The CPO is working through the Mahler symphonies chronologically, and this year, we’re performing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. This symphony is unique in that explores Mahler’s thoughts on death, and even includes a “hammer of fate.” CPO Principal Bassoon Christopher Sales tells us more about this complex work.

Hear it live on January 23 and 24!

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is often referred to as “tragic.” Why is this?

It is difficult to believe that Mahler wrote this symphony during one of the happiest times of his life. He married Alma, had two daughters, and was holding a very esteemed position conducting the Vienna State Opera, and yet this work foreshadows some very negative events that would transpire in Mahler’s life in the following years.  

There is a bit of clout surrounding when and how the “Tragische” label was placed on this symphony. The Tragic subtitle was not present on the manuscript during the first performance in Essen, and many scholars believe it may have been added by someone other than Mahler (ie, publisher or a later conductor). All said and done, it is a very fitting subtitle for this work as Mahler supposedly wept after hearing it for the first time.

What do the “hammer blows” signify in this piece?

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the number of hammer blows and what they signify in Mahler’s 6th Symphony. One theory surmises that the “hammer blow of fate” signifies the three tragic events that occurred in Mahler’s life: the death of his daughter Maria Anna to diptheria, his removal from the Vienna Opera House, and his own fatal diagnosis. However, another theory claims that these three events transpired after the first performance and the piece could not have been written with these significant life events in mind. One theory claims that Mahler foretold his own demise with this Symphony, which functions in the fantasy world, but is difficult to believe in this scientific day and age. Yet the notion of an artist’s prophetic creation is strangely attractive. One final theory supposes that there were arguably five hammer blows in the first manuscript, which is well supported, but not definitive. This five-blow theory would detract from the idea that there is any mystical significance related to the “Hammer Blow of Fate.” However, three blows sounded in the first performance, and Mahler did remove the third one afterwards.

Why did he remove the third hammer blow?

Many people believe that Mahler removed the third hammer blow to subjugate his own personal tragic fate – his fatal heart condition which did eventually contribute to his death.

What should people listen for in this piece?

I have spent some time both in Germany and in Switzerland performing in music festivals.  When time permitted, I found great joy walking from the cities into the country hiking through smooth transitions from urban to rural life. One of the joys of this walk is hearing the cowbells of the local farmers. Gustav Mahler regularly took similar walks through the countryside, and described the cowbells as “the last earthly noise, and the first heavenly one.”

You will hear cowbells throughout this piece, so note the peaceful serenity they evoke, especially surrounded by the rest of the work. One of my favorite uses is shortly after a lugubrious tuba solo in the 4th movement. There are many excellent recordings of this tuba solo on YouTube, if you are a self-motivated type, and want to do a little bit of research before coming to hear the CPO!

Why is Mahler’s Sixth Symphony an exciting piece to perform? 

Mahler was a spectacular orchestrator and composer of large-scale Orchestral Works.  This symphony has eight French horns, four bassoons and contrabassoon, three clarinets, E-flat clarinet, and bass clarinet, four oboes and English horn, four flutes and piccolo, extra stands of every string instrument, six trumpets, three trombones and bass trombone, plus a laundry list of percussion instruments. There will be a huge orchestra on stage, and the music is energetic and powerful. It will be a wild ride for both the orchestra and the audience.

What are you most looking forward to about this piece?

The Sixth Symphony is extremely energetically charged from the first note until the last, but the final chord of the piece leaves you breathless.