Mahler's symphonies 1-4 were influenced by the German folk poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Each of the first four symphonies used material from songs Mahler had written to the texts of selected poems from the collection, but his symphonies 5,6 and 7 were purely instrumental. The Sixth Symphony is one of Mahler's most conventional as far as the first movement structure. He sticks to the traditional sonata form with exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. The symphony consists of four movements. There is some controversy as to the proper order of the two middle movements. Some conductors put the Scherzo directly after the first movement, some revers the two. The following video of the symphony has the Scherzo as the second movement, the Andante as the third.
I. Allegro energico, ma non troppo. Heftig, aber markig - The work begins with the orchestra playing the first theme, a brisk march in the home key of A Minor. The first theme is rounded off by a motif that happens throughout the symphony, a major chord played in the trumpets accompanied by a march rhythm in the percussion, and while the trumpets play the home note and fifth of the chord, one of the trumpets lowers the third of the chord and transforms it to a minor chord. The second theme is heard, a soaring melody that Mahler's wife Alma, claimed to represent her. The exposition begins with a development of the march theme, which is suddenly transformed into an idyllic setting complete with the gentle clinking of cowbells. The march theme reappears with vengeance and is whipped into a climax which leads directly to the recapitulation. The march rhythm persists, and begins a coda that develops the march theme even further. The 'Alma' theme reappears in a grand manner and ushers in the triumphant ending of the movement.
II. Scherzo: Wuchtig - This scherzo is one of the strangest Mahler ever wrote. It opens with the timpani beating out a rhythm, almost as if to mock the preceding seriousness of the timpani's rhythm of the first movement march. The brass also chimes in with slurs and slides after the end of the first section of the scherzo, almost as if they thumb their noses at the preceding drama. Through it all, the orchestra keeps up the parody and the sarcasm until with a few quiet titters, the movement ends.
III. Andante moderato - This movement serves as a contrast to the drama of the first movement and the bitter sarcasm of the second. It also give the listener a chance to breathe easy before the last movement.
IV. Finale: Sostenuto - Allegro moderato - Allegro energico - There is really nothing in the previous three parts of the symphony that prepares the listener for what happens within this movement. The movement begins mysteriously and has a shattering reprisal of the timpani rhythm of the first movement. The orchestra wanders as if it is caught in a maze. It breaks out here and there, but returns to its brooding meditation. The orchestra breaks out in a march similar to what has been heard in the first movement, but it is even more frantic. The orchestra reaches two climaxes, after which the celebrated 'hammer blow of fate' occur. The timpani motif of the first movement is heard throughout the final section as the orchestra gets more and more frantic, as if it is struggling to avoid the inevitable. There is a quiet agitation before the end, and the orchestra slowly dies away before a shattering, incredibly loud climax signals that all the energy expended in the struggle has been concentrated into one last 'big bang' that creates nothing but destroys all.
There is no wonder why Mahler's sixth is among the least performed of his works. Mahler's world of the Sixth Symphony, in the final cataclysmic climax, shows that it is all for naught. We cannot escape our fate. The world of the Sixth Symphony can seem like a world of senseless struggle, bitterness, heartache and loss. For most people to reflect on this is not an easy thing. It has been noted that on the night that he was to premiere the work Mahler paced backstage, wringing his hands and sobbing. He did not authorize the symphony to be subtitled 'Tragic', but the work does fit the title.