In the instrumental symphony trilogy, the Seventh constitutes a particular and extreme case and the most advanced in demonstrating Mahler’s modernism. At first glance, it is somewhat difficult to detect the slightest conducting line or unity of purpose which can fully justify the combination of five such disparate pieces. Here, it can be said that Mahler, who never shied away from extravagance, reached the height of his evolution. The first movement is the most modern part of the symphony; it is followed by a piece that brings together reminiscences and symbols evocative of a romantic past (first Nachtmusik); the most demonic and the most terrifying of all his Scherzos; the most “falsely innocent” of his symphonic idylls (second Nachtmusik); and finally the most insane, “side-tracked”, “cracked” and provocative of all his Finales.
If the Seventh Symphony seems less joined up than those previously, this is probably due to the fact that the second movements, the two Nachtmusiken, were written before the other three. In 1904, Mahler set himself the task of completing the Sixth Symphony during the summer. However, as had already happened to him so often when leaving his job in Vienna behind, he tortured himself for several days before finding the inspiration to start work. Feeling hopeless, he would again leave his desk to go on an excursion to Toblach, South Tyrol, from where he would take the road up to Lake Misurina. It was probably here, while vainly seeking inspiration for his Finale, that the themes for the two nocturnal movements came to mind, as well as other “parasitic” ideas which he would note down should they not fit directly into the work in progress. We do not know much more about the work that took place during that summer except that, by the end of August, he had completed not only the Sixth Symphony, but also completed drafts for the two Nachtmusiken. Incidentally, this was a unique moment in his creative life: never before had he worked simultaneously on two different pieces.
One year later, in 1905, Mahler returned to Maiernigg after another gruelling season at the Vienna Opera. And once again he spent ten days torturing himself, unable to find the necessary inspiration for the piece’s other movements, particularly the first. Another excursion to South Tyrol seemed the only way forward and he spent two and a half hours hastily circling one of the lakes in the region. He was in an atrocious mood, not only because he was suffering from a persistent migraine, but because it was the Corpus Christi public holiday and, consequently, the hostel where he was staying was packed and terribly noisy. For once, the beautiful landscapes could not lift him out of his depression. “As you must remember”, he wrote to Alma a few years later, “I plagued myself to gloom… until I tore off to the Dolomites! There it was the same story. So, I gave up and returned home, convinced that the whole summer was lost. In Krumpendorf, where you weren’t waiting for me because I hadn’t announced my arrival, I got into the boat to be ferried across. At the first stroke of the oars, the theme (or rather the rhythm and character) of the introduction to the first movement came to mind. In four weeks, the first, third and fifth movements were completely finished.”
In this precious letter from June 1910, Mahler wanted to remind his wife about his inability to write music “on demand”. In 1905, the boatman’s magic oar strokes unlocked Mahler’s annual creative block and the Seventh Symphony was born. On 15th August, he wrote a letter (in Latin) to his friend Guido Adler to announce he had finished the Seventh Symphony and four days later sent a card to Richard Strauss with the same message. As for editing and creating it, he announced he would wait as long necessary but that it was important to recognise that any wait was due to events out of his control. Indeed, because the first performance of the Sixth Symphony had been less well received than the Fifth, a few weeks before the creation of the Seventh, scheduled for September 1908, Mahler found himself without a publisher. As a result, he had to resign himself to having the orchestral material copied at his own expense and to having to take very humiliating steps for a composer of his age and notoriety. The small Leipzig firm, Lauterbach & Kühn (which would soon be bought by the Berlin publisher Bote & Bock) finally accepted his proposal and the score was published sometime during 1910.
Prague and the hectic setting of an exhibition celebrating the Emperor’s jubilee was probably a risky choice for the first performance of his new symphony, but Mahler did not come to regret it. The orchestra’s dynamism and the inexhaustible enthusiasm of the Czech and German musicians gathered in Prague for the occasion, made it a wise choice. He was afforded almost two weeks of rehearsals which he had certainly never enjoyed previously. The memory of these working days would never leave the many friends and followers around him, in particular Bruno Walter, Artur Bodansky, Otto Klemperer and Ossip Gabrilowitsch and later on, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alban Berg, Oskar Fried, Klaus Prindsheim, etc. Most agreed that the rehearsal atmosphere was harmonious but conferred that the applause at the end of first performance was more a mark of respect than appreciation. With a few exceptions, the Czech and Austrian press were courteous, but this did not distract from their general lack of enthusiasm for the performance. Of course, Mahler was no longer being accused of creative impotence, but there was still much surprise at the many “banalities” and popular material in such a serious piece of work. Overall, the Serenade attracted a few more appreciative comments. It took many years for the Seventh Symphony to be fully accepted. It is the most recently recorded studio symphony (1953) and, to date, remains the least popular of Mahler’s symphonies.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is made up of five movements:
When thinking about the rationale behind the Seventh Symphony, there are few clues. First of all, the Nachtmusik heading which Mahler used for the second and fourth movements. At first glance, it seems to refer to a remote era when “night music” was performed outdoors. However, despite their common heading, the two Nachtmusiken in the Seventh Symphony are very different. The first is, in itself, a paradox, since the military nature is particularly assertive and yet it is difficult to imagine a battalion moving through the night with military music in mind! Two of Mahler’s Dutch friends, Willem Mengelberg and Alfons Diepenbrock, claimed that Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch painting, which Mahler had admired at the Rijkmuseum, was the inspiration behind this nocturnal movement, but Mahler said later that he had only thought of it as a “patrol” full of fantastic chiaroscuro”. References to the military nature of Mahler’s childhood and to the Knaben Wunderhorn are very apparent here and one can consider this movement as a wordless Wunderhorn Lied.
As for the second night music movement, Alma Mahler reveals that while composing the Seventh Symphony, Mahler was beset by the “murmuring springs” in Eichendorff poems and his “German romanticism”. Referring back to the first movement, Willem Mengelberg claims to have heard Mahler talking during the Amsterdam rehearsals and referring to a “violent, self-opinionated, brutal and tyrannical force”, of a “tragic night”, “without stars or moonlight”, governed by “the power of darkness”. According to him, the tenorhorn voice in the introduction is claiming: “I’m master here! I’ll impose my will!”
However disparate the different pieces may seem to be, the overall outline of the Seventh Symphony is nonetheless characterised by a striking symmetry and, with some modifications, would also appear in Das Lied von der Erde and the Tenth Symphony. Roughly speaking, these are two quick movements made up of a sonata and a rondo which embody three free-form pieces. As we have seen, in the Seventh Symphony Mahler used a more modern language than he has ever used before, with relentless dissonances, sudden modulations and chord sequences belonging to remote keys. It also showcased an abundance of harmonic foreign notes which are justified by the individual leading voices.
-1-Scherzo : Langsam. Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo, 4/4, B minor/ E minor
The Introduction immediately creates an obscure and mysterious mood. Three parts follow on from one another: the initial march, almost funereal in its
immensity, a second lighter and more lively march (I’), which plays an essential role in the Allegro (winds supported by pizzicato strings), and finally a considerably modified repeat from the opening section, introduced by a new version of the initial theme (with trombones). The instrumental solo that opens the symphony is entrusted to the tenorhorn (in French, a B flat baritone), an instrument blessed with a disturbing and deeply penetrating sound. A feeling of instability and uneasiness arises from the very start with the use of a rare interval, a diminished fifth, and then a feeling of emptiness from the accentuation of the theme, in which, twice, the downbeat falls on a held note.
As for the fateful rhythm of the accompaniment, it came from Mahler’s memory of rowing a boat on the Wörthersee, but it also recalls one of the most famous
episodes of the Verdian opera, the “Misery” of Trovatore. According to Mengelberg, this introduction is a portrayal of the night, the forces of darkness, against which the conquering enthusiasm of the first theme will fight. The least one can say is that this conquering enthusiasm is somewhat short of breath. Indeed the lyrical episodes – and in particular the second theme – are so numerous and so extensive that one finally has the impression of not being in front of a symphonic Allegro, but rather in front of a slow
movement cut off by quick interludes.
Closely related to the introduction, the initial Allegro theme owes its voluntary and somewhat deformed character to the numerous successions of melodic fourths which foresee those of Schönberg’s Kammersymphony, and indicate the impending shake up of the composition’s tonality. As for the second theme, in C major (B), it is a long ecstatic melody, still emblematic of the Kindertotenlieder universe and the Andante of the Sixth Symphony, but belonging to a great family of ascending themes which symbolised Mahler’s metaphysical optimism throughout his career. The small step of the introduction (I’) now serves as a transition from the development. After a varied rerun of the conquering theme, it gradually lets itself be won over by the expansive lyricism of the second element (B). The tempo accelerates and gives way again, this time for a long burst of dreamy immobility where the chorale motif (low strings and woodwinds) is nothing other than a new interpretation of I’. It is answered by birds calls and distant fanfares. Then, in a new moment of ecstasy, comes the B theme, bringing back the tempo and rhythm of the introduction. It isn’t long before it reappears in its entirety. Given the crucial role that this second theme has played in the development, one might expect to see it banned from recapitulation, but it isn’t. On the contrary, he reaches new heights of lyricism and rises to vertiginous heights in the treble.
-2-Nachtmusik : Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante) 4/4, C inor/major.
After a slightly faster introduction, the movement itself maintains a stable tempo, something very rare in Mahler’s works. The spatialization effect, obtained with the help of two horns, the second of which must be played quietly, echoes the dialogue between the two wood instruments at the beginning of the “Scene in the Countryside”, taken from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. As for the major chord which becomes minor, it is a simple quotation of the harmonic leitmotif from the preceding symphony, but here it is deprived of its “pessimistic” meaning. Because, despite the “fateful” rhythm of the march which is reminiscent of the Wunderhorn Lieder from the Hamburg era and the dactylic and “military” motif (violins ol legno) from Revelge, the overall atmosphere of this Nachtmusik is not tragic. There are two alternating episodes, the first played on the strings (with imitation on low strings) and the second on the bass strings. Like in the first movement, this one includes motionless episodes, with fanfares and bird song mixed intermittently with cowbells from the previous symphony (Mahler gives them a more or less marked distancing effect) . We end up being somewhat disturbed by this abundance of “symbolic” elements borrowed from such contrasting universes. The melody of the first Trio (cellos), accompanied by brass triplet chords, is one of Mahler’s most boldly plebeian, but a closer examination reveals many asymmetries and all kinds of subtleties. In the second trio (Poco meno mosso), the soft oboe duet seems to depict a complete change of atmosphere, but the march rhythm takes over after just a few bars. The piece is harmoniously completed by the freely worked return of the two central episodes.
-3- Scherzo. Schattenhaft [Shadowy]. Fliessend aber nicht schnell [Flowing, but not fast] 3/4, D minor.
A feeling of uneasiness is immediately felt due to the strange rhythmic instability of the opening section: timpani strokes on the third beat (weak) and double bass pizzicati which are not accentuated on the strong beat. An almost mechanical round of triplets whirl around in a freezing void, without hardly any harmony accompaniment. A waltz episode lightens the mood for a short moment, but its initial grace soon gives way to wild popular celebration (the Berliozian “Night of the Sabbath” is not far away), with the ternary rhythm being heavily and almost brutally chanted by the brass instruments. In the trio, the lyrical and somewhat plaintive song of the flute and oboe seems
to restore a sense of calm which the interlude of quick eighth notes destroy almost immediately.
-4- Nachtmusik : andante amoroso. Mit Aufschwung [With momentum] 2/4, F major.
In this second Nachtmusik, Mahler purposely gave a key role not only to the harp, but also to the guitar and the mandolin, instruments with subtle sounds and quite unusual in the symphonic context. He did not call it “Serenade”, but rather “amoroso”; the ever-present sound of plucked strings and the regularity of the rhythm certainly give it this temperament. It’s easy to understand that Schönberg was fascinated by this enigmatic piece, to the point of using Mahler’s guitar in his own Sérénade Op. 24 from 1923.
Before the Finale carnival, this movement played a role similar to that of the Adagietto in the Fifth Symphony, but this time it was not a simple orchestral Lied, but rather a slow movement in which the atmosphere has no similarity to that of the famous song. With its ambiguity, false innocence, nostalgic atmosphere and lack of subjectivity, it is unlike anything else Mahler had ever created before.
The first bars serve as an introduction, as if the person giving the serenade was warming up on their instrument. The same obsessive refrain is soon interposed between each episode, giving the form an air of simplicity and evidence that is denied elsewhere. The tone and atmosphere remain impersonal and deeply ambiguous and the whole piece lacks any real meaning. A few short passages release a more subjective emotional character, but each time they are interrupted by the return of the symmetrical rhythm and the “old-fashioned” accompanying motifs.
-5- Rondo Finale. Allegro ordinario 4/4, C Major.
Here we are faced with with Mahler’s most surprising, unusual, disconcerting … and, quite frankly, most unpopular piece. He claims to have wanted to portray “full daylight” and the blazing midday sun, but as in the Finale of the Fifth Symphony, a veil of irony constantly turns rejoicing into mockery. This Finale will always fascinate like a kind of “monster”, not because of its fake explosions of joy, but because of its paradoxes, attitude, about-turns and caricatural neoclassicism.
The first thematic element is exposed by the least melodic instrument of all, the timpani, and in a different key to the actual piece, since it is in E minor. As for the main theme, it is immediately obvious that Wagner’s Overture to the Mastersingers is its main influence. However, even with the noise of the carnival, there are all kinds of strange things going on, including the appearance of tonal forms and fanfares with no link to their original meaning and which tell us nothing, and so it is impossible to genuinely rejoice. After such an exuberant introduction, one would expect to see the Rondo continue in the same tone. Instead, a sharp break in tone (and key) introduces a curious A-flat tune (in which a reference to the famous Merry Widow Waltz is seen). These two strongly contrasting episodes are soon followed by a third, a sort of paradoxical minuet containing old-fashioned formulas and antiquated counterpoints. Its false innocence has nothing to do in the context and confirms the ambiguity between the learned and the comical, as seen in Wagner’s Mastersinger. Here we find the whimsical humour, irony and derision of E.T.A. Hoffmann.
We could go on and on about the most provocative of all of Mahler’s pieces and the immense kaleidoscope of developments contained within, in which the motifs are
tirelessly crushed, distorted, transformed and mixed together. We constantly wonder whether we should listen to it at a primary level at not take it at face value. What is most striking is the pleasure Mahler seems to take from the discontinuity of the piece, the brutality of the ruptures, and the “polyphony” of styles and atmospheres which ultimately seems to constitute the piece’s very raison d’être.
“In any case, the return, at the end of the Rondo, of the inspiring theme of the initial Allegro, does not in any way seem to consummate the definitive triumph of any symphonic hero. To really understand the meaning of these enigmatic pages, it is perhaps necessary to refer to more recent music, in which the quotation, second degree and ambiguous reference to the past constitute the main subject. In my opinion, one should listen to the Finale of the Seventh Symphony as if it were “”new music””, or in any case conscious music, created before the unease of our modern times. The phrase used by Mahler himself to define the mood of this movement, “”Was kostet die Welt? “”[After all, you can buy anything!] does not truly capture its ferocious irony or its cracks, borrowed smiles, feigned innocence, complex developments and almost dizzying complexity.
In the end, is it not the triumph of the Alltags, always his greatest enemy, that Mahler is celebrating here? Because rejoicing constantly turns into parody, heaven touches hell, day turns into night, joy turns to despair, laughter to a painful grimace, the smell of incense to sulphur, a Te Deum to a carnival atmosphere, gold to lead… And despite everything, despite these ruptures, challenges, provocations, (and perhaps even because of them), over the course of reading the pages we begin to understand that Mahler had actually never before composed anything more original or more prophetic than this unappreciated and unloved Rondo.”