GUSTAV MAHLER (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 6 (1903–05; rev. 1908)
Mahler’s Sixth Symphony — a tour de force for virtuoso orchestra — speaks in a powerful language not heard before that time. Entwined in its tragedy are passages of great beauty and calm… the violins’ soaring “Alma theme” in the first movement (a portrait of the composer’s wife) and the sound of distant cowbells as if from alpine pastures. But in the last movement, listen for the hammer blows of fate, “the last of which fells [the hero] like the stroke of an axe,” Mahler said. He had originally indicated three strokes, but because of his superstitious nature, he eliminated one. Still, the number three turned out to be prophetic: his five-year old daughter Maria died of diphtheria, he resigned his post at the Vienna State Opera, and his life-threatening heart condition was diagnosed. Some conductors ask for only two blows of the hammer, but expect to hear three when Alan Gilbert leads this vast symphonic journey.