Virtual Music Hour

  Mahler Archive

  Introduction to Mahler – Symphony No. 6, “Tragic”

  Listen to the Music

Movement 1

Movements 2 – 4


Welcome to Virtual Music Hour. In preparation for your listening experience, Assistant Principal Violist Catherine Beeson has made guides with activities that can be enjoyed alone, with your quarantine buddies at home and online, or with your students. These activities can be mixed, matched, and altered to create an experience that’s right for you, or as inspiration to create your own. Get as creative as you’d like. Share it with us on social media! If you like seeing and hearing the Colorado Symphony musicians online, imagine how uplifting it would be for us to see and hear you too!

Gustav Mahler is one of the most influential composers of the late Romantic era in part because of his expansive and philosophically driven works for symphony orchestra. Symphony No. 6 is a great example of this. Enjoy getting to know it, and listening to the Colorado Symphony performance!

  Gustav Mahler composed his Sixth Symphony in 1903 and 1904, and conducted the premiere performance himself in 1906.

  Even though it has been nicknamed the “Tragic” symphony, Mahler wrote it during one of the happiest times of his life. The nickname came later and didn’t originate with Mahler. Still, it has persisted possibly buoyed by the fatalistic nature of the ending and the endless debate about the execution of the “Mahler hammer blows.”

  The “hammer” listed in the score is played two or three times depending on the conductor’s interpretation. The original score calls for a sound Mahler described as, "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe).” It signifies three mighty blows of fate to the hero, "the third of which fells him like a tree." In a subsequent revision, he removed the third hammer blow leaving a Christo-like experience of absence in its place for the listener.

  Symphony No. 6 is in four movements and lasts about 80 minutes. The two inner movements – Scherzo and Andante moderato – are sometimes played in reverse order. The original score and publication had the Scherzo first, but Mahler himself performed the Andante first and the two subsequent publications of the score had it in that order as well.

  Mahler’s score calls for a large orchestra: 4 flutes and piccolo, 4 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, 4 bassoons and contra bassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 6 timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, cowbells, hammer, tam-tam, rute, deep untuned bells, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and the usual string section of violins, violas, cellos, and basses.

Here is a listening map that can guide you through the music. Read it in advance or while you’re listening!

Movement 1

Allegro energico
In English:  Quick, energetic

This movement is characterized primarily by a terse march rhythm which we hear right away, but moves between this music and a sweeping melody with a lighter character, said to be his wife Alma’s theme.

Mahler certainly embedded his own experiences into his work, including Symphony No. 6. He avoided publishing any sort of formal program or storyline, but we know from his wife Alma and scholarly research that he included autobiographical allusions if not outright details from his life.

  How might you use sound or music to characterize some of your life experiences?

Mahler includes a description of the sound he would like for the “hammer blow of fate” he calls for in the final movement of his symphony, but was never quite satisfied with the result of any solutions to creating this sound. This has left the door open to experimentation. You can go down a FANTASTIC internet rabbit hole searching for some of the solutions people have come up with. Check out these links and do your own searching.

Ask yourself how YOU might achieve the required “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character” sound that Mahler asks for!




13 intensely satisfying gifs of the hammer blow in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6:

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Now that you’ve had a chance to consider, discuss, and get active around Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 it’s time to listen to the Colorado Symphony performance. There are all sorts of ways to engage as a listener, especially when listening at home instead of the concert hall. This is a good one to crank the volume up and listen for sheer pleasure!



Please share your musical adventure with us through social media! We would love to hear about it or see any of your activities, journaling, or creations!


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