Mahlerian Richard Specht described the two Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh Symphony as an “island of dreams”. According to Alma, her husband was thinking of “Eichendorffian visions” and “babbling brooks” while composing. However, with its errant scraps of motifs, calling and “wrongly” answering horns and eerie bird concertos, the music is far removed from overt postcard Romanticism. This is especially clear in Claudio Abbado’s reading: he generates tension in every second – even in the contemplative moments. In Mahler’s words, one sometimes hears an “earthly sound echoing from the farthest distance”, as if “standing on the highest peak facing eternity”.
Mahler composed the two Nachtmusik movements first – as always, during the theatre holidays that the successful director of the Vienna Hofoper spent at the Wörthersee. Mahler completed the rest the following summer after a boat trip: “At the first stroke of the oar, the theme (or rather the rhythm and style) of the introduction to the 1st movement came to me – and in 4 weeks the 1st, 3rd and 5th movements were all finished!” The nocturnal music of the first movement, with its halting rhythms, is hardly reminiscent of a summer idyll by the lake – the orchestral colours here are too shaded. Only in the finale does the music reach brighter spheres. According to conductor Willem Mengelberg, Mahler deliberately designed this movement as a contrast: “The first four movements are depictions of night – Mahler himself called the fifth: The Day”.