Length: c. 75 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, tenor horn, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, cowbells, rute, triangle, tam-tam), guitar, mandolin, 2 harps, and strings
World Premiere: September 19, 1908 in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the composer.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 6, 1958, Erich Leinsdorf conducting
First Berlin Philharmoniker performance November 8, 1920 with Conductor Arthur Nikisch
The first movement of Mahler's Seventh Symphony begins with a dark timbre Adagio introduction whose musical history is dominated by the instrumental contrasts between thumps of deep strings and woodwinds and a dotted line of melody Tenor Horns. The first night music will begin with a pastoral toned dialogue of horns; However, the expectation of the symmetrical sequence of "sound" and "echo" remains unfulfilled because of the turn to minor "answer" of the first horn call only approximating their handicap, while the second as inaccurate anticipation of the subsequent call turns out, which in turn "long fading away" remains in waiting for his response. The "shadowy" overwritten Scherzo sentiment first Nachtmusik is taken up and broken into in parts with bizarre acting timbres as in a concave mirror. On the second Nachtmusik, the horn, guitar and mandolin affect the spirit of “German Romanticism,” are followed by the final rondo finale. It is suspected that Mahler may be incorporating idealisms from Adorno or Paul Bekker, but this remains speculation as the composer never commented on these thoughts.
4 Flutes (4th and 2nd piccolo)
Clarinet in Eb 3
The World as a Triptych: Mahler’s Seventh
If Éclat suggests a pen-and-ink drawing, Mahler’s Seventh Symphony can be likened to a sumptuous painting – perhaps a triptych, whose structure is concentric. The middle panel consists of two Nachtmusik (night music) movements that frame a ghostly, puckish Scherzo. On the left flank is the first movement, on the right, the finale; the latter is the (possible) answer to the question posed by the former. But there is confusion to begin with: how can a symphony whose principal key is indicated as E minor be so elated and sensuous? Is it because it was written “in a furor” (Alma Mahler) that inevitably led its composer per aspera ad astra – “through hardships to the stars”? Or did the “yearning for what is beyond the things of this world”, which Mahler spoke of with Natalie Bauer-Lechner, prevail over the profound doubt from which he suffered all his life? Was Adorno right when he wrote that Mahler’s symphonies discern better than he himself “that the object of such yearning is not to be represented as something higher, noble, transfigured”, since it would otherwise become “a Sunday religion, a decorative justification of the world’s course”? The evidence suggests it, especially since the philosopher and music theorist also had a logical explanation ready in the case of the Seventh, when he characterized the intense, essentially false-relation harmony as a kind of “super-major”. That hits the nail on the head, in that this abstract concept corresponds with Mahler’s Faustian penchant for the superlative, for the absoluteness of the will propagated by Schopenhauer.
As paradoxical as it may sound, this symphony does not open the heavens for its composer but rather demonstrates the problems that arise in the collision of the individual with the totality of existence. Fichte’s priority of the ego, transformed into precariousness. Yet this symphony shines, it shines like an evening star, so far away, so near.
That is not yet clear at the opening (“here Nature roars”, Mahler wrote). A subliminal knocking in an indistinct register instead suggests a certain nervousness. In the second bar, however, the warmly resounding solo of the tenor horn begins, and, despite its downwards pointing intervallic structure and setting in a somewhat restless metre, it offers reconciliation and starts a broadly sweeping arioso. The transition to the brisk main section takes place in a strangely austere tonal sphere, which, despite several striking signals, seems strangely hermetic. A traditional sonata form follows, clearly divided into an exposition, development, recapitulation and coda.
The first Nachtmusik is an Allegro moderato; Mahler compared it to the atmosphere in Rem-brandt’s The Night Watch. Formally, the movement is made up of several march-like sections changing from major to minor, alternating between two trios – one in folk-song style, the other lyrical and melancholy. The second Nachtmusik is an Andante amoroso: we picture Romeo before us on Juliet’s balcony, a guitar in his hands. He sings a beautiful, simple song, a love song. This melody evokes an association with the music in Viennese beer gardens. For the Mahler biographer Kurt Blaukopf it “anticipates the symphonic chamber style which Arnold Schoenberg ... established with his Chamber Symphony”.
Mahler placed a Scherzo between the two nocturnes that is reminiscent of a grotesque dance scene from the realm of the spirits. A (somewhat different) Midsummer Night’s Dream, through which satyrs and goblins scurry, sometimes grinning sardonically, sometimes blinking dreamily; sometimes sending glaring flashes of lightning, sometimes vanishing behind each other like shadows; sometimes explosive, sometimes contemplative: sweetly subtle eroticism in everything.
Conceptually, the Rondo-Finale returns to the large form. The basic idea is a ritornello. Mahler saw it as the only possibility to externally coordinate the isolated contrasts. It opens with a powerful intonation by the timpani, makes use of various elements such as fanfare, chorale and march, then sets off on a 15-minute journey to the C major apotheosis of the first theme. This is not the only passage where the close conceptual and material relationship to the first movement of the symphony becomes obvious. The structure and melodic texture of the two main themes point to material already heard earlier, although the profile of the rondo idea does not have the same depth or weight as the Allegro theme in the first movement.
Perhaps one can put it like this: Mahler’s music is the reflection of a world which suffers from itself and assigns the role of the sufferer to the individual, who is the cause of this suffering in the first place. His Weltschmerz is pain caused by both the beauty and the ugliness of the world. For him, the most wonderful element dwells directly beside the most hideous, love next to madness, and madness next to death. The images produced in the media every day are already contained in Mahler’s music. To understand the world, its mechanisms, it is enough to hear this music. One must only endure it, over and over again.
Translation: Phyllis Anderson
More on Symphony No. 7
The name of Gustav Mahler, though now a seeming household name (at least in orchestral circles), was not always so de rigueur. Quite the opposite. In the first half of the 20th century, his works were performed much less frequently. Had it not been for Leonard Bernstein championing the composer's music - particularly in his discourse on the subject, "Mahler: His Time Has Come" - the work we hear on these concerts might not have joined the repertory so readily.
Even now, the Seventh is still one of Mahler's least-performed symphonies. It was one of the few of his big compositions that wasn't programmatic; that is, there was no accompanying story that inspired the music or illustrated it somehow. This appealed to some, such as modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, who considered it Mahler's best work to date. When Schoenberg heard the Symphony No. 7 in 1909, he wrote to the composer, saying: "I had…the feeling of that sensational intensity which excites and lashes one on, which…moves the listener in such a way as to make him lose his balance without giving him anything in its place… there is surely a difference…in being at rest and in tranquility, in the state in which beauty is enjoyed."
The Seventh Symphony has more than a few moments that capture the intimacy of a chamber group, in which only a few instruments are playing. Mahler often seems content in this Symphony using these more transparent textures, and appears to have less of a sense of urgency to build, build, build to a roaring climax.
The first of the Symphony's five movements begins softly and delicately in the lower register of the strings and woodwinds. A tenor horn - a rarely-used brass instrument that intones the first melody - sets the tone for the movement, and really, the entire Symphony. It is an instrument more likely to be encountered in a brass band than in an orchestra, and it evokes the Austrian countryside.
Yes, Mahler does give us the bravado of a big build up or two, with brassy snorts in the horns, a timpani thwack here and there, and broadly singing strings. Yet midway through the movement, we encounter quiet moments, for example when solo violin and English horn interact for a brief interlude to be joined in a small huddle of strings and woodwinds for another interval. A bit later the texture of the opening returns with prolonged wailing in the brass. Mahler the Romantic triumphs with a vengeance at movement's end, as the brass lend a tutti exclamation point.
The second movement is one of two middle movements titled Serenade, or "Nachtmusik" (night music). Mahler continues to use the intimate textures of a chamber ensemble presenting a dream-like music which seems to continually transform itself, morphing into something different. A solitary horn begins, another joins, noodling woodwinds chime in. The use of mutes in the answering horn gives the music a sense of spaciousness. A march-like pulse emerges that is at times funereal, at other times celebratory. Later, the recurring horn call is accompanied by the ringing of the Herdenglocken (cowbells), like the distant sound of a passing herd of Holsteins. Even an ersatz tango appears.
The Scherzo is a raggedy waltz, a demented version of the upbeat dance that graces many a symphony. It is Johann Strauss, Jr. on downers, or after a bender. Once again in this movement, Mahler explores the various textures of the orchestra and leaves plenty of space for splashing his musical colors. Listen for solos of every kind, but especially the viola.
In the second Serenade - also subtitled "Nachtmusik" - Mahler continues the sparse textures; he again features solo instruments prominently, this time violin, cello, and the ubiquitous horn. His rustic bent continues, too, as he uses mandolin and guitar in this movement, two instruments which many might also identify with a romantic "serenade" under a window. (Its tempo indication is even Andante amoroso.) As Mahler creates a kaleidoscopic pastiche of romantic instrumental colors, he almost never raises his voice, preferring rather to whisper. Our attention is focused on the various intimate orchestral hues.
This lengthy seduction scene leads to the inevitable Mahlerian passion in the Finale. It begins with an obstreperous and boisterous drum and brassathon, giving way to hints of the intimate moments that preceded it, including the instrumental folksiness. This time Mahler calls for the rute, a percussion instrument that resembles a small broom which wallops the wooden part of the bass drum, and a return of the Herdenglocken. The gargantuan orchestral symphonic edifice is eventually on display, as Mahler whips the orchestra into a final whirlwind of sound.
To paraphrase Schoenberg, Mahler's Symphony No. 7 is a work which takes away the guardrails, revealing the musical precipice at the turn of the 20th century. As much as any Mahler work, it is a grand homage to the Romantic past and a fitting greeting to the more raucous and ear-bending music to come in the century.
- Dave Kopplin serves on the music faculty at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.