Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #1 Mahler Symphony No. 6 in A minor

My favorite piece of classical music, what I also consider the best overall comes from Gustav Mahler, who perfected the symphonic form with his Symphony No. 6 in A minor. This symphony is quite long at about 85 minutes of music. What makes this symphony stand out from all of Mahler’s other symphonies is that not one minute of those 85 minutes is wasted time. My main criticism of Mahler’s Second Symphony is that a lot of momentum gets lost in all five movements with too many pauses. The Third Symphony, his longest at 105 minutes also has similar loss of momentum. Mahler has great melodic shaping, and there are so many gems throughout all his symphonies. Here in his Sixth, the symphony is replete with beautiful melodic moments. 

Mahler composed this symphony between 1903 and 1904 at a great time in his life. He was the conductor of the Vienna Opera. He completed a gorgeous Fifth Symphony. He married Alma Schindler in 1902. His first daughter, Maria Anna was born in 1902. These great moments encompassed Mahler’s time composing his sixth symphony. Many who have reviewed or written about the dichotomy between Mahler’s quite happy life and the symphony labelled as “Tragic” raise a question about how, in such happy times, he could write something that has such a fatalistically depressing ending. Alma Mahler, later on in life, indicated that this work was prophetic, particularly with its three hammer blows of fate in the fourth movement. Gustav was superstitious, so it would make sense that he feared tempting fate. In fact, he feared tempting fate so much that in a later revision of the symphony, he chose to take out the third, and final, hammer blow from the fourth movement. 

I am not a superstitious person, but I love a well crafted tale, so for me, I prefer all three hammer blows, because the intent Mahler had with the hammers was for the listener to truly experience the inexorable finality of fate’s cold, deadly result. Also another fascinating controversy with this symphony is the ordering of the middle movements, the Andante and the Scherzo. Mahler originally composed it with the Scherzo as the second movement and the Andante the third movement. This is generally my preferred way of listening to the symphony, but even Mahler himself changed his mind and switched them around. Both ways are good, and it honestly doesn’t make much of a difference from the overall story perspective the symphony as a whole is trying to convey. 

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is unique in other ways with his other symphonies. It is the most classical in form. It only has four movements. The first movement is very much a sonata-form movement including a required repeat of the exposition. There is clear demarcation between the primary theme and the secondary theme. Both themes return in the recapitulation, and the development is fairly conservative. The second movement is a Scherzo, the third movement is a slow Andante, and then the Finale is an Allegro. This symphony doesn’t use a choir. There are no soloist singers. 

In my opinion, shackling himself to the more strict guidelines of traditional symphonic form actually helped him in his craft. In his other symphonies, he tended to go wilder and looser and cause a lot of momentum-losing moments. Here, the action in the music flies swiftly with each note and each pause mattering. I think it also matters how the composer himself or herself feels about the piece. Alma recorded Gustav’s reaction during the rehearsals for the premiere in 1906, writing: 

“None of his works moved him so deeply at its first hearing as this. We came . . . to the dress rehearsal, to the last movement with its three great blows of fate. When it was done, Mahler walked up and down the artists’ room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself. . . . On the day of the concert, [he] was so frightened of his agitation getting the better of him that, out of shame and anxiety, he did not conduct the symphony well. He hesitated to bring out the dark omen behind the terrible last movement.”

I actually did not start listening to this symphony until recently (though I’ve made up for it by listening to it quite frequently). I don’t know if I would have liked it or not had I started hearing it as a teenager. I think I would have, as my tastes, particularly in classical music, have not altered much throughout the decades. 

I understand Mahler’s story, though, what he’s trying to convey in this symphony. Life is beautiful, gorgeous, unique, sparkling and lovely. Life is also fragile, fleeting and full of death. Have the adventure of a lifetime, as Coldplay sings. Love the harmonies. Just understand death will strike even when you’re not ready. His other symphonies are about nature, the earth, or resurrection, but this one is about his own existence, his own grasp of true self-awareness, true understanding of the grand nature of our own individual existences. And THAT is what makes this symphony so fascinating and so good. Life is full of terror of existence itself. But there is a visceral, palpable beauty in that terror that overwhelms the horror of death just enough to make life gorgeous. 

I may at some other point, go further in depth in the movements themselves, particularly the fourth. Suffice it to say that the fourth movement, at approximately 31 minutes of playing, does not feel like it is too long. For the story it tells, the length is exactly correct. 

With regard to recordings, I prefer the new recording by Teodor Currentzis and his MusicAeterna group out of Russia. The recording is amazingly crisp, clear, and sharp. He takes it with the Scherzo second. My only critique is the hammer blows don’t sound very strong, and he only does two hammer blows. He skips the third. As for video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, and he does use all three hammer blows. Enjoy!

#01 – Mahler Symphony No. 6 in A minor

#02 – Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74

#03 – Wagner Götterdammerung

#04 – Gershwin An American in Paris

#05 – Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

#06 – Dvorak Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95

#07 – Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

#08 – Ellington Afro-Eurasian Eclipse

#09 – Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade, Op. 35

#10 – Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture

#11 – Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22

#12 – Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps

#13 – Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

#14 – Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551

#15 – Coltrane My Favorite Things

#16 – Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70

#17 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527

#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97

#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492

#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20 

#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor

#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back

#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

#26 – Bernstein West Side Story

#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

Wolfe Fire in my Mouth

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

Glass Anthem, Pt. 2

Weber Der Freischütz

Coleman Lonely Woman

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker

Jobim Girl From Ipanema

Shostakovich Suite for Variety Orchestra

Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944

Saariaho L’Amour de Loin

Schubert String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”

Desmond Take Five

Wagner Die Walküre 

Puccini Tosca

Davis So What

Stravinsky Petroushka 

Wagner Tristan Und Isolde

Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings

Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark

Verdi Aïda

Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

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