1905: Mahler: Symphony No. 7 [SONG OF THE NIGHT] in E minor

SUNDAY, December 6, 2020 – 7:51 PM

Abbado  was famous for his Mahler interpretations, and this performance quite obviously was hugely successful. If you get to the end, just watch and listen to the audience. There are almost a million views from all over the world, which for an odd Mahler symphony is impressive, with 4.8 K likes. If I had to sum up this symphony, I would use these words: odd, brilliant, unique, difficult to understand. The whole thing seems very strange to me, very different from his earlier symphonies, but the orchestration is absolutely fascinating. As usual it is best to pick one movement, listen to it a few times to get familiar with the music, then gradually explore more.

Perhaps start here.

44:39 Nachtmusik II, F major

This is about 11 minutes long, and it’s easy on the ears. I’ve never heard anything like it, and I find it very relaxing and fascinating.

Then perhaps try this next part.

35:53 Scherzo Schattenhaft, D minor – D major

Then maybe try this. Strangely it reminds me at times of Sondhiem’s “Sweeney Todd”. There are places where the music sounds light and just plain fun when in fact there are places like “A Little Priest” where the music is actually about making meat pies out of people and then talking about what the taste like. You can here that from the movie HERE, and from the famous Broadway production HERE.

Symphony No. 7 in E minor, age 45

Instrumentation:

  • piccolo, 4 flutes (4th doubling 2nd piccolo in movement 1), 3 oboes, cor anglais, Eb clarinet, 3 Bb and A clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon
  • tenorhorn (used only in movement), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • 4 timpani, bass drum, snare drum (used only in movement 1), cymbals, triangle,
    cowbells (used offstage in second movement; onstage in second and fifth movements), tambourine (used only in first movement), tam-tam, rute (used only in movement 5), untuned bells (used only in movement 5), glockenspiel
  • mandolin (used only in movement 4), guitar (used only in movement 4)
  • 2 harps
  • strings

Claudio Abbado

1st movement

It starts on a  half diminished chord, and immediately you see a very strange brass instrument playing that sounds very much like a euphonium. That instrument is called a “tenorhorn”, one word, which is totally different from another instrument known both as “tenor horn” and “alto horn”, depending on the names in the UK or the US – which are different. By this time in Mahler’s life it becomes very hard to pigeon-hole his style. You won’t associate this music with Debussy, Ravel or any of the Impressionists, and it’s way too tonal to be considered atonal, but his harmonic language became increasingly complex and unpredictable. Even giving the key as E minor is misleading, since it appears to start out in something that could either be B minor or B major. It’s quite ambiguous. When something comes in that might be a 2nd theme, it’s in Eb major. My feeling is that you’ll either like this movement or you won’t, and you’ll find reasons to back up that impression. I personally find the music fascinating for too many reasons to even go into. But I certainly see why audiences at the time this was first heard were confused. At the end it finally settles into something in E, but whether it is major or minor is also ambiguous.

2nd movement

This is simply called “Night Music I”. It has several tempo markings and the feel of major or minor is very ambiguous. It’s in C, but whether that is C major or C minor is absolutely impossible to judge. Supposedly Mahler’s inspiration was HERE, the painting “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt, and the idea is a “walk by night”. The movement has a grotesque quality.  There are strange, distant bird calls in the woodwinds. Mahler borrowed from his own song “Revelge”, which you can read about HERE, and it sounds like THIS. My impression of “Revelge”is that it is just plain weird. I don’t like it at all. The key switches between C major and C minor every few beats. At one points there is a gentle clanking of cowbells in the distance. What is this all about? Who knows, but the unusual orchestration makes it all very interesting.

3rd movement

It’s a scherzo, and it’s marked “Schattenhaft, fließend aber nicht zu schnell” (Shadowy, flowing but not too fast), and it’s in D major. The whole thing is eerie and unsettling. There is always an element of sarcasm in Mahler’s music that often sounds downright morbid, evident all the way back his 1st symphony in the slow movement, where there is small band of musicians intruding into what otherwise sounds like a funeral.

At one memorable point in the score, the cellos and double basses are instructed to play pizzicato with the volume fffff, with the footnote:

“pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood”.

4th movement

This movement moves to F major. Since the last movement was supposedly in D major, it’s an illogical move, but in this symphony major and minor are ambiguous. If the last movement is really in D minor, which is what I hear, then a move from D minor to F major makes sense. The marking is “amoroso”, which apparently means about the same thing in Italian and Spanish, so perhaps “affectionately” in English. There are no trumpet trombone or tuba parts, and the woodwinds are reduced. It’s almost like chamber music right in the middle of a huge huge orchestral work. A solo violin starts the movement, then guitar and mandolin create an intimate feel. There enough odd sounds to make the whole thing feel not quite happy or content, but the oddity is playful and light, yet perhaps there is something a bit menacing in the background. Who knows what Mahler had in mind. To me this is like a kind of combination of Romanticism and Impressionism that I’ve never heard before. You can tell when you get to the trio because it moves to Bb major.

5th movement

It takes almost an hour to get here due to the length of another rather long symphony. It starts off in C major, and that’s a logical place to get from the key of the last movement, F major.

The symphony started in B minor way back in the 1st movement, so this is not the first time Mahler chose such odd moves. In the 5th symphony he started C# minor but ended up in D major in the last movement, so he’s following his own pattern.

This movement sounds incredibly positive, energetic and playful. Apparently the first audiences to hear this could not figure it out. It starts out with timpani. Then you hear eight variations, followed off by a dramatic coda. Among other things there is a parody of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”. The orchestration includes cowbells from “Nachtmusik I” and the unpitched low bells as in his Symphony No. 6.

Overview

Wagner’s Meistersinger Overture was performed before this symphony at the premiere. Perhaps this was to let audiences know what was going on in the last movement. The whole symphony has been described as a journey from night to day. The change from key to key in the movements is unusual and non-traditional. Everything about this symphony seems unique and unlike any of the symphonies that came before it. Most of all the whole symphony is odd and perhaps for that reason it’s very hard to approach at first, but the 7th seems to be increasing in popularity much like all of Mahler’s music. It might be useful to compare Bach’s music and think about how it fell out of favor and was almost lost until the world changed, and for that to happen probably took about a century.

Reception

Mahler conducted the premiere of his Symphony No. 7 in Prague in 1908. A few weeks later he conducted it in Munich and the Netherlands. The audience and the performers at the premiere were confused by the work, and it was not well liked.

1 thought on “1905: Mahler: Symphony No. 7 [SONG OF THE NIGHT] in E minor

  1. My first impression is that this is not your usual musical experience. It’s very unpredictable. You don’t know what is coming next. I was not expecting to hear a guitar or mandolin. This is definitely unique and may take some time getting used to.

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