If the extent of negative criticism is any indication, the Seventh Symphony is Mahler’s most problematic work. At its first performance, the seventh was coolly received, many critics did not know what to make of its seemingly unrelated movements, its vast sprawling structure, and its wealth of diverse musical ideas. Used to Mahler symphonies bearing some sort of underlying program, the critics found little to tie the five movements together, despite superimposed cross-references, then there is the finale that causes the most difficulty. What would Mahler have meant by all this bombast and mimicry? Superficially, it could be suggested that the night images of the first four movements are dispelled by the broad daylight and overtly raucous comedy of the finale but that explanation seems too simplistic. Is this the only message we are to derive from such extensive work? During the years since the seventh Premier, many distinguished Mahlerian scholars, Derek Cook and Hans Redlich among them have concluded that the symphony is a failure for the most part, despite their recognition of its colorful orchestration, fascinating imagery, and wealth of interesting musical ideas.
According to Dr. Redlich, the symphony’s main problem is its lack of cohesiveness. He contends that the five movements do not relate to each other, but stand independently in marked contrast, despite feeble attempts at thematic connections, for Redlich, the symphony simply does not create the world Mahler claimed, was the touchstone of his symphonies. In a similar vein:
– Alban Berg describes the symphony as regressive
– and Derek Cook, disdainfully call it the Cinderella among Mahler’s symphonies, denigrating the finale by the pejorative Appalachian kapellmeister music.
– Arnold Schoenberg offered a very different opinion in a letter written to Mahler a few months after the premiere. The impressions made on me by the seventh are permanent, I am now really entirely yours. I had the impression of perfect repose based on artistic harmony, of something that set me in motion without simply upsetting my center of gravity, and leaving me to my fate that drew me calmly and pleasingly into its orbit, as though by that force of attraction, which guides the planets in their courses, which leaves them to go their own way, influencing them, certainly, but in a manner so measured and preordained that there are never any sudden jolts. Which movement did I like the best he has? Each one, I can make no distinction. Perhaps I was somewhat hesitant at the beginning of the first movement. But in any case for a short time, and from there onwards, I grew warmer and warmer. And there was not a moment’s relapse, I was in tuned to the very end, and it was all so transparently clear to me. In short, at a first hearing, I felt so many subtleties of form, and yet could follow a main line throughout. It gave me extraordinary pleasure.
Hypocritical Schoenberg rarely heaped praise upon the music of his contemporaries, so unreservedly some commentators even consider the seventh to be two symphonies, one light and gay, the other dark and spooky, presumably playing upon the Night Music titles, given to the second and fourth movements, called a “Nachtmusik”. Richard Speck emphasizes the nocturnal references by characterizing the entire Symphony in terms of day and night. He suggests that the seventh might be called a walk by night, refers to its three middle movements as voices of the night, and the finale he titled into the morning. The subtitle, the song of the night, which is used to tag on to the title of the symphony, not by Mahler, but by his publisher is misleading and is less frequently encountered, but following Speck lead some commentators to describe each of the five movements in night images, the first representing the mystery, beauty and longing of night, the second its apparitions set in a Night March, the third a shadowy and macabre world of superstitious terrors that haunt the night, the fourth, a nocturnal serenade, and the fifth release from the night with the morning bells ringing in bright day. It has also been suggested that the seventh is Mahler’s true romantic Symphony, looking back not only to the 19th century stylistically but to Mahler’s earlier music that was a direct outgrowth of the Romantic era, particularly the songs and symphonies of the first period that was strongly influenced by the Wunderhorn lieder.
In this perspective, Speck soliloquies are about the to Nachtmusikc in colorful phraseology. He describes the first movement as a procession of a ghostly watch moving to long-forgotten march rhythms, and wistful songs have long ago. A second he called a night peace full of sweet voices of love, mysterious whispering, rippling fountains, and the rustling of linden trees in the moonlit square of a quaint little town.
The subject of the night as a symbol for the mysterious unknown, and day as illumination of truth are typical themes in the art of the Romantic era. The recent release of Mahler’s handwritten fare copy of the score reveals that Mahler appended the title Nachtmusik to the second and fourth movements, although he referred to them in correspondence as Andante’s, Mahler did refer to Rembrandt’s night watch when describing the images he sought to evoke in the first Nachtmusik. He conceived of a finale as a movement bathed in sunlight, and overflowing with good humor, in contrast to the dark, mysterious music that precedes it. One could extrapolate from these facts that Mahler intended just what Speck suggests that the subject of the seven is night and day, symbols that Mahler knew well from the works of nature, and Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Beyond such evidence, we have little else from Mahler to lend credibility to these arguments. Mahler had difficulties with the symphony, both during its composition and after its completion.
Alma claimed that it was written in one burst, the two Nachtmusik first and the remainder during the next summer hiatus. Mahler tried to fashion an entire Symphony out of these movements, just as he had created the Fourth Symphony around the previously written Das himmlische Leben . His struggles in attempting to do so are evident in his correspondence with his wife about the symphonies progress during the summer of 1905.
Soon after completing the work during rehearsals for its first performance in Prague, Mahler was plagued by doubts and consequently made ruthless alterations in the orchestration.
The retouched score caused much confusion when it was submitted for publication, many errors and misprints resulted, although such notable musicians and intellectuals as Arnold Berliner, Ossip Gabrilovich, Alan Berg, Arthur Budovsky and Otto Klemperer helped Mahler with revisions and corrections to the score and parts Mahler did not find time to submit a revised score for a second edition. Therefore, we will never know definitely what changes he might have made, what we do know is that although he’s sometimes referred to the seventh as among his best works, he was no more completely satisfied with its orchestration than he was with that of the fifth or sixth. But he did recognize its earthy character, he said, I have to figure out how to make a sausage barrel into a drum, or rusty funnel into a trumpet and a beer garden into a concert hall.
Mahler’s personal life was none too pleasant during the two summers in which he composed the seven. He lost his first child, his dear Pucci sold his beloved Maiernigg summer home, and had to endure the onset of the difficulties he faced in maintaining his position as director of the Vienna Royal Opera that would eventually lead to his resignation.
Yet the Seventh Symphony, a product of such troubled times, is ultimately positive, full of humor and overflowing with fantastical musical imagery. Its coloristic effects are more imaginative and it’s variational and polyphonic techniques, more creative and subtle than in any of his earlier works. While some are confused by the many references to music of the past, alongside forward-looking musical ideas, I believe that such confusion is actually the result of a misunderstanding of the purpose of these musical references, and the role they play in Mahler’s overall conception. Only a short time before composing the seventh model wrote the sixth, his most devastating pronouncement concerning the tragic fate of humanity. This vital get tortured work, exhausted Mahler both physically and emotionally. Having expelled the intense emotions he must have felt in composing the sixth his most personal work, he needed to calm his shattered nerves and divert his mind from thoughts of death that plagued him relentlessly during the symphonies composition.
With the next Symphony the seventh he focused on a lighter yet still demonic side of his spirit, and indulged his penchant for parody. You already exposed that side of his persona in the demonic mimicry of the sixth scherzo movement and the second movement of the fourth, parrot mystic elements also appear in the funeral march movement of the first and the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, where he caricatures Viennese musical traditions. In the seventh, Mahler not only parodies the music of Haydn and Wagner, and takes a swipe at Viennese operetta, but may well have intentionally poked fun at his own musical style. If viewed in this light, the so-called compendium of Mahlerian ideas appearing in the symphony goes far beyond the self-repetition that Redlich disparages those in the seventh, I take the position that Mahler makes a parody of the focal point, not have particular themes or passages, but of the entire Symphony.
It is Redlich apparent that the seventh contains many typical Mahlerian stylistic elements, such as a funeral, March introduction, nature, music, the juxtaposition of dance and march music, and several self quotations or self paraphrases. Even the first movement’s principal theme is quoted toward the end of the finale in a cyclical fashion, a device appropriated primarily from Brooklyn, and already used by Mahler and several of his previous symphonies. I suggest that these characteristics and thematic references are not really substituted for creative inspiration. But self-parody is a kind of humorous self-examination, that is rarely if ever engaged by composers in regard to their own music. It may be that Mahler is a Mephistophelean parody of his hero in the scherzo the sixth Symphony hit home. Consequently, in the seventh, Mahler may have engaged in just the sort of self-examination that the sixth Symphony scherzo suggests, particularly in regard to his own style, not critically, but in the healthy spirit of good humor.
Indulging his humorous side, Mahler deflates the opening funeral march music, making it seem more grotesque than mournful. blatantly he frolics with waltz themes by confusing them with march music in Nachtmusik one. He creates Goblinesque shadows juxtaposed against an absurd little waltz tune in the scherzo movement offers a lovely Nocturne that seems to be invaded by little chirping creatures in Nachtmusik, too. And propounds A stentorian March that battles with a diminutive minuet in the finale, hardly a worthy opponent for Mahler’s hero. In the context of such parody, Mahler continues to increase the complexity of his polyphonic technique. Although never at the expense of clarity and formal design. key switches that terrorize the fifth and sixth symphonies are even more radical in the seventh, intended here to enhance its diabolical humor. The falling fourth is again a prominent feature of the works thematic construction. But here Mahler also uses it harmonically creating chords of superimposed fourths, that, together with by tonal elements lead to new and revolutionary harmonic practices. He also adds to his usual expansive orchestra of a variety of instruments rarely found in a symphony orchestra, such as guitar and mandolin in the Fourth Movement. He exploits each instrument for its special tonal qualities and employs unusual instrumental groupings to produce imaginative effects. Notwithstanding its many unique characteristics, the seventh has much in common with its two predecessors symphonies in its overall structure, and then how Mahler generates and integrates thematic and motivic material.
Like the fifth, it has five movements organized in an arch-like form with the middle movement scherzo as the centerpiece and a Rondo for the finale. Unlike the fifth, the outer movements of the seventh are more extensive than the middle movements, and the scherzo is the shortest rather than the longest movement, as in the fifth, the seventh key structure is an example of progressive tonality, opening in a minor key B minor, with funeral march music, frequently contrasting major and minor tonalities and ending in a bright major tonality, C major in a blaze of exuberant joy. The common ground also exists between the sixth and the seventh, like the sixth, the outer movements of the seventh are longer and more substantial than the middle movements. In both symphonies, classical forms, predominate, grotesquerie is abound. The chordal fate motive appears in the seventh but there it is disguised to produce very different effects than when used in the sixth, cowbells create a nostalgic atmosphere.
A long segmented introduction begins both first movements and serves as a ritornello themes provide melodic material developed during the course of the respective movements. And the principal themes of their first movements are almost mirrored images of each other. It is remarkable that works of such totally different characters one tragic and powerful, the other para mystic and ultimately joyful, can have so much in common.
The angst of the Fifth Symphony is part one, and the doom-laden power of the Sixth Symphony is outer movements are absent for the most part in the Seventh, where even The Conjuring of Hoffmanesque ghost imagery in the middle movements does not frighten but only fascinates and bewilders.
Despite negative commentary on the Seventh, it contains a wealth of creative and interesting ideas, fascinating images, and extraordinary diversity of coloristic effects. Although its structural problems are daunting, when conceived as an enormous musical parody, the divergent strands of the seventh appear to fit together cohesive.
By Lew Smoley