Life and death are not something you immediately associate with the symphony. Of course there are operas that feature characters dying, and plenty of jubilant concerti where the soloist sends the audience home on a note of hard-earned individual triumph. But audiences this Friday night will be sitting down in the Opera House to begin one of the 20th century's greatest symphonies on a dynamic note of doom.
From the first grinding sounds of the double basses, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 6 stakes out its territory in the realm of dark, dramatic sounds. Almost as soon as the orchestra has wound itself up into a bleak marching machine, the violins slice through the music's momentum. What relief the work provides is usually doled out in the form of bitterly ironic contrasts that mock the audience with the charming music it's not hearing, or represented by hazily recalled scenes of idyllic charm, obscured all too quickly by the larger, darker themes.
The symphony's tragedy has often been attributed to Mahler's habitual sense of doom. As a child of Bohemia -- later Czechoslovakia -- late in the 19th century, Mahler saw eight of his siblings die, and endured suicide and rape within his family. As a Jew, he described himself as "everywhere an intruder; never welcomed." It is easy to imagine this sensitive, profoundly artistic child growing up with a fatalistic attitude.
But more than mere pessimism, Mahler's Sixth is steeped with a sense of urgency that has made it impossible for audiences to ignore. This is apparent right from the opening march, with which Mahler confronts his listeners with their greatest fears. Written a decade before World War I, and in midst of the devastating effects of the Russo-Japanese War, Mahler's Sixth would have seemed prophetic only to those listeners who could not tell which way the political and social winds were blowing. It is Mahler's portrait of the end of the 19th century, played out for its earliest audiences in the declining splendor of the great opera houses of Germany and Austria.
Of course, as a poetic and passionate figure, Mahler has gathered a large cloak of mystique around his work. By pointing to the three hair-raising hammer-blows with which Mahler ends the symphony, Mahler's widow was able, years later, to claim that her husband had foreseen the three coming tragedies of the death of their second child, the loss of her husband's job and his fatal illness. She also indicates a garishly lyrical and passionate section in the first movement as a musical portrait of her by her husband, and an oddly innocent section of the second movement as his portrayal of their child's first steps. Whether these extra-musical allegations have any validity or not depends on the listeners' imaginations. Certainly with music this vast and dynamic, some amount of storytelling is useful. (Listeners who want to stick with only the facts may prefer to seek out the two sculptures in the Spokane Opera House by Mahler's daughter Anna -- a direct connection with the composer to complement his music played in the concert hall.)
Whatever message Mahler intended to convey to his listeners with the Sixth Symphony, however, he required an enormous orchestra to do it. The Spokane Symphony, which is playing the challenging work for the first time, will be present in full force, further bolstered by several percussionists manning a battery of instruments. From the dreamily echoing cowbells to the famous blows at the work's conclusion, the Sixth's constant and sophisticated use of percussion seems to prophesy the direction that music would take in the 20th century. Yet there is a decisively romantic sweep to the work: Melodies careen throughout the symphony's hour-and-a-half long duration, and dissonances rest among lavish harmonies and musical colors.
For all its legendary bleakness, Mahler's Sixth has steadily gained the reverence and mystique reserved for only the greatest works. It is as if audiences have come to realize, over time, that a great work of art has nothing to do with escapism and false cheer. Sometimes art, like this work finished nearly a century ago, must confront its audiences with the truths of culture as the artist sees them. The results, no matter how the listeners choose to interpret them, are undeniably powerful. In the hands of a master, they are magnificent.