The Seventh has always been the neglected stepsister among Mahler’s ten symphonies, and greater familiarity over the last several decades has not yet transformed it into Cinderella. The last of Mahler’s three purely instrumental “middle” symphonies, the Seventh had the strangest creation of any of his symphonies. In the summer of 1904, Mahler brought his family to their summer retreat at Maiernigg, on the southern shore of the Wörthersee in central Austria. That summer, Mahler composed some of his darkest music, the finale of the Sixth Symphony, then pressed on to write two quite different movements. Both were relatively brief, both were relaxed, and Mahler referred to them as Nachtmusik movements: “night-music” or “serenades.” But he had no idea how they might fit into a larger symphonic context.
Mahler returned to Maiernigg in the summer of 1905, still with no idea how to proceed. A trip to the Dolomites and a walk around a favorite lake there brought no inspiration, and the dejected composer headed back to Maiernigg. At Klagenfurt, he got into a boat to be rowed across to Maiernigg, and “As soon as the oar touched the water the theme (or rather the rhythm and the feeling) of the introduction to the first movement came to me–and in four weeks the first, third, and fifth movements were ready and done with!” In fact, Mahler wrote the third movement first, then the finale, and only then did he go back and compose the first movement. Mahler led the premiere of the Seventh Symphony on September 19, 1908 in Prague, where his wife Alma reported that it had only a success d’estime.
Mahler claimed to be wary of providing programs for his symphonies, yet he left a wealth of hints as to what the Seventh is “about.” The Seventh, he said, is about the progress from night to day. A massive opening movement, which depicts what he called “the power of darkness . . . [night as a] violent, stubborn, brutal, and tyrannical force,” is followed by three briefer movements that offer different responses to night. The finale, which Mahler nicknamed “Der Tag” (Day), escapes the darkness and thrusts us into bright C-major sunlight. For some years, the Seventh even had the spurious nickname “Song of the Night,” a title that did not originate with the composer (and which in fact is legitimately the nickname of Karol Szymanowski’s Third Symphony).
Mahler’s program seems a likely dramatic sequence, but for all its many strengths, the Seventh remains the least-familiar of Mahler’s symphonies. About one thing, however, everyone agrees: the Seventh is an uneven work of art. The three inner movements–the two Nachtmusik movements and the central scherzo–have an instant charm, and in the days before Mahler’s music became popular, they were sometimes performed by themselves. When in the 1950s Erich Leinsdorf led them with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was taken to task the following day on the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, which demanded to hear the outer movements. And it is these outer movements, particularly the finale, that have occasioned sharp debate.
Mahler described the opening movement as “tragic night” and even went so far as to say that it is “dominated by a tragic and elemental power, that of Death.” It opens quietly with the pulsing rhythm inspired by the oars, and over this intrudes the strange sound of the tenorhorn. Mahler, who asks that this passage be played with großer Ton, referred to this beginning as the sound of “nature roaring.” Gradually the music eases ahead and becomes a march, and this in turn accelerates into the main body of the movement. A spectacular collection of night-sounds–shrieks, whistles, trills–accompanies the rush into the main theme, a mighty horn-call marked Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo. To the conductor Willem Mengelberg, Mahler described this theme as the force that would do battle against the forces of the night. The second subject is one of the most beautiful melodies Mahler ever wrote, a soaring theme for violins that he marks Mit großem Schwung: “With great energy, swing.”
The development is long and episodic, and one of its interludes deserves particular mention. The music grows quiet and solemn, and a harp glissando sweeps us into a moment that can only be described as magic: Mahler stacks up all four of his main themes–the opening oar rhythm, the march, the main horn theme, and the violins’ soaring second subject–and presents them simultaneously. It is a moment fully worthy of those other towering examples of symphonic counterpoint, the finales of Mozart’s Jupiter and Bruckner’s Eighth, and the wonder is that instead of sounding chaotic or forced, this episode sounds so luminous and beautiful. Mahler builds to a climax he marks Grandioso, and the march propels the movement to its firm close. Mahler may have believed this movement full of night and death, but it ends in a triumph that appears to have dispelled the forces of darkness.
The three interior movements, all much shorter, offer less ominous faces of the night. Mahler said that the second movement was inspired by Rembrandt’s painting The Night Watch and felt that this particular patrol was moving through what he called “fantastic semi-darkness.” Listeners should not search for a literal depiction of a patrol at night but instead for the sense of moving through darkness. The opening horn call and its d
istant answer create a sense of space, and Mahler heightens this with periodic use of quiet cowbells, heard from afar.
Shortest of the movements, the central scherzo is full of “things that go bump in the night.” Mahler marks this movement Schattenhaft (“Shadowy”), and it rushes past like something flickering through the darkness. Much of the writing is in the depths of the orchestra (full of whirring, thumping, banging sounds from low strings, tuba, timpani), and the music keeps breaking into ghostly little waltzes that are more devilish than demonic–this movement is fun rather than frightening. At the end, the waltz falls apart, and the movement ends with a wry joke.
Mahler’s marking for the fourth movement–Andante amoroso–reminds us that there is another side to night: it is also the time of love. This is a moonlit serenade, and Mahler underlines that character by including guitar and mandolin, instruments that traditionally accompany such music, and scoring much of it for another instrument associated with the music of love, the solo violin. Night here is warm and perfumed, and this sensual music is scored with unusual delicacy: Mahler gives the percussion and all brass except two horns this movement off. Cellos and then violins sing luxuriously in the central episode, but the opening serenade returns to close out the movement on the guitar’s softly-strummed chords.
All this delicacy vanishes in the first instant of the finale, which opens with timpani salvos, wild horn trills, and a trumpet solo that rips into the stratosphere. We have left behind night, in its many apparitions, and are now in the full light of day. This finale, brilliantly scored and written, overflows with incandescent energy. It is also full of quotations from other music, and if the main theme seems to take the shape of another piece of celebration music–Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger–what are we to make of the other references? Some have heard a touch of Lehár’s The Merry Widow here, others a bit of Mendelssohn there, and there is even a whiff of Rimsky’s Russian Easter Overture along the way. More unsettling are the movement’s constant dislocations. This music hurtles through instantaneous changes of key, tempo, mood, and even kinds of music, and while this has been described as a kaleidoscopic inclusiveness, sometimes it feels as if Mahler is shifting gears without benefit of clutch. Episodic and wildly varied as this music may be, Mahler provides a degree of balance by bringing back the main theme of the opening movement as he nears the conclusion, and it is a measure of the suddenness of his vision in the rowboat that the finale–written first–returns to the main theme of a movement written after it was complete. First we hear bits of that theme, and finally–to the sound of wildly pealing bells–the full theme is shouted out in all its glory, and the symphony hurtles to its close.
The finale of the Seventh Symphony has become a lightning rod for those who love Mahler’s music, and there have been many efforts to explain it. Even so devoted a Mahlerian as Deryck Cooke was brutally frank about this movement, saying that “there can be no question that the finale is largely a failure.” But others have found much to praise here. Some have viewed the finale as a dizzy festival of all human activity, seen in the bright light of day, its confusions and dislocations simply a portrait of the chaotic human state. Others believe it satiric, a withering look back at the rotting world of Hapsburg Europe; this, they say, would explain the number of quotations. Still others see it as prophetic, Mahler looking ahead from 1905 to foresee World War I and the destruction of Europe, and their argument is that of course such music should leave us unsettled.
The Seventh Symphony is the most fantastic music (in the literal sense of that adjective) that Mahler ever wrote. This long night’s journey into day is a dazzling passage: the three middle movements have considerable charm, and there is much to love in that strange, dark first movement. But more than anything else it is the finale–the destination point of that journey–that has proven the thorniest part of the Seventh Symphony. Listeners come out of this finale (and so out of the entire symphony) amazed, fascinated, dizzied–and challenged to make full sense of this fantastic symphonic journey.