Length: c. 80 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
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 meter, 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 Rembrandt’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.