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
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 6, 1958, Erich Leinsdorf conducting
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.