Bernard Haitink conducts Mahler’s Seventh Symphony

17 Jan 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker
Bernard Haitink

  • Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 7 in E minor (90 min.)

It is his unpretentious musicality, in particular, avoiding all exaggeration, that makes Bernard Haitink an ideal conductor of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, which are unsuited to interpretational excess and forced originality. Haitink looks back on many years of experience with Mahler and has recorded the First through the Seventh Symphonies and the Adagio of the Tenth with the Berliner Philharmoniker. For that reason, the performance of the Seventh in January 2009 was anticipated with great excitement.

The composer considered it his “best work” up to that point and in a letter to his publisher wrote that it had a “primarily cheerful” character. The rather gloomy introduction of the first movement, with a melody played by the tenor horn above a funeral-march rhythm, casts doubt on that assessment. Musicologists will probably never agree on the question of whether the C major exultation of the finale is intended seriously or put in quotation marks, so to speak, as exaggeration.

The middle movement is a ghostly Scherzo, marked “shadowy” and framed by two movements described as “night music”. The solemn slow movement usually obligatory in Mahler’s symphonic works is replaced in fourth position by a serenade-like Andante amoroso, which is accompanied by mandolin and guitar.

The Seventh Symphony was long overshadowed by Gustav Mahler’s other works in this genre, but it has become an indispensable part of the concert schedules of the great orchestras. Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker opened both the 2011/2012 and 2016/2017 seasons with this work.

A Big Night Music

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7

As different as Mahler’s symphonies are from one another is their contemporary reception from that of posterity. In the First and Fifth Symphonies, interest has been concentrated on individual movements (the “Frère Jacques” variations in the former, the Adagietto of the latter); Symphonies 2, 3 and 8 have appealed to audiences for big choral concerts; the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde have reached out to followers of art of the Lied, Symphonies 6 and 9 to those of modern music. Missing from this list is the Seventh, and not by chance: in Mahler’s short catalogue of works, it’s the piece no one was waiting for – the one where he finds himself falling between stools in spite of trying to please everyone.

After the work had languished in a drawer for three years, the calamities began with an initially unsuccessful search for a publisher. Mahler was forced to conduct the premiere in Prague on 19 September 1908 from a heavily retouched manuscript. The performance was politely received by the audience but represented more of a succès d’estime for the world-renowned conductor than an endorsement of the still controversial composer. Soon the Seventh Symphony disappeared into the archives and was barely noticed again for decades.

It may be its ambiguity that causes this symphony to appear so problematic. The first movement of Mahler’s Seventh opens rather diffidently in B minor with a slightly tortured added-sixth chord – and with a rhythm which, as the composer revealed, came to him while rowing across the Wörthersee. A tenor horn then enters, “full-toned”, to be confronted with more or less distinct fanfare echoes in the orchestra, which seems to grope its way in the dark towards the more secure foundation of E minor. This slow introduction does indeed give the impression that Mahler in this symphony is painting nocturnal scenes – aspects of a tragicomic serenade, whose players are at last dispersed by the finale’s dazzling daylight. The only authentic titles in this “song of the night”, as it is sometimes called, are those of the second and fourth movements, each called “night music”, while the Rondo-Finale imitates the gestures of the opening movement and forms its obverse side in major. The axis of this strict symmetry is the Scherzo: at the centre of the symphony, it condenses the various characteristic and technical features of the entire work into the most compressed space.

In this third movement we find Mahler composing as pointedly as he does otherwise only in a few of the songs. An alternation of quickly damped timpani strokes and dry pizzicati typifies the furtive gestures of the music’s attempt at motivic unfolding. Again and again, light-shy attempts at melody are dispelled by harshly glaring chords. With its violent disruptions, Mahler’s scherzo seems to anticipate the sonic fragmentation of early works by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen: an ff-p glissando on the violins in the recapitulation of the main section is answered ffff “kreischend” (stridently) by the oboe; the double basses play pp tremolo, but a bar later are striking their strings fffff against the fingerboard.

Contrasting with this film noir scherzo are the two romantic scenes of “night music”, the second of which Mahler also designates “Andante amoroso”. In the opening bars of Nachtmusik I, Mahler makes a sort of improvised horn call from the aspiring melody; unlike the first movement, this does not grow out of the tutti but rather has the function of actually awakening the orchestra. The spatial disposition becomes completely three-dimensional when, in a developmental section, this motif is accompanied by “distant” cowbells and a “realistic imitation of the tinkling cowbells of a grazing herd” (Mahler’s indication in the score).

The scoring of Nachtmusik II eschews all such associations. Guitar and mandolin accompany a serenade of solo violin, horn and clarinet – the occasion is so “amorous” that Mahler at times asks the performers to play “graziosissimo”. At such moments, heated arguments over the insubstantiality of this music become all too understandable: can a confirmed intellectual like Mahler really have intended it seriously? Were these the “visions of an Eichendorff serenade” with “splashing fountains” and “German Romanticism” that his widow Alma claims them to be in her not terribly reliable memoirs?

The situation of the Rondo-Finale is even more difficult. As early as 1909, the Viennese critic Robert Hirschfield decried it as a “dreadful mockery of the Meistersinger Prelude”. If during Mahler’s lifetime it was the allegedly parodistic qualities that set the critics off, now it is the movement’s alleged naïveté. A jolly send-off that goes on for nearly 20 minutes? Was it still possible to compose something so happy-go-lucky at the beginning of the 20th century? But, then, why shouldn’t Mahler have had at his disposal rollicking good humour, free of sarcasm? In conjunction with the Third Symphony he once described his music as “humour and good cheer, an immense laugh on the whole world!” One may consider this laughter ambiguous: but scornful and malicious it certainly is not. If anything, it suggests a certain detachment on Mahler’s part from his surroundings and, indeed, from himself.

Thinking of the appellation “tragic” attached to the Sixth Symphony, with its hammer blows in the finale, it is astounding that Mahler composed that piece in summer 1904, contemporaneously with the “Nachtmusik” movements of the Seventh! He had the ability of conjuring up music whose nature was largely independent of his personal situation. On closer inspection, the Seventh reveals itself as a commentary on the Sixth – or, in the terminology of tragedy, as its “satyr play”. The Sixth Symphony is pervaded by the diminution of a major chord into its minor variant, a tonal gesture that has almost come to stand for the victory of darkness over light. In the Seventh, the symbolic content of this motif is reduced to the sheer contrast between darkness and light. The major-minor fluctuation has become a playful trait of tonal ambiguity, a “medium of modernism” (Adorno).

Tellingly, one of the first to fall under the spell of this unpopular work was Arnold Schoenberg. In his “Prague commemoration” of Mahler in 1912, he praises not only his “delicate, fragrant sounds” but also the quality, resonating in his music, of “mankind’s longing for its future form, for an immortal soul, for dissolution into the universe”. After completing the Seventh, Mahler addressed these themes explicitly and in his Eighth Symphony set to music the apotheosis from Part II of Goethe’s Faust.

Bernard Haitink, born in Amsterdam in 1929, is one of today’s most celebrated conductors with an international conducting career that has spanned more than five decades. Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 2006, he was for more than 25 years at the helm of the Royal Concertgebouw as its music director. He has previously held posts as music director of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (1987 – 2002), Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1977 – 1988) and the London Philharmonic (1967 – 1979). He is Conductor Laureate of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Conductor Emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he has made frequent guest appearances with most of the world’s leading orchestras including the Berliner Philharmoniker where he has been a regular guest since his debut in 1964.

Bernard Haitink has received many international awards in recognition of his services to music, including both an honorary Knighthood and the Companion of Honour in the United Kingdom, and the House Order of Orange-Nassau in the Netherlands. He was awarded the Hans-von-Bülow-Medal by the Berliner Philharmoniker and named Musical America’s “Musician of the Year” for 2007.

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