, and Brian Prechtl, who is the hammer.


SIMON: The BSO will perform Mahler's 6th Symphony tonight. Thanks very much for being with us.

ALSOP: Pleasure, Scott. It's always great to talk to you. And thanks to my percussion section for joining me.

PRECHTL: Thank you for having us.

LOCKE: Thank you. Thank you.