The programmatic content of this symphony can be described as the struggle for existence of the wanting, creative man against the inexorability of destiny, which ends catastrophically with the undoing of the hero. Among all of Mahler’s symphonies, the Sixth is the only, that shows no way out and finishes in a gloomy minor key.
The orchestration outnumbers even the instrumentation of the fifth, but Mahler arranged the sound effects more economically. As characteristic sound symbols he uses herd bells and hammers: According to his own statement, the herd bells are the last tone that sounds from earth to a lonely person in farthest height, a symbol of total loneliness. The sound effect of the hammer stands for the blows, which brake finally the will.
The weighing down effect of destiny is represented by a recurrent motif symbol, the sudden change from A major to A minor triad.
According to Mahler’s wife Alma, the second passionate theme is supposed to reflect Alma’s position in Mahler’s life.