Biographically, we know that composer Gustav Mahler was personally at his happiest and most satisfied from the summer of 1903 through the summer of 1904, the period during which he started and completed his Sixth Symphony.
Yet this symphony — 80 minutes without intermission and being performed by Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony for the first time Friday and Saturday — is not a happy-go-lucky piece.
“Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to say artists create happy works when they are happy and sad works when things are not going well,” Bay says. “But of his nine symphonies — plus an incomplete one — this is by far the bleakest.”
Did Mahler sense fate?
The Austro-German Mahler, whose works bridged the Romantic and modern eras, was practically a newlywed when he started the symphony, having married the beautiful and talented composer Alma Schindler in 1902. By the time the Sixth Symphony was completed, the couple had two daughters.
Artistically, too, he was at the height of his powers as music director of the Vienna Opera. During summers off, he composed. Perhaps unfairly, he gave little attention during this time to Alma’s compositions.
“His music was being played more frequently,” Bay says. “It was better understood by audiences and critics. It was a very happy time in his life.”
In the Sixth, Mahler includes a melody, “Alma’s Theme,” that expresses his devotion to his wife.
“It’s a passionate, yearning theme,” Bay says. “In a way, the symphony being what it is — one of his bleakest outpourings — it’s not completely clear: Why write such a work now? Why now so bleak at the height of his popularity?”
Bay has a theory.
“While there’s no proof of this, it’s possible he had clairvoyant talents,” he says. “In the last movement, there’s a percussion instrument called the hammer blow that makes a very loud and dramatic whack. There are three of them in the last movement. Each one is supposed to signify a blow of fate, stopping the hero in his tracks. Alma said that he said: ‘It’s as if a tree has fallen.’”
So then what lay in Mahler’s near future?
“Three years after he finishes the symphony, one of his daughters, Maria Anna, dies at age 4,” Bay says. “His directorship of the opera comes to an unhappy end, and he learns of a serious heart ailment.”
After the premiere of the Sixth, Mahler conducted it twice more. He removed the third hammer blow, perhaps because the hero was presumably himself and he didn’t want to face the final hammering of his own fate.
“It was too late. Three horrible things did happen to him,” Bay says. “After the first performance, he decided to switch the order of the middle movements, making for even more drama, more tragedy.”
More bad news was on the way. Feeling neglected, Alma had an affair with architect Walter Gropius, not yet the famous promoter of modernism in his field. The relationship seriously disrupted the Mahlers’ already turbulent marriage.
Mahler died in 1911; Alma went on to marry Gropius, then had an affair with poet and writer Franz Werfel, whom she later married.
Alma led quite a life. It deserves more than this short synopsis. But back to Mahler.
“While he was writing the Sixth Symphony, he was writing ‘Songs on the Death of Children,’ which again is disturbing, especially to Alma,” Bay says. “Why would he write about the death of children when he just had two little ones? It’s unexplained. When Maria died, Alma blamed him. He was tempting the fates, and the fates answered.”
Bay didn’t choose this bifurcated symphony to fit our unsettled times.
“As it turns out, this was planned about a year and a half ago,” he says. “The main goal of presenting it was that the symphony has never played it. We needed to get back to Mahler.”
But the more he dug into the piece — and the more he discovered about this strange period of Mahler’s life — the parallels to current affairs became more evident.
“It will be curious for me to find out from our audience after the performances how they reacted to it,” he says. “I typically don’t advertise: ‘Come for a real downer; come and be depressed.’ But this is an important statement from a real genius, and exploring these deep emotions is good for us.”
Bay also thinks the Sixth could serve as a cathartic experience for those in the audience attuned to the disharmonies in today’s American political scene.
“When I talk to people about the piece, the question comes up: ‘But that’s not really entertaining, is it?’ No, it is not, but neither is ‘Schindler’s List.’ People don’t always go to be entertained, but rather to be prodded. It’s good to examine the more difficult corners of our lives in order to learn something. And, you now, roughly 90 percent of operas are tragedies, yet we clamor to see them.”
Austin Symphony plays Mahler’s Sixth
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive
Information: austinsymphony.org, 512-473-8743