About this Recording
8.550531 - MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 7 (Polish National Radio Symphony, Halász)

Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Symphony No. 7 in E Minor


The great Viennese symphonic tradition found worthy successors in two composers of very different temperament and background, Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. The latter, indeed, extended the form in an extraordinary way that has had a far-reaching effect on the course of Western music, among other things creating a symphonic form that included in it the tradition of German song in a varied tapestry of sound particularly apt for a twentieth century that has found in Mahler's work a reflection of its own joys and sorrows.

Mahler was to express succinctly enough his position in the world. He saw himself as three times homeless, a native of Bohemia in Austria, an Austrian among Germans and a Jew throughout the whole world. The second child, and the first of fourteen to survive, he was born in Kaliste in Bohemia in 1860. Soon after his birth his family moved to Jihlava, where his father, by his own very considerable efforts, had raised himself from being little more than a pedlar, with a desire for intellectual self-improvement, to the running of a tavern and distillery. Mahler's musical abilities were developed first in Jihlava, before a brief period of schooling in Prague, which ended unhappily, and a later course of study at the Conservatory in Vienna, where he turned from the piano to composition and, as a necessary corollary, to conducting.

It was as a conductor that Mahler made his career, at first at a series of provincial opera-houses, then in Prague, Budapest and Hamburg, before moving to a position of the highest distinction of all, when, in 1897, he became Kapellmeister of the Vienna Court Opera, two months after his baptism as a Catholic, a necessary preliminary. In Vienna he effected significant reforms in the Court Opera, but made enough enemies, particularly represented in the anti-semitic press, to lead to his resignation in 1907, followed by a final period conducting in America and elsewhere, in a vain attempt to secure his family's future before his own imminent death, which took place a week after his return to Vienna, on 18th May, 1911.

Although his career as a conductor involved him most closely with opera, Mahler attempted little composition in this field. His work as a composer consists chiefly of his songs and of his ten symphonies, the last left unfinished at his death, together with his monumental setting of poems from the Chinese in Das Lied von der Erde. The greater part of his music was written during summer holidays away from the business of the opera-house, a Rliraculous achievement in view of his other obligations.

The new century brought a marked change in Mahler's life. In 1902, to the amazement of all Vienna, he married the twenty-year-old Alma Schindler, daughter of the painter Anton Schindler and a composition pupil of Zemlinsky, future wife of the architect Walter Gropius and later of the writer Pranz Werfel. Summer holidays were spent at a villa Mahler had had built at Maiernigg on the Wörthersee. Here he was able to work in a garden chalet with relative lack of disturbance. In the summer of 1903 he worked on his Sixth Symphony, writing three of the four movements in that year and completing the whole work in the summer of 1904, at aperiod when the birth of the second ofhis two daughters brought some happiness amid the inevitable frustrations and difficulties of Vienna and the relatively minor but irritating disturbances of his peace at Maiernigg from holiday-makers. The Seventh Symphony was composed in the summer months of 1904 and 1905, with work on the two Nachtmusik movements following immediately on the completion—of the Sixth Symphony. The composition of the first, third and fifth movements took only four weeks in the summer of 1905, after which a much longer period was spent on careful orchestration of the work. The symphony was first performed in Prague on 17th September 1908, when it was coolly received by an audience that had now learned to accept the Fourth Symphony, leading Mahler to undertake various revisions. The work is scored for four flutes, with two piccolos, three oboes, cor anglais, E flat clarinet, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons, double bassoon, tenor horn, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba. The percussion section calls for timpani, bass drum, cymba1s, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, tambourine, cow-bells and larger bells, while to the string section is added two harps, a mandolin and a guitar.

The first movement opens with a tenor horn-call, over the insistent and hushed rhythms of strings and woodwind and the ominous sound of the bass drum, with trombones and tuba. Material derived from the horn-call appears in the march which leads to an Allegro con fuoco with a marked theme for the four horns. The music moves on to a mood of bitter sweetness, before the re-appearance of the rhythmic figure derived from the opening horn-call. Distant trumpets lead to a passage for solo violin, at first with cor anglais, with the trumpets again ushering in a gentle mood of yearning, countered by the return of the solemn and ominous music of the opening. The fierce Allegro is heard again in which the familiar rhythmic and melodic figure is eventually transformed, with a poignant relaxation of tension before a brisker march is heard in a movement of infinite variety.

Horns open the first Nachtmusikmovement, the first echoed by a second muted horn, followed by oboe, clarinet and cor anglais, in a texture that suggests the distances of the Austrian countryside. This is a prelude to a gentle evening hymn, although march rhythms again soon appear. A singing cello theme is heard, as the march makes its slow way forward. The answering horn-calls return, now with distant cow-bells and continuing suggestions of the rhythmic and melodic figure that had such a large part to play in the first movement. An expressive theme is introduced by the oboes in thirds before the slow night-march resumes, a midnight scene from some haunted painting by Caspar Friedrich, with momentary reminiscences of what has passed. There are answering bird-calls from the depths of the woods, before the procession disappears into the distance.

The Scherzo, described as shadowy (schattenhaft), is again haunted by the ghosts of the night, moving into a grotesque dance, to relax in a Trio, with its tender oboe theme and cello melody, with memories of the first movement. The dance returns, before the texture again becomes fragmented and the movement comes to an end.

The second Nachtmusik, marked Andante amoroso, is a serenade, making use of guitar and mandolin in a delicate texture that with solo violins, violas and lower strings and later the characteristic sound of the mandolin. A solo violin establishes the lyrical mood, with a tender theme entrusted to the horn, to which the oboe adds a further element. The violins offer a graceful theme and later have a more sombre melody to add, as the mood changes. The music of the opening returns to lead to a final section.

Night disappears at a stroke as the timpani introduce the final movement, instructed to play mit Bravour. The principal theme follows from trumpets and horns. The traditional rondo form, much expanded, leads to the first of a series of episodes, introduced by oboes and a rapid string theme which eventually assumes even greater importance. The form allows Mahler that juxtaposition of broken images, each repetition of the main theme varied by the addition of other material in a movement of firm optimism. This and the first movement provide a strikingly original and disturbing frame to the central three nocturnal movements which themselves continue something of the spirit of the Wunderhorn symphonies of earlier years.

Close the window