Season opening with Simon Rattle and Mahler’s Symphony No. 7

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 7 (01:26:16)

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    The Berliner Philharmoniker prepare for the 2011/12 season (05:02)

It is certainly the largest project the Berliner Philharmoniker have undertaken since Sir Simon Rattle took up office as chief conductor of the orchestra: the performance of all Gustav Mahler’s large-scale orchestral works over an eighteen-month period. To open the 2011/2012 season, the musicians present the Seventh Symphony, which even today causes heated debate among music lovers – due in particular to the final movement with its expression of unparalleled grandness and celebration.

Even supporters of the composer such as Otto Klemperer and Theodor W. Adorno were baffled by this finale which did not fit the image of the eternally doubting Mahler. Others believe the movement was intended as a parody of the craze at the time for all things big. Listeners today should form their own opinion – and in addition to the overwhelming nature of the symphony’s finale, not lose sight of the three middle movements which conjure up a unique nocturnal atmosphere, full of poetry and nature, with a ghostly scherzo at its centre.

“It is my best work and predominantly of a cheerful character.”

Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

Opinions are divided on the finale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7: for some early commentators the tone of this completely head-over-heels movement, which begins and ends in triumphant C major, reflected a “blessed surrender to brightness ... a pinnacle of life-affirmation” (Paul Bekker), “the jubilant sound of market day, the high spirits of the Meistersinger” (Richard Specht) or simply “the dazzling sun” (composer Alphons Diepenbrock). Others, most notably the philosopher and music theorist Theodor W. Adorno around 50 years later, criticized the “meagre content of the whole” and its “tone of strained gaiety”. Still others went a step further and saw in it a deliberate representation of failure in which emphatic excess is exhibited critically – a play of high spirits as conscious artistic device.

There is much in favour of this last interpretation, beginning with the emphasis of “normality” in the tempo indication “Allegro ordinario”. That as well as Mahler’s practice of bringing to a head the histrionically festive atmosphere using virtually every available musical means suggest that this C major is not to be taken all too literally. Even the markings of certain internal sections seem to denote the music’s ironic, exaggerated character: “Behaglich” (comfortably), “Gemütlich” (cosily), “Graziosissimo, beinahe Menuett” (... nearly a minuet) – supporting the thesis of an “ironic, in places even frivolous game” (Mathias Hansen, author of a 1996 book on Mahler).

The Seventh was composed in the summers of 1904 and 1905 – at the peak of Mahler’s career. For seven years, in spite of having made many enemies, he had enjoyed tremendous success as director of the Vienna Court Opera and won great renown as conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic concerts as well as for his guest appearances with many of Europe’s other leading orchestras. And he had been experiencing ever-increasing acclaim as a composer. For many years, owing to the demands of his post as opera director, he dedicated himself to composition exclusively during the off-season, which he spent at his summer residence near Maiernigg on Lake Wörther. There he worked without interruption, usually for seven or eight hours a day, in a small, purpose-built “composing hut” in the woods near the villa he had built on the lake in 1901.

Once completed, the symphony languished unperformed while Mahler concentrated on the premiere of the Sixth, which would take place in Essen on 27 May 1906. In 1908 he offered the five-movement Seventh to the concert organizer Emil Gutmann for a planned tour: “Only four horns and three trumpets and modest percussion.” Out of the ordinary are only “a guitar and mandolin” (Mahler here deliberately ignoring the cowbells and glockenspiel). “It is my best work and predominantly of a cheerful character.” The tour fell through, and the premiere of the Seventh eventually took place on 19 September 1908, in Prague. In spite of exhaustive preparation, the performance was only a succès d’estime, which led Mahler, in a letter to Henri Hinrichsen, director of the publishers C.F. Peters, once again to stress the “predominantly cheerful, humoristic” tone of the piece.

Although it largely avoids the aggressive character of the Sixth Symphony, there are many passages in the Seventh to which that general characterization simply does not apply – for example, the dark-hued Adagio introduction of the opening movement, whose musical unfolding is marked by a stark instrumental contrast between the muffled, yet sharply accentuated strokes of the lower strings and woodwind and the dotted-rhythm melodic line of the tenor horn. The element of indeterminacy that pervades the entire work is readily apparent in the constant vacillation between major and minor, often taken to an extreme in places where Mahler entirely abandons the integration of a clear harmonic structure.

The three inner movements – the two Nachtmusiken (“Night Musics”) and the Scherzo, described by Richard Specht in his 1913 book on Mahler as a “symphony within the symphony”, an “island of dreams” – oddly contradict the putative humorous inflection of the work as a whole: night is not generally considered a time of mirth and cheerfulness. According to Alma’s memoirs, in composing Nachtmusik I Mahler “was beset by Eichendorff-ish visions – murmuring springs and German Romanticism”. Further fanciful visualizations were put forward by many of Mahler’s contemporaries, inspired by the movement’s title as well as certain utterances from the composer, including references to Rembrandt’s Night Watch as well as the atmosphere of nocturnal wanderings (Victor Joß wrote on 2 October 1908 in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: “‘Night Wanderings’ could serve as a title for the whole symphony”) – with “whispers, plashing fountains and rustling lindens” (early Mahler biographer Richard Specht).

The Scherzo, headed Schattenhaft (Ghostly), picks up the mood of the first “Night Music” and, as though in a concave mirror, distorts it over stretches of bizarre sonorities with “shrieking” oboe interjections. This too seems to contradict the cheerfulness posited by Mahler. At the beginning, ghostly rushing figures coalesce into brief motivic patterns which are constantly being interrupted by strange sounds – for example by violin figures played fortissimo but with mutes or by pizzicato cellos and double-basses to which Mahler adds the indication “to be plucked so forcefully that the strings strike the wood”. The discontinuity in the musical proceedings once again seems to suggest an intentional thwarting of conventional listening habits. Familiar vocabulary is assembled into a novel musical language, which gives the appearance of a foreign body within the traditional symphonic context.

The second Nachtmusik, which, paradoxically, is introduced by a solo violin refrain in the nature of final cadence, behaves in similar fashion. The use of non-traditional instruments guitar and mandolin (reinforced by harp) is not at all limited to coloristic effects but instead contributes significantly to the movement’s basic chamber-musical timbre. Also heard are the unsettling sounds of muted horns, seeming to emerge from the background, which disrupt the serenade-like idyll and cause the music – perhaps even more markedly than in the Scherzo – to assume the features of a ghostly shadow play.

True “cheerfulness” seems to enter only with the finale, whose tone never departs from the sphere of ostentatious festivity. Whether or not this “über-major” (Jens Malte Fischer, author of a 2003 Mahler biography) is to be taken literally, as many of the composer’s contemporaries did, however, remains open to debate – as does the question of whether something more enigmatic and profound lies behind the noisy façade of cymbals, bass drum and bells. One thing is certain: after the harrowing finale of his Sixth Symphony, Mahler forged a new solution to the “symphony problem”, which obviously eludes any straightforward interpretation. This ambiguity, which can also be sensed in the work’s inner movements, has contributed significantly to the extraordinary Mahler renaissance that began in the 1960s.

Harald Hodeige

Translation: Richard Evidon


EMISir Simon Rattle appears by courtesy of EMI Classics.

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