"Unrelenting" and "unforgiving" are the words that come to mind at the conclusion of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. He never allows us to feel relief and the symphony ends not in “tragedy,” as it has been named, but in defiance. The Sixth should be named The Defiant. There is no tragedy here.
From the very start of the performance on Saturday night (April 30), the San Diego Symphony was in smash mode. The tromp, tromp, tromp of the opening bars left no doubt that the pain of Mahler’s music would be emphasized. Mahler creates delicate and beautiful moments but they don’t have a chance to blossom before being trampled to death by the dreadful funeral march that dominates the opening movement.
Symphony No. 6: third movement, Andante moderato
The third movement is one of Mahler’s best — in my opinion. The lyrical quality of the music is soothing after the scorched-earth policy of the first two movements. Yet this isn’t the untarnished ray of sunshine we get in the adagietto from his Symphony No. 5.
The third movement of the Sixth is maybe the recollection of a happy memory. The memory here is shaded by the antagonism that is consistent throughout the entire symphonic structure. Even in this brief respite, Mahler continues to fight against the weight of his world.
I should, at this point, explain that Mahler’s issues were 19th-century issues. He wasn’t upset because he didn’t get enough approval as a child — which he didn’t. Approval wasn’t even on his radar.
His mother, stuck in a loveless marriage, was consistently beaten by his father and seven of his 14 siblings died. Mahler was the second born but his older brother died. This means Mahler endured the death of six younger siblings as a child.
He tried to save his beloved brother Ernst by keeping vigil at the boy’s bedside and telling him stories. It was to no avail. Ernst died in Mahler’s arms. We have no way to comprehend such an event in our culture. A child dying in the arms of another? It’s impossible.
When the final movement begins we might think there is some hope but it is a false hope. Mahler is unrelenting. He builds tension and it sounds as though we are going to get one of those moments where Mahler storms the gates of heaven but each time he backs away and we return to Earth. Mahler is insistent on remaining here, in this life. Where else could we go?
Mahler’s Sixth is furious. It fights to the very end. In the closing bars we feel as though the solemn brass chorale might provide a satisfying ending but Mahler then screams his frustration one last time and denies himself — and us — any hint of solace.
Regarding the performance: it was spectacular but the tuning was suspect at times and some of the errors were less than the orchestra's best. However, the effect of Mahler’s music, especially in the third movement, brought a lump to the throat as the orchestra poured itself into the music.
It felt as though the musicians had an authentic connection to Mahler and his fragile humanity. Fragile. Given the circumstances of his life, fragile is not the best term. The Sixth is not the music of a fragile man.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
— Dylan Thomas