Mahler Symphony no. 7

performed by the Chicago symphony under James Levine (this is the performance I’ve been listening to, and it’s a fantastic recording. The below is apparently the same, but some of the tempi [and the audio quality] seem off…..)
The above video is a fantastic one, and so I won’t spend much time talking about the structure of the piece or doing a play by play. You just have to watch and listen.
I’m assuming you’ve read Tuesday’s article, Mahler Thus Far: Part II, to catch up on where this symphony fits in with the rest of his symphonic output up to this point. If not, go do that.
Welcome back.
So as we’ve said, this is the last symphonic work of Mahler’s middle period, a period marked by success and ostensibly happy times in his life, a period of purely orchestral symphonies without traditional or folk melodies.
This perhaps strangest of Mahler’s symphonies was one I came strangely to like rather quickly. It’s a large beast of a piece (are there any Mahler symphonies that aren’t?) with its five movements, so the first few listens were lost on me, but the one advantage of the piece is that each of its five movements, at least to me, have a very distinct and kind of identifiable purpose or personality, so once I’d given it a few passive listens front-to-back, it really started to catch my fancy, and I went through a period of a few weeks at least where I was mesmerized by it, listening to every recording of it I could find and keeping my favorites on repeat for quite some time. It was captivating and interesting and dark and mysterious and I just couldn’t get it out of my head.
It’s kind of the black sheep of his symphonic output. Even the other five- or six- movement symphonies have a more traditionally-laid out structure. People are perhaps most perplexed by the final movement, but for whatever reason, it really got to me. I loved it. Symphony, suite, symphonic poem, whatever you call it, I think it’s riveting music.
Anyway, let’s talk a bit about its history. The fourth symphony had been premiered in 1901, the same year the fifth was getting its start, having been premiered in 1904, the same year the seventh was begun. The composer set it aside to finish up the sixth, and picked it back up some time later. It was finished in 1905, but not premiered until three years later, in 1908, and in Prague, not
Vienna. (For reference, the sixth was written in 1903-4, and revised multiple times up until its first performance in 1906.) There were some major changes in Mahler’s life during this time. He left his post at the Vienna State Opera, and Wikipedia makes some unsourced allusion to his falling out of favor there being the reason for the Prague premiere. I don’t know. His first daughter died of scarlet fever, and he found out about his incurable heart condition. Pretty rough time, it seems. Wikipedia also references “small but significant” changes he made in this time that changed the nature of the work somehow. I don’t know, but this symphony was the one in which you would think there would be some dramatic tragic heart-wrenching kind of stuff, but there isn’t. It appeared prematurely, in the sixth.
At a number of its early performances, audiences were confused and not impressed. The piece had a reputation for some time of incoherence and confusion, but it has apparently begun to gain ground and audiences have started warming up to it more. I would love to hear this piece live. Wikipedia also offers paintings that Mahler apparently referenced that are associated with the three inner movements. They’re included in the article on the seventh, and I’ve included them here. The captions are also taken directly from that article.
The piece opens with that interesting tenor horn. It’s not a French horn, nor a trombone, nor a baritone, or even a Wagner tuba, but a tenor horn. At times (during its reappearances throughout the movement), it calls to mind the long, somewhat lonely but very iconic trombone solo of the third symphony. The video above describes the opening of the first movement as funereal, and I’ve never really thought of it that way. It takes some time to get going and build momentum, but it ends up being a robust, really enjoyable march. It’s cast in a pretty traditional sonata form, with recapitulation and everything.
I think what really gets me in this movement is the same thing that I enjoy about the entire piece: no matter how the themes are treated, they’re thoroughly enjoyable. I really love them. This movement is perhaps a good start to sink your teeth into. It’s a big piece (aren’t all of Mahler’s?) but in it are many of the ideas represented throughout the piece. There are lots of contrasts: little moments of solos from a violin, quiet passages, contrasted with big thundering marchy glory. It’s a very rich movement, and as mentioned in the video above, there are lots of interruptions, stops and starts, as there are in the finale.

The Nightwatch by RembrandtMahler compared the first “Nachtmusik” with this painting.”

The second movement begins with horn calls, both nearby and far off. It is the first Nachtmusik movement, as mentioned in the second video above, that bookend the central scherzo. If we adhere to the ‘song of the night’ idea, then the first and second movement are those leading us into the darkest part of the evening, and by now, we should be nearing midnight. This by no means qualifies as a slow movement, as it still has its captivating, strong melodies and more lively moments, but it is kind of ephemeral and bucolic and just as captivating as the opening movement, but quieter, peaceful-ish, but not without suggestions of or hints at more sinister things. There’s also something very… Viennese about it, I feel. This is good Mahler.

“Le Cauchemar by John Henry Fuseli.
This painting illustrates the sinister mood that pervades this scherzo.”

The central movement is the scherzo, perhaps the very focus of this symphony. It is by far the darkest, most sinister, even frightening movement, marked Schattenhaft. Timpani and double bass play a tricky, jumpy little rhythm throughout the piece, and there’s lots of viola in this movement, chilling kind of smooth, slippery lines. Aside from the captivating, harrowing kind of melodies in this movement, the orchestration is fantastic, the textures fascinating. There are moments of a more pleasant lyrical nature, but they’re rudely interrupted when timpani and bass introduce the haunting ‘shadowy’ mood again. This is an incredible movement.

“Nocturnal Serenade by Jan Steen.
This painting depicts an intimate serenade of the kind Mahler parodies in the second “Nachtmusik.””

The fourth movement is the second Nachtmusik movement, and it is the most serene of the bunch. Trumpets, tuba and trombones are tacet for the movement, and the woodwind forces are reduced. The entire movement, in contrast with everything else, then, feels like a chamber piece, nestled into this big, gnarly, dark strange symphony. It’s marked ‘amoroso’ and it feels it. It’s a much more tender movement, the slow movement if there is any for the piece. The movement begins with a solo violin, and even instruments like guitar and mandolin make appearances, rare for a symphony, creating a serenade-like intimate character not felt in the previous Nachtmusik movement, although it isn’t without its ‘diseased’ moments. Wikipedia says:

However, sardonic dissonances give this movement a more satirical and even diseased feel. The trio contrasts with this, and more reflects the intimate mood that would be expected from a Viennese serenade. The movement ends in transcendence, providing a peaceful backdrop for the finale’s abrupt entrance.

The final movement is perhaps the most perplexing for many, but that may stem from a few things. First, the movement, in contrast with what came before it, is ‘riotous’ and loud, rambunctious even, with ridiculous roaring brass and thunderous timpani. It’s confident and bright. This would be our daylight movement. Wikipedia says this is a “rondo combined with eight variations, capped off by a dramatic coda.” There are a few quotes or nods to works of Wagner and Franz Lehar, and is perpetually marked by fiercely, almost offensively bright melodies, dances, and celebration. This intensely positive mood seems not to fit with the rest of the piece, and brought quite a lot of criticism about kind of… the plot of the symphony, like some cliché surprise ending of a movie: “it was a dream the whole time!” that proves unsatisfactory to tie up all the loose ends. Frankly, it doesn’t bother me a bit. I find it a nice contrast to everything else that’s already happened. It would be hard to top the shadowy mischievous darkness of the scherzo, the light but suspenseful foreshadowing or the quaint but mildly troubled nature of the two Nachtmusik movements. There’s been enough of that, really, and while it might be like… Titanic ending with everyone being saved and going off for a picnic in the park, I don’t mind it. It was perhaps unexpected and a bit incoherent for many, but I like to think I get it. Why?
As we spoke about in Tuesday’s article, it is a strangely fascinating thing that Mahler wrote his ‘Tragische’ symphony before the real (and significant) tragedies in his life befell him. One almost naturally places these tragedies in a timeline associated with the sixth, but the seventh was where he really started to deal with these major events in his life. There’s that question of “did Mahler as an artist foresee the tragedies in his own life and use them as inspiration for his sixth symphony?” which I think is a bit of a bogus idea, but a very Romantic one as well, that of the inspired, connected artist.
All that aside, I feel like the relationship between Mahler’s sixth and seventh symphonies is much like that of Scriabin’s sixth and seventh piano sonatas, and not at all because they share the same numbers. We haven’t talked about those, but we will.
Scriabin’s sixth sonata was ‘haunted,’ diseased, and he was afraid of performing it. He wrote the seventh, the white mass, as a sort of cleansing of the darkness of his sixth, and in many ways, I see Mahler’s seventh, the Lied der Nacht, as Mahler’s crawling out of the abyss of despair he created in the sixth. The last movement of the sixth is a dark, horrible stormy affair, and I think of the seventh as his journey out of it, the passage through the night back into the day. The contradictory and almost excessive celebratory nature of the final movement of the seventh also leads quite perfectly into the incredible eighth, which we will not talk about for some time.
While many people will feel this piece to be quite perplexing, and maybe very un-symphonic, I absolutely love this piece. The style of the writing, the bigness of themes and the movements and even the contrasts in expression, with quiet, tender chamber-like passages and all the rest are all very Mahler, but cast in a very creative and unique five-movement structure. Each of the movements is so individual, so evocative of such strong imagery, it is nothing less than gripping from beginning to end. I would almost suggest any of these individual movements as an interesting introduction to Mahler’s music… although in perhaps a more ‘symphonic poem’ way than a traditional symphony.
So… music is what you want it to be. Another existential artistic question is the one about who an artist owes his work to, to whom does he answer? himself, or his audience? Ultimately, I say, it’s to himself, and Mahler seemed more passionate about writing what he wanted to write than pandering ot an audience that may have wanted a rerun of one of his previous symphonies.
This is, up to this point, Mahler’s most unique effort at the symphony, and it would lead to one of the greatest successes of his career, which we probably won’t get to for another six months at least…
It’s a big one. We’re finishing up a spell of more Germanic Symphonies, so for next week, we’ll be enjoying something entirely different. See you then!

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2 thoughts on “Mahler Symphony no. 7

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