NZSO Perform Mahler’s Seventh Symphony this Weekend

Article – Howard Davis

NZSO Perform Mahler’s Seventh Symphony this Weekend

Gustav Mahler, photographed by Richard Specht in 1907

In the summer of 1900, Gustav Mahler was wandering around the outskirts of Vienna when he stumbled upon a fairground. In a woodland glade, blended among the cacophony of street criers, shooting galleries, and Punch and Judy shows, a military band and a male choir were performing nearby and taking no notice of each other. Mahler was immediately enchanted – “Can you hear it? This is polyphony … Even in my early childhood when I heard it in the Iglauer Woods, it moved me so much I never forgot it. For it is still the same multiplicity, whether heard in such noise, in the singing of a thousand birds, in the howling of a storm, in the crashing of the waves or in the crackling of a fire. It is just how the themes should come, from so many sides and so different sides, and should be so completely different in their rhythm and melodies. Everything else is just a thousand voices and hidden monophony. Only that the artist puts it together and unites it into an overriding and harmonious whole.”

With this idea of the simultaneity of multi-phrased, yet completely different musical styles, Mahler anticipated a direction that reached its apex fifty years later in the the musique concrete approach, which integrated electronically produced and everyday sounds into traditional musical forms. As early as 1896, however, he had warned another composer who was seeking his advice, “You must get rid of your piano players! That is no orchestra movement, but only thought of for the piano …” He himself took this recommendation to heart, striving more and more towards disposing of “mere padding,” and reaching for a melodic direction that derived from the unique tonality of each particular orchestral instrument. Although he later became notorious for employing cowbells and hammers in his compositions, he only began to distance himself from the sound of the piano with his Sixth Symphony, in which he strove towards a new definition of polyphony – “The individual movements are so difficult to play that they, in fact, should have a whole series of soloists. Due to my most precise knowledge of the orchestra and of the instruments, the boldest passages and movements have escaped me.”

Mahler (1860 -1911) was a late-Romantic composer, born in Bohemia to Jewish parents and displaying prodigious musical talent at an early age. After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory in 1878, he held a succession of conducting posts in European opera houses, culminating in his appointment in 1897 as director of the Vienna Court Opera. Despite converting to Catholicism to secure the post, he experienced continual hostility from the anti-Semitic press during his ten years in Vienna. Nevertheless, his innovative productions and insistence on the highest performance standards ensured his reputation as one of the greatest opera conductors of the age, particularly as an interpreter of Wagner, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky. While his status as a conductor was established beyond question during his own lifetime, however, his own compositions only gradually gained wide popularity after a period of relative neglect, including a ban on their performance in much of Europe during the Nazi era.

Mahler’s oeuvre is relatively limited, since composing was a part-time activity while he earned his living as a conductor. Aside from early efforts such as a movement from a piano quartet written when he was a student in Vienna, Mahler’s works were generally designed for large orchestral forces, symphonic choruses, and operatic soloists. They were frequently controversial when first performed and, with the exception of his Second and Third Symphonies and the triumphant premiere of his Eighth in 1910, were slow to receive critical and popular approval. Mahler’s influence became clear in the subsequent careers of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten. After 1945, his compositions were rediscovered by a new generation of enthusiasts and he is now considered a pivotal figure in the transition between the nineteenth century Austro-German tradition and early modernism.

By 1904, Mahler was already enjoying great international success as a conductor. His second daughter was born in June and during his customary summer break in his lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in the Carinthian mountains, he finished his Symphony No. 6, sketched the second and fourth movements for Symphony No. 7, and mapped out much of the rest of the work. He continued to work intensively on the Seventh during the following summer, claiming to take just four weeks to complete the first, third, and fifth movements. The completed score was dated 15 August 1905 and the orchestration was finished in 1906. Mahler then put the Seventh aside to make small changes to the orchestration of Symphony No. 6, while rehearsing for its premiere in May 1906.

The three years which elapsed between the completion of the score and the symphony’s premiere witnessed dramatic changes in Mahler’s life and career. In March 1907 he resigned as conductor of the Vienna State Opera, which was why he chose Prague for the work’s debut. In July, his first daughter died of scarlet fever and Mahler learned that he was suffering from an incurable heart condition. Musicologists surmise that this is why the optimism and cheerfulness of the symphony was subsequently tempered by the small but significant revisions made in the years leading up to its premiere, which Mahler himself conducted in September 1908 with the Czech Philharmonic. Both audience and performers were confused by the work and it was not well received, often accused of incoherence, and remaining for some time one of his least appreciated pieces. More recently, conductors have experimented with a range of interpretations, especially the tempo of the finale, and it has since become a popular performance piece. Sometimes referred to by the title Lied der Nacht (which Mahler never used), its tonal scheme is highly complex, with the first movement moving from B minor to E minor, and ending with a rondo finale in C major. Dika Newlin has pointed out, “in this symphony Mahler returns to the ideal of ‘progressive tonality’ which he had abandoned in the Sixth,” while Graham George has analysed the complexity of the work’s tonal scheme in terms of its “interlocking structures.”

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony exemplifies his emancipation from the pianistic, with the allocation of instruments just as vehement as in the Sixth, including parts for guitar, mandolin, glockenspiel, cane, tom-toms, and cow bells. He considered it to be a work “of chiefly cheerful character,” thus making the difference and distance to the “tragic” Sixth quite clear. In its completely different diction, it is in some ways a direct response to the Sixth. The natural sounds that occur bring it closer to his Third Symphony, while its five-movement structure allows a comparison with his Second. It appears to be constructed as a kind of bridge form: three internal movements are framed by an extensive sonata movement and a comprehensive rondo finale; the second and fourth movement, each with the title Nachtmusik, serve as intervals; while the focus remains on the shady and somewhat grotesque scherzo. This harmonic and stylistic structure may be viewed as a depiction of the journey from dusk till dawn. It evolves from uncertain and hesitant beginnings to an unequivocal C major finale, with its echoes of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: indeed, at the premiere the overture to this opera was performed after the symphony. This journey from night to day proceeds via the extraordinary third movement scherzo, marked schattenhaft (‘shadowy’), which may have been what prompted Schoenberg to become a particular champion of the work. While the abundance of themes based upon the interval of a fourth has parallels with the First Chamber Symphony, the piece has several motifs in common with the Sixth Symphony, notably the juxtaposition of major and minor chords, the march figure of the first movement, and the use of cowbells within certain pastoral episodes.
The symphony consists of five movements, as follows:
1. Langsam in E minor, beginning in B minor (Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo)

The first movement is in sonata form, beginning with a slow introduction in B minor launched by a dark melody on tenor horn. The principal theme, presented by horns in unison in E minor, is accompanied similarly, though much faster and in a higher register. The second theme is presented by violins, accompanied by sweeping cello arpeggios and infected with chromatic sequences. At one point the violins reach an F7 (the highest F on a piano). The exposition is wrapped up with a march theme from the introduction, followed by a repeat of the principal theme that leads straight into the development. This continues for some time before suddenly being interrupted by pianissimo trumpet fanfares and a slow chorale based on the march theme from the introduction, which has been interpreted as a religious vision. After this section plays itself out, a harp glissando propels the music into a new section based on the second theme and the march/chorale theme, but before a climax can be articulated, the final cadence is interrupted by the music from the introduction and the baritone horn arioso. This leads into the recapitulation, but before the actual recapitulation occurs, there is an incredibly difficult high note for trumpet. The principal trumpet for the work’s premiere even confronted Mahler, saying “I’d just like to know what’s beautiful about blowing away at a trumpet stopped up to high C.” Mahler had no answer, but later pointed out to his wife that the man did not understand the agony of his own existence. The recapitulation is very similar to the exposition, although significantly more agitated. There is a grand pause during the first thematic section that leads into a massive climax. The second theme is also considerably shortened. The march theme from the introduction leads straight into an epic coda that features march rhythms and multiple high points in the orchestral texture, before ending on an E major chord.

This first movement starts off strangely dusky, tentative, and indefinite, with the questioning phrases of the tenor horn. It is not until after the prologue of about fifty bars that the music becomes fully conscious and takes on a firm, central theme. Its march-like striding is repeatedly checked, the beautiful side theme with its almost endless melody heightening again and again to new realms of intensification. This lengthy and dramatically intense first movement is followed by three distinct pictures of night: two movements entitled Nachtmusik (i.e. nocturne) and a ‘shadowy’ scherzo in between them.
2. Nachtmusik I in C major/C minor (Allegro moderato Molto moderato Andante)

The first of the two Nachtmusik movements represents a Nachtwanderung (“walk by night”). Mahler, who described the movement in vague terms and compared it to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, though he did not intend to evoke the painting itself. Overall, the movement possesses a grotesque quality, but always with friendly intentions. The movement progresses through a series of marches and dances and naturalistic nocturnal descriptions. One remarkable aspect of the movement is its symmetrical form; it is a rondo following the structure (I)-(A)-(B)-(I/A)-(C)-(I/A)-(B)-(A)-(I), where (I) is an introductory section and (I/A) combines the introductory music and the (A) theme. The second movement opens with horns calling to each other. The second horn is muted, however, to create the illusion of distance. Scampering woodwinds imitating somewhat grotesque bird calls pass off into the distance, as the trumpets sound the major/minor seal from Symphony No. 6. The horns introduce a rich, somewhat bucolic (A) theme, surrounded by dancing strings and a march rhythm from his song Revelge. This theme leads to some confusion about the key, as it switches between C major and C minor every few beats. The rural mood is heightened by a gentle, rustic dance for the (B) section (typical of Mahler at his most carefree and childlike)- as well as by the gentle clanking of distant cowbells in the returns of the introductory section. The malicious (C) theme, upon its return, is arabesqued by the Revelge rhythms and bird calls from earlier in the movement. Mahler links the the first five-part Nachtmusik to the the soldier songs of the Magic Horn, allowing the dramatic expression and gloom of the previous movement to almost be forgotten, and utilises the march as rhythm in a melancholic and fragmented manner for the final time in his symphonies.
3. Scherzo in D major (Schattenhaft. Fließend aber nicht zu schnell – ‘Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast’).

The ‘black’ third movement, with its discordant harmonies and its synthesis of lamentation and unbridled rhythms, develops into a danse macabre brimming with ghostly and piercing moods. There is a more than a nocturnal undercurrent about this spectral music – while scherzo can also mean ‘joke,’ it is certainly a grim one. If the first Nachtmusik possessed a friendly mood disguised in grotesqueries, this may seem more like a demon sneering at the audience, but (as José L. Pérez de Arteaga has pointed out) it is really “a most morbid and sarcastic mockery of the Viennese waltz”. This oneiric movement begins with a strange pianissimo dialogue between timpani, pizzicato basses, and cellos, with occasional sardonic interjections from the winds. After some buildup, the orchestra sets off on a threatening waltz, complete with unearthly woodwind shrieks and ghostly shimmerings from the basses, and a recurring theme of lamentation provided by the woodwinds. The scherzo is contrasted by a warmer trio in the major mode, introduced by and containing a shrieking motif that begins in the oboes and descends throughout the orchestra. The brilliance of this movement lies in its extraordinary and original orchestration, which provides the nightmarish quality as multiple viola solos rise above the texture, and a persistent timpani and pizzicato motif pervades the dance. The theme and its accompaniment are both passed around the orchestra, rather than being played by a specific instrument. Both trios brighten up the overall eerieness a bit, with a traditional cello style and natural voices gradually joining in. At one memorable point in the score, the cellos and double basses are instructed to play with the volume fffff, with the footnote “pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood.”
4. Nachtmusik II in F major (Andante amoroso)

The fourth movement (the second Nachtmusik) contrasts with the first in that it illustrates a more intimate and human scene, leaning towards lightness with its curious combination of guitar, mandolin, and harp, and its dreamy tonalities. With its amoroso marking and reduced instrumentation (the trombones, tuba, and trumpets are all silent, while the woodwinds are reduced by half) this movement has been described as “a long stretch of chamber music set amidst this huge orchestral work”. A solo violin introduces the movement, while a horn solo above the gentle tones of a guitar and mandolin create a sort of magical serenade. However, sardonic dissonances also infuse this movement with a slightly satirical, even diseased feeling. The trio contrasts with this, reflecting the more intimate mood that would be expected from a traditional Viennese serenade. The movement ends in transcendence, providing a peaceful backdrop for the finale’s abrupt entrance.
5. Rondo Finale in C major

Boisterous timpani are joined by blazing brass notes to set the scene for the riotous final movement. After three shorter movements mostly developmental in mood, the long, arduous first movement is finally equalled by this substantial ‘daylight’ finale. The movement is a rondo, combined with a set of eight variations and capped off by a dramatic coda. It comprises three main themes and is introduced bombastically with a timpani solo and a fanfare. There are parodies of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, as well as many strange and abrupt interruptions of climactic buildups, including at the very end of the coda. The texture is largely based on a banal descending broken scale motif, with a heavy emphasis placed on acerbic brass chorales and relentlessly satirical rustic dances. The principal theme of the first movement crops up amidst the outrageously exuberant finale, but is soon quelled and reappears in the major mode. Cowbells from the first Nachtmusik and the unpitched low bells from the Sixth Symphony also make appearances. The movement (and therefore the symphony) ends very strangely with a seemingly random stray G, changing the harmonic quality from major to augmented the music suddenly dropping to piano before a stubborn fff C major chord concludes the work.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this movement has been seen by many as something of an anti-climax or cop-out that superficially dodges questions raised by the previous movements. Its celebratory mood is certainly at odds with their darker character and has lead otherwise staunch admirers of Mahler to undervalue his Seventh Symphony, not only for the many repetitions of the theme, even if dramatically changed, but also for his uncritical use of the affirmative C major key and its resounding tone of jubilation. Michael Kennedy described it as a “vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy,” while the great musicologist and political theorist Theodor Adorno dismissed “this ominous positiveness” with the comment “only the stage sky over the far too near fairground is as blue.” Mahler himself hardly helped to assuage critical disapproval by simply offering the succinct aperçu – “The world is mine!”

The NZSO perform Mahler’s Seventh Symphony on Friday, September 9 at the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, and at Auckland Town Hall on Saturday, September 10.

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