Mahler: Symphony No. 7

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.7

  1. Langsam – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo
  2. Nachtmusik (I): Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante)
  3. Scherzo: Schattenhaft. Fließend aber nicht zu schnell (Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast)
  4. Nachtmusik (II): Andante amoroso
     5.   Rondo-Finale

Duration: 80'
Publisher: Bote & Bock (Boosey & Hawkes)
KSO performed: 1995, 2013

Mahler in Vienna
Concert life in Vienna in the first decade of the 20th century was an exclusive affair.  The concerts at the Musikverein where the Vienna Philharmonic performed were private occasions, and a second concert hall did not exist until the construction of the Konzerthaus in 1913.  Most people’s experience of music making was through playing at home and through dancing in the Dance Halls.  This was not to say that events in the high cultural life of the city were not of concern to the citizens.  The newspapers were a powerful force for debate, and reports on such matters as Mahler’s appointment as director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 (and later sacking) were the fuel for many debates and arguments in middle-class households, most of whom would never actually have attended an opera or concert.  For the emerging bourgeoisie, not having much actual experience of High Art was no barrier to having an opinion about it.

This growing number of people whose experience of culture was based on reading about it in the papers rather than experiencing it first-hand (whether through attending concerts or playing at home) is reflected in an innovation introduced by the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1890s - programme notes.  That the orchestra identified a need for explanatory notes for its audience reflects the decline in a musical tradition and literacy that would once have been taken for granted - but also a new bourgeois audience who were keen to be seen as consumers of high culture, but came from backgrounds lacking the kind of musical education that Vienna’s elite classes took for granted.  

Although by now the empire had granted its  Jewish population full citizenship, old prejudices remained.  Mahler converted to Catholicism in 1897 in order to secure the post at the Vienna Opera: as a Jew he would otherwise have been barred from taking the post. If Mahler's conversion seems cynical to us, at the time it was not such a  remarkable thing to do. Viennese Jews were keen to integrate with Austrian society as fully as possible, and for many their religion was more a matter of social conventions than deeply held beliefs.  Although Mahler’s tenure would prove controversial, the most vocal opposition to him came from antisemitic factions that still had a prominent influence in the city (not least in necessitating Mahler's conversion in the first place).

In his 10 years at the opera he introduced no fewer than 33 new operas to the company’s repertoire. In 1905, as he completed the Seventh Symphony, Mahler had hoped to secure the first performance of Richard Strauss’s new opera Salome.  On this occasion he did not get his way. The Court Theatre’s Censorship Board decided that on religious and moral grounds the libretto was unacceptable, and banned it.

He raised the standard of performance considerably, but not without resistance. His flamboyant conducting style and his dictatorial manner caused many ructions with his singers and musicians. It was said that he treated the players “as a lion tamer treats his animals.”  By the time he resigned he had reached a level of celebrity that few could hope to attain.  His work as a composer was controversial, but even his severest critics acknowledged his talent as a conductor and musician.  

Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century was a city of contradictions.  During the 1870s it was extensively rebuilt, and by the time Mahler returned in 1897 had become one of the earliest examples of a modern city. It had become a fertile breeding ground for new ideas, both artistic and scientific.  Sigmund Freud’s theories of the subconscious mind and the significance of dreams influenced the development of Expressionism, as seen in the work of the likes of Gustav Klimt, Arthur Schnitzler, and Arnold Schönberg.  

Yet Vienna was also the centre of  a large, declining empire.  It was therefore also host to a population filled with a complacent, conservative mindset.  The rise of a middle-class also meant the rise of a middlebrow bourgeois culture. The undisputed king of Viennese music in 1897 when Mahler arrived at the Opera was the waltz king, Johann Strauss II. The only composer in the city with a comparable reputation was Johannes Brahms, whose last public appearance barely a month before his death that year was to attend a Strauss première.  Strauss’s nostalgic, cosy music reinforced Vienna’s idea of itself as a place apart from the rest of the world.  Mahler, a man of international ambitions, was uncomfortable with this insular atmosphere and determined to shake things up.  Throughout the nineteenth century there developed a trend for favouring old music over new.  When Mahler was a student there was already a visible trend for “historical” programming. By the time he left Vienna for the second time in 1907 this had developed into a chasm between composers and audiences, and the separation of “high” and “low” culture was entrenched: on the one hand, Mahler and Richard Strauss, on the other Lehár and Johann Strauss.  

Mahler’s own music reflects this heady mix of old and new, in its combination of complex music following in the traditions laid down by Beethoven and Brahms which nevertheless included “low” art, in the form of folk tunes, popular music and other sounds that could be heard on the street. This tended to result in the dismissal of his music on both sides of the cultural divide.  He found supporters in a younger generation of Viennese composers determined to shake up the conservative city.  Webern professed Mahler’s Seventh Symphony to be his favourite, particularly because of its highly original approach to orchestration which influence can be seen in his own orchestral music. Webern’s teacher Schönberg was initially a skeptic as far as Mahler’s music was concerned. However, hearing an early performance of the Seventh Symphony transformed his opinion, and he was thereafter a devoted acolyte.


Mahler’s composing routine was strict: he composed in the summer while on holiday in Maiernigg, a small alpine hamlet on the shore of the Wörthersee.  He rose at 5.30am each day  and swam in the lake before retreating to his studio where he would work for seven hours.  He would begin work on a new symphony at the same time as he produced the final score of the work he had sketched the previous summer. Thus as he put the final touches to the score of his Sixth Symphony in 1904, he quickly drafted two movements for a seventh - the two Nachtmusiken (“Night-Music”, or nocturnes).  However, when he returned the next year he found himself devoid of inspiration as to how to continue. Unusually, he had no clear overall plan for the shape of the new symphony, and struggled to find a suitable context for the two movements.  After two weeks of getting nowhere, he broke his routine and went hiking in the Dolomites instead, hoping that walking would inspire him as it had in the past. Still no ideas came, and Mahler despondently marched back down to Krumpendorf, the village on the opposite shore of the lake, where he took a boat across the water back to Maiernigg. As he later related to his wife, this was the turning point: “I got into the boat to be rowed across. At the first stroke of the oars the theme (or rather the rhythm and character) of the introduction to the first movement came into my head.” His writer’s block finally cleared, Mahler proceeded to sketch out the rest of the symphony, completed the work in sketch by the end of August, and the orchestration the next year. As was his way, he would tinker with the details of the work on several occasions thereafter until (and beyond) its first performance in 1908.

The form of the Seventh Symphony harks back to the fifth in dividing into three parts: the two large outer movements surrounding three short character pieces in the middle. Moreover these three central pieces display a further symmetry, with the central scherzo flanked on either side by the two “Nachtmusiken”.  The entire symphony thus forms a vast arch.  The “rowing” music that opens the symphony was the idea that triggered Mahler’s imagination to complete the symphony, but the vast opening movement itself was the last to be completed.  Over the slow tattoo a tenor horn (an instrument familiar to Mahler through military bands rather than orchestras) declaims a haunting theme - “Here Nature roars,” he described it.  Mahler’s music frequently evokes nature, but rarely as wildly as in this movement, which takes as its inspiration the Carinthian Mountains where Mahler often walked.

The central triptych of the symphony begins with the first “Nachtmusik”, which Mahler composed after being entranced by Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch”. The movement is not an attempt to portray the painting, but merely seeks to create a similar atmosphere. The third movement is marked “Schattenhaft” [shadowy], and is one of the spookiest of the phantasmagorical scherzos in which Mahler specialised. wisps of dance rhythms pass by, parodies of Viennese Ländler and waltzes loom out of the darkness.  Then follows the second Nachtmusik, which is an altogether more romantic affair than its sibling.  Here Mahler celebrates the romantic view of night, the time when lovers (perhaps illicitly) come together.  It takes the character of a serenade, its character defined by the presence of a guitar and mandolin.

The finale appears to begin straightforwardly enough as an explosion of daylight after the three shadowy ones that preceded it, and soon blossoms into a triumphalist mood reminiscent of a theme from Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürenburg. This affinity was only emphasised by Mahler’s programming of the overture from that opera alongside the Seventh Symphony at early performances. But suddenly this is cut off and the music heads down an entirely different street.  This sets the pattern for the entire movement; the grand, solemn music returns again and again, but is never allowed to establish itself, and comes to seem progressively more pompous than majestic. Less important passages are given strident cadences, while more substantial ideas peter out. The effect is profoundly disorienting and unsettling. When the final peroration comes, Mahler deploys the orchestra in such a way as to make it seem bombastic and empty: blaring brass and timpani played with hard sticks to produce a harsh, brittle sound.  Just at the very end Mahler unleashes one more surprise which leaves the final C major chord feeling less like a triumphant conclusion than a punch in the face.

This collision between Wagnerian grandeur and parodies of Leháresque middlebrow Viennese kitsch may be Mahler’s portrait of the society he moved in.  Some commentators suggest that Mahler intended to write a conventional, triumphal finale but failed. Perhaps though, the failure of this model is exactly what Mahler intended: Die Meistersinger is an opera about opera, so this is a symphony about symphonies, and its finale a comment on the impossibility of returning to the naive optimism of earlier ages.  Mahler himself refused to provide any kind of programme for it, despite repeated cajoling by friends, so there can be no definitive answer as to its meaning. “Everything has its price!” was all he would say.  Perhaps the daylight represents not a triumph over dark night thoughts, but the obliteration of profound, romantic ideals by the banality of everyday life.  Where Mahler’s other symphonies are now so commonly played and so unthinkingly accepted that they are in danger of losing their meaning, the Seventh remains stubbornly resistant to easy assimilation.  A century after its creation it continues to puzzle, delight and frustrate in equal measure, and remains enigmatic, complicated and problematic - just like life, in fact.