Symphony No. 7
The Carnegie Hall and NY premiere of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony took place on March 8, 1923, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem Mengelberg.
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The Symphony at a Glance
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony was neglected for many years, but in recent years has become a favorite of the concert hall. The symphony features many of the composer’s favorite musical types—marches, ländlers, fanfares—and in it Mahler continued to push the limits of the symphonic structure and the tonality of his day. With its tenebrous opening and its two “night music” movements, the Seventh Symphony often explores dark corners of the soul; perhaps not surprisingly, it was premiered during a period of grief and upheaval in Mahler’s life that included the death of his four-year-old daughter and his resignation from the Vienna Opera, as well as the diagnosis of a heart ailment that would eventually cause his death. Yet the darkness is counterbalanced by light—most strikingly in the finale, which radiates light and triumph.
The Symphony In Depth
In June 1905, Mahler headed back to his summer residence at Maiernigg, on the Wörthersee, to continue work on his Seventh Symphony, but he could not find the way into the composition. He took off for the Dolomites, hoping to release his creative energies, but nothing happened. Profoundly depressed, he returned. He stepped from the train and was rowed across the lake. With the first dipping of the oars into the water, he recalled later, “the theme of the introduction (or rather, its rhythm, its atmosphere) came to me.” From that moment he worked like a man possessed.
The Seventh is a victory symphony, not a personal narrative but a journey from night to day (it is sometimes called Song of the Night). The focus is on nature. If the Seventh is a Romantic symphony, one should add that the “distancing” effect produced by the outward-pointing, non-narrative character of the music can also be perceived as Classical.
Audio Excerpt 1
Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 7 (I. Langsam)
The opening ( 1) is music in which we may hear not only the stroke of oars, but the suggestion of a cortege. Here Mahler carries us from a slow introduction into the main body of a sonata-allegro movement, adhering to the design that afforded symphonists from Haydn through Bruckner a broad range of expressive possibilities. Settling into a new key, he brings in a gorgeous theme, a highly inflected violin melody full of yearning and verve, rising to a tremendous climax to merge into the music of the second of the three marches we have heard. More such merges lie ahead. At the focal point of the development comes what must be the most enchanted minute in all Mahler, a transformation of the second march from focused to veiled, and an ecstatic vision of the glorious lyric theme. A sudden plunge of violins returns us, shockingly, to the slow introduction. The recapitulation has begun. It is tautly compressed. The coda is fierce and abrupt.
Audio Excerpt 2
Excerpt from Mahler Symphony No. 7 (II. Nachtmusik I)
The opening of the first of the Nachtmusiken is a minute of preparation and search. The theme that emerges is part march, part song. ( 2) The Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg said that this movement had been inspired by Rembrandt’s Night Watch, though the composer Alphons Diepenbrock said that Mahler “cited the painting only as a point of comparison.”
Mahler’s direction for the scherzo ( 3) is Schattenhaft, literally “like a shadow” but perhaps better rendered as “spectral.” Notes scurry about, cobwebs brush the face, witches step out in a ghastly parody of a waltz. The trio is consoling, almost.
The first Nachtmusik was a nocturnal patrol, the second is a serenade that Mahler marks andante amoroso. Guitar, mandolin, and harp create a magical atmosphere. ( 4)
After these four night scenes comes the brightness of day, with a thunderous tattoo of drums to waken us. ( 5)The orchestra proclaims a spirited fanfare whose trills put it on the edge of parody. Few here will fail to be reminded of Die Meistersinger. But what is that about? Mahler uses Die Meistersinger as an easily recognizable symbol for a good-humored victory finale. No part of the harmonic map is untouched, while the rhythms sway in untamed abandon. Then we hear music we have not heard for a long time—the fiery march from the first movement. Or rather, we hear a series of attempts to inject it into the proceedings. Just as we think the attempts have been abandoned, the drums stir everything up again, and the theme enters in glory.
Michael Steinberg is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony’s program book and author of three "Listener’s Guides" published by Oxford University Press—The Symphony, The Concerto, and Choral Masterworks, as well as (with Larry Rothe) For the Love of Music.
This note reprinted courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony, copyright © 2005.