Marching to the Abyss

In the City of Music

Parade Ground
Military signals, fanfares, and marches in Mahler’s music express a full gamut of emotion, from triumph to tragedy.
“The military band was the passion of my childhood.”
VIDEO:MTT on Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

Mahler's Sixth Symphony represents his most profound exploration of grief.

  • It begins with a ruthless march that evokes the desperation and violence of a forced march in wartime.

  • Mahler had laid a foundation for this music in the last setting he made of a Wundehorn poem, Revelge. In this song, a soldier watches his comrades fall:
    Ah, brother, I can’t carry you.
    The enemy has beaten us down!
    May God help you!
    Tralali, tralalei, tralalera,
    I must march to my death!

  • Critics reacted strongly to the work. Julius Korngold, a supporter of Mahler, compared the music to painting: “There is a painter in Vienna who compares to Mahler in his contrapuntal confusion of instrumental lines and his challenges to the Philistines: Klimt. But Klimt does not have the pathos, the driving energy, the painful stirring of nerves.

Mahler's Methods

Smiling Through Tears

Mahler was devoted to the effortless lyricism and dramatic power of the music of his fellow Viennese Franz Schubert. Both composers were preoccupied with the way in which the tonality of a passage could hang between major and minor.

  • Listen to the opening of Schubert’s last string quartet.

  • Compare this passage, which acts like a motto for the pessimistic mood of the Sixth Symphony: underlined by a fate-like rhythm in the drums, the brief trumpet-colored glow of a major chord gives way to a plaintive minor chord of oboes.

  • Here it is again, near the very end of the symphony, underlining the tragically powerful descent of the strings' melody.

Related Examples
VIDEO:MTT on Mahler's Sixth Symphony
A Hammer

A disturbing and forceful sound effect underlines the tragic climaxes of the finale of the Sixth Symphony. It's an instrument never fully described by Mahler, which he calls the Hammer. He imagined a scenario in which “the hero” is assaulted by “three hammer blows of fate, the last of which fells him as a tree is felled.” As he worked on the piece, however, he removed the third one.

Related Examples