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Mahler - Symphony No. 7 (1904-05)

  • 1. Langsam (Adagio). Allegro con fuoco
  • 2. Nachtmusik. Allegro Moderato
  • 3. Scherzo. Schattenhaft
  • 4. Nachtmusik. Andante amoroso
  • 5. Rondo-Finale. Allegro ordinario

This was the last of the purely instrumental symphonies Mahler composed before returning to the use of choral and solo voices in the massive Eighth Symphony. It remains one of his least known and, perhaps, his least understood. Enigmatic, inscrutable, perplexing - commentators all seem to reach for similar descriptors. Even Mahler's biographer, Henry-Louis de La Grange, suggests that the Finale to the Seventh was 'perhaps the most bizarre and disconcerting piece Mahler ever wrote.' It is hard to identify exactly why the Seventh has developed such a reputation. In other regards, it seems to slot comfortably into Mahler's oeuvre as the third of the three 'middle-period' instrumental symphonies, 'the post-tragic, ironic, riotous counterpart to the Sixth' (as Stephen Hefling described it). But, rather like the Fourth, the Seventh Symphony declines to conform to the model of a Mahler symphony that even Mahlerians have come to expect. Outwardly it seems to do similar things, but there is something about its tone, the ways in which it presents itself, that leaves a listener with more questions than answers.

In the absence of any obvious programmatic hints, scattered comments about the work as a kind of nocturnal journey, ending in the sunlight of the Finale's C major, seem to have stuck. The Scherzo has the marking Schattenhaft (shadowy, or ghostly), but the nocturnal suggestion is made most strongly by the two serenades that form the second and fourth movements, each designated by Mahler as Nachtmusik (night music). Alma suggested that her husband was thinking of the romantic poetry of Eichendorff when he composed the fourth movement, a writer whose work is suffused with nocturnal landscapes evoked through sound rather than imagery. But this intriguing comment suggests a wider frame of reference for the symphony as a whole. As is clear in the Fourth Symphony, Mahler was fascinated by the fairytale and the child's make-believe vision of the world, finding in naïveté a kind of truth that he often sought to express in his own music. His early attempts at operas were based on fairytale stories (he had no time for realism in opera) and one of his favourite works was Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, which he conducted many times. His early songs and symphonies were shaped by his settings of the folk poetry of Des Knaben Wunderhorn whose rhymes evoke the world of a child's picture book. Unsurprisingly, Mahler found himself out of step with the kind of modernism represented by Richard Strauss or younger composers like Alexander Zemlinsky. While his contemporaries set the latest modern poetry, Mahler's favourite authors were German romantics from nearly a century earlier - Jean Paul Richter and ETA Hoffmann.

Why is this relevant? Because, over and again, Mahler's Seventh Symphony seems to work like a fairytale and exhibits the same kind of unpredictable twists and turns in its unfolding as are found in the stories of his favourite authors. In the Seventh he seems concerned with the same fantastical landscapes and characters, forever crossing a blurred boundary between the real and the imaginary. This is not to say that Mahler's symphony is based on any particular story, just that it works like one and evokes a similar atmosphere. Above all, it deploys the central romantic category of humour, constantly pulling the carpet from under our feet and presenting something one moment, only for it to turn out to be quite another thing in the next. The result is a symphony that is often characterised by interruption and non sequitur. It makes for some of Mahler's most modernist music, but whose unpredictable logic has its roots in romantic fiction.

None of this is much in evidence at the start of the first movement, which seems to pick up where the Sixth Symphony left off, in funereal mood. Over the sombre rhythmic accompaniment of the orchestra, a tenor horn enters with a strangely angular theme. Even the tone of the instrument sounds strange in this context, imported into the orchestra from the brass band. Its rather alien sonority was wonderfully characterised in Mahler's comment that it conjured up the 'roaring of nature', using a German word for 'roaring' that refers to the haunting call of a stag during the rut. Just as he had done with the solo trombone in the opening movement of the Third Symphony, Mahler chose an instrument whose very strangeness would arrest his audience, signalling the idea of something uncanny or wild, entering the familiar musical space from an unknown territory.

The slow march of the opening eventually gives way to a much more energetic one in which dark orchestral colours are replaced by brighter sounds. As in the Sixth, the march theme is contrasted with a more lyrical second theme, the two often interrupting each other without obvious preparation. This opposition is itself interrupted by a passage in which the violins of the orchestra deliver a kind of vocal line - its melodic phrases are marked by little pauses, turn figures and obvious 'breaths'. The march material returns periodically in this movement, unrelenting and insistent, a kind of treadmill that Mahler cannot manage to get off. Various attempts are made to divert it and take the music elsewhere. The most effective is a passage that suspends the forward movement of the march (rather like the pastoral episode in the first movement of the Sixth). Here the music approaches some mysterious threshold; a trumpet sounds a quiet fanfare, anticipating a moment of resolution but one outside of the main timeframe of the piece (motifs built on superimposed fourths give this passage a particularly 'extraterrestrial' atmosphere). The threshold does indeed deliver the promised breakthrough, a sudden luminous moment of lyricism, but delivered pianissimo, the glimpse of a vision still distant. Its move towards a firm resolution is cut off by a return of the darkly portentous tone of the opening.

In a conventional symphonic first movement, this moment of recapitulation, with its return to the main key and opening theme, is a powerfully affirmative gesture - a point of arrival after the drama of the development. But Mahler inverts this effect and creates its exact opposite: the reconciliation glimpsed in the preceding passage is silenced by the negativity of the return to the opening material. In place of the fullness imaged a moment earlier, Mahler returns us to the emptiness of the opening bars. The drama begins again with the march theme attempting to forge some progress, culminating in the grand, though decidedly forceful gestures of the closing section. The last five bars break through to the major key, but self-consciously so, as if aware of the conventional nature of their happy ending.

The first Nachtmusik begins and ends with the sounds of nature; a horn call, sent out across the valley, is answered by a second horn, while chattering woodwind lines evoke a sense of the self-sufficient burbling of nature. Later, the woodwind are marked in the score as 'like the voices of birds'. As the movement proceeds the sounds of nature are mixed up with the human world; passages of serenade music emerge from this landscape, but mingled with the sound of cowbells. It is one of Mahler's richest but most delicate patchworks, a coming together of disparate elements that, in the dark, one can never quite identify.

It has aspects of operatic scene painting about it, but its closest analogy might be found in one of the fantastic nocturnal landscapes evoked in the novels of Jean Paul. The opening horn calls are Mahler's way of signalling the different space of such a nocturnal landscape, removed from the quotidian world, as it is in German romantic poetry - an idyllic space in which the normal rules of the everyday life do not apply, and in which magical events come to pass, just like Shakespeare's setting for A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Compared to this idyllic space, Mahler's third movement signals a decidedly urban location. This is one of his most radical Scherzo movements, which begins by gradually piecing together its musical fragments and ends by allowing them once again to fall apart. Among its assemblage of disconnected city sounds are a collection of waltz fragments, in which the melody is cut away from its accompaniment figures and dissolved into ungraspable, scurrying figures. The tone is frequently veiled and the material hard to grasp, but at other times exaggerated and strident as the melodic line of the waltz is stretched out over uncomfortably wide intervals. Mahler foregrounds instruments not normally given melodic prominence - the tuba, the double bass, the contra-bassoon and a solo viola. His orchestration breaks the material down into constantly changing colours and shapes; it comes together, builds up momentum and then collapses, only to start again. This movement is one of the most modern Mahler ever wrote; it shares with Berg's Reigen movement from his Three Pieces for Orchestra (1913-15) the sense of an already ghostly picture of Vienna, on the brink of its own collapse.

The fourth movement, the second Nachtmusik, frames itself as a serenade in its opening few bars. A deliberately sentimental phrase in the solo violin introduces the little serenade band, a group of wind instruments accompanied by guitar, harp and mandolin whose unpolished character seem to have more in common with Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale (still several years in the future) than the tradition of the Austro-German symphony. While the mandolin looks ahead to the orientalism of Das Lied von der Erde, the guitar anticipates Berg's use of it for his tavern folk band in Wozzeck. It is perhaps in this movement that the fairytale tone of the Seventh Symphony is most prominent. Mahler uses the familiar to create something that is both nostalgic and disconcerting, but always done with great lightness of touch. It is a world apart both from the grim drama of the Sixth Symphony or the monumentalism of the Eighth.

The Rondo-Finale opens in rumbustious fashion, with a flurry of fanfare figures in the timpani and brass. The opening has often been heard as a thinly veiled reference to the overture to Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with which it shares a diatonic C major tonality, a rich contrapuntal texture and a sense of collective festival. But, unlike Wagner's overture, Mahler's opening is interrupted and its festivities cut short. To be sure, the interruption is only temporary, but it happens again and again. Indeed, the whole movement is characterised by powerfully energetic passages suddenly sidestepped by non sequiturs. One section ends abruptly as another starts, but always at a tangent to the preceding one. The symphony as a whole is full of framing devices that are subverted by what follows them, throwing undue attention onto the frames themselves rather than the main material. Its Finale in particular draws attention to its own formal divisions and its moments of rupture and hiatus. The result is a sense of tremendous plurality as if, to continue the Wagner reference, many different groups of people are all converging upon the same place.

This plurality is only just held together by the rondo returns of the opening fanfare material - it comes seven times in all, exaggerating the sense of an almost arbitrary return of the opening festivity. That suspicion is underlined by the heavy emphasis on the brass. Even a critic well-disposed to Mahler, like Elsa Bienenfeld, thought that the 'shouting for joy' in the brass tended to sound 'coarse and inelegant.' It is no coincidence that Mahler had used the same rondo form for the Finale of the Fifth Symphony, with which this movement has much in common. Whereas a sonata form has a kind of one-directional, linear logic to it, narrating its musical content like a 19th-century novel, a rondo form, with its unrelated episodes separated by returns of an opening refrain, constructs a far more plural and multi-directional scene. It confers upon this symphony a sense that it is self-propelling, more abstract and autonomous than earlier Mahler works, which project a stronger sense of dramatic plot.

An opera conductor for his whole life, Mahler was no stranger to theatrical gesture. When the closing section ushers in an apparently triumphal tolling of bells and bright C major fanfares in the brass, it is hard to tell whether he is being entirely serious. Just as one suspects that this master of illusion has staged a theatrical festival rather than a real one, he seems, by force of sheer willpower, somehow to have produced it as a reality after all. As the horns ring out at the end like pealing bells, it would be a hard-hearted listener who refuses to believe in them. And yet the fairytale mode lingers even here; the grand gestures may suggest joy and affirmation, but the little twist, in the penultimate bar of the whole symphony, suggests you cannot be quite sure.

© Julian Johnson