What is it about Mahler’s Seventh Symphony?

mahler mountains

Mahler hiking in The Dolomite Mountains

Mahler was a very busy conductor and composed only in the summers, in the mountains. He began to compose the two middle movements of his seventh, which he called Nachtmusiken (night musics), in summer of 1904. There are indications that he began to compose the first Nachtmusik while still completing his sixth symphony; that same summer.

This was a bit unusual.  He was literally trying to compose the work from the inside out, having composed the 2nd and 4th movements, he would need to create the 1st, 3rd, and 5th, one year later. Mahler had composed the movements of a symphony out of order before; his fourth. He took an unused seventh movement from his third symphony (feeling he had too many) and used that as the finale of his fourth symphony. He then composed the other movements in reverse order. But in that case, he knew how the symphony would end and composed the other movements in sequence organically; the symphony then seemed to progress naturally, movement to movement from beginning to end.

It was different with the seventh. Mahler had to turn the two core movements into a full-scale symphony. He didn’t have an ending to build up to, and whatever ending he would write would need to follow naturally from the beginning and middle movements, but the 1st movement hadn’t been written yet, and neither had the 3rd!

Not surprisingly, the following summer Mahler had difficulty trying to resume work on the other movements. In a letter to his wife, Alma, Mahler recalled “In the summer [of 1905] I had planned to complete Symphony VII… Two weeks long I tortured myself to distraction until I fled to the Dolomites! There the same struggle, until finally I gave up and headed home in the conviction that the summer was lost to composition.”

Mahler almost gave up for the summer. He came down from his mountain retreat and needed to take a boat across the Worthersee lake. In that letter to Alma, Mahler recalled, “I entered the boat to be rowed across the lake. At the first dip of the oars I found my theme (or better, the rhythm and manner) of the introduction to the first movement.” Mahler was then able to complete the other three movements in a month!

As musicologist and editor Hans Redlich said, “…the solution on which Mahler eventually hit necessitated keeping the middle movements (with their connecting link – the shadowy Scherzo) an isolated island of experience separated from the flanking movements by the unbridgeable gulf of stylistic incompatibility.” It was like parts of two different symphonies in one. Mahler may have sensed this. In her memoirs, his wife Alma mentions, “Even at the final rehearsal [of the seventh] he was aware of a lack of balance and never ceased making alterations in the proof…

But if Mahler had difficulty with the symphonic framework, he nonetheless surpassed himself with a dazzling elevation of ingenious orchestration and effects. His imaginative use of unusual instruments (guitar, mandolin, tenor horn, cowbells) and grouping of instruments, novel applications of familiar ones, and abrupt harmonic changes, all create effect after effect, like an orchestral chameleon showing off. The listener is fairly overwhelmed by the rapidity and variety of aural impressions—between movements and within them. This is where the seventh symphony stands out from all his others. And in recent decades, conductors seem more willing, even eager, to take Mahler on his own terms, and audiences are being won over by the force of Mahler’s expressiveness. The result is the seventh is being performed more frequently and is receiving critical appreciation as a truly awe-inspiring experience.

In a 2006 review of a concert of the seventh, New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini concluded, “I’m still not sure I get the Mahler Seventh. But I was too engrossed by the music during this remarkable performance to care.” The great BBC commentator, Stephen Johnson says the seventh is “a very beguiling problem,” noting it is “awkwardly structured, difficult in its conception… but nevertheless a symphony of stunning brilliance.” The MusicWeb International reviewer Tony Duggan asserts that, despite its reputation “…it is one of the most extraordinary pieces of music Mahler ever wrote.”

On May 21 and 22, New Artistic Director Kenneth Woods conducts the MahlerFest Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 7, and gives the US premiere of Kurt Schwertsik’s “Nachtmusiken“, as part of the 2016 festival, in Macky Auditorium on the CU Boulder campus.  Visit http://mahlerfest.org for more information and tickets.