With the exception of a few songs and song cycles, the symphony as a musical form was the be all and end all for Gustav Mahler. He composed no concertos, hardly any chamber music, and though he was an important conductor of opera, Mahler wrote no operas himself.
More than a few of Mahler’s compositions have a connection to death and tragedy. The second movement of his Symphony No. 4 features a solo violin as a friendly personification of death, and in the last movement a soprano voice sings of a child’s vision of heaven. Soon after the Symphony No. 4, Mahler composed the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) with words from poems written by Friedrich Rückert expressing his grief following the death of two of his children from scarlet fever. Three years later Mahler also experienced the death of a child, lost his conducting position with the Vienna Opera and received the unfortunate news that he was suffering from heart disease.
The composition that followed Kindertotenlieder was Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. Though it is not so designated on the score, it is frequently called the “Tragic” symphony. The nickname appeared on an early concert program, and the noted conductor and Mahler expert Bruno Walter stated that the composer used the term. The Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music suggests that the symphony “could also be dubbed Fate. Fate makes its presence felt in the dramatic ‘hammer strokes’… in the finale. As for tragedy, this emotion permeates the finale, a giant movement taking some thirty minutes to perform in which a lamentation lapses into utter despair.”
The famous “hammer strokes,” described by Mahler as “like the fall of an axe,” occur in this video at approximately 1:01:43 and 1:05:50.