Program Notes


BORN: July 7, 1860. Kalischt (Kaliště), near Humpolec, Bohemia (now Czech Republic)

DIED: May 18, 1911. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED:  Primarily during the summers of 1904 and 1905. Mahler made a number of revisions both before and after the first performance, and even the best available editions—Erwin Ratz’s for the International Gustav Mahler Society (1959) and Hans Ferdinand Redlich’s for Eulenburg (1960)—have not solved all the problems posed by the tangle of available sources. These performances follow the Ratz score

WORLD PREMIERE: September 19, 1908. Mahler conducted the Czech Philharmonic in Prague

US PREMIERE: April 15, 1921. Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1976. Seiji Ozawa led. MOST RECENT—November 2014. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:   4 flutes and 2 piccolos (doubling 2nd and 3rd flutes), 3 oboes and English horn, high clarinet in E‑flat, 4 clarinets in A and B‑flat, bass clarinet in A and B‑flat, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, tenor horn, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, glockenspiel, tambourine, cowbells, low‑pitched bells, 2 harps, mandolin, guitar, and strings

DURATION: About 80 mins

“Three night pieces; the finale, bright day. As foundation for the whole, the first movement.”

—Mahler to the Swiss critic William Ritter

THE BACKSTORY What arresting openings Mahler invented for his symphonies! The First, moving imperceptibly from silence into sound, and that sound the sound of nature, not music at all; the Second, raging strings leaping at you, terrifyingly; the marches, joyous in the Third, funebral in the Fifth, menacing in the Sixth; the sweetly beguiling song of No. 4; in the Eighth, the glad shout of “Veni, Creator Spiritus”; keening violins over a faltering heartbeat in the Ninth; in the unfinished Tenth, the loneliest melody in the world. And the Seventh? Here seems to be another march, dark and mournful, but it is not a formal procession, and the harmony is oddly oblique. It was not easy for Mahler to find this beginning. The most famous conductor in Europe as well as Director of the intrigue ridden Court Opera in Vienna, he was necessarily a summer composer. Mahler began the Seventh Symphony in the middle. As a glance at the program page and Mahler’s own summary for William Ritter tell us, the structure is symmetrical. The first and last movements—both on a large scale—flank three character pieces, which are themselves symmetrical in that the first and third are each called Nachtmusik.

It was with these two night musics that Mahler began this score in the summer of 1904. But with summer’s end, a typically busy year began for Mahler, whose work as Europe’s most famous conductor occupied him throughout the concert season. In June 1905, Mahler headed back to his summer residence at Maiernigg, on the Wörther See, to continue work on his Seventh Symphony. He could not find the way into the composition. He took off for the Dolomites, hoping to release his creative energies, but nothing happened. Profoundly depressed, he returned. He stepped from the train and was rowed across the lake. With the first dipping of the oars into the water, he recalled later, “the theme of the introduction (or rather, its rhythm, its atmosphere) came to me.”

From that moment forward he worked like a man possessed, as indeed he must have been to bring this gigantic structure under control, even if not finished in detail, by mid‑August. On August 15, 1905, the day he came to the last page of the draft full score of the first movement, jubilantly showing off his Latin to his friend Guido Adler, Professor of Musicology at the University of Vienna, he wrote “Septima mea finita est.” In English, the full inscription reads: “My Seventh is finished. I believe this work to be auspiciously begun and happily concluded. Many greetings to you and yours, also from my wife. G.M.” Thinking about the first performance, Mahler considered the New York Symphony, which he would be conducting in the 1907‑08 season, but soon realized that this would be madness in a city and a country that knew so little of his music. A festival in Prague to celebrate the sixtieth year on the throne of the Emperor Franz Joseph provided a more suitable occasion. Prague offered a less than first‑rate orchestra; on the other hand, Mahler had ample rehearsal time, and the worshipful young conductors—among them Artur Bodanzky, Otto Klemperer, and Bruno Walter—who attended the preparations recounted how, refusing all help, he used every night to make revisions on the basis of that day’s experience. He was always the most pragmatic of composer‑conductors.

The Nachtmusiken and the Scherzo made their effect at once; the first and last movements were harder nuts to crack. That has not changed substantially with the years, and in the days when conductors sometimes programmed isolated movements of Mahler symphonies as a form of bait, the two Nachtmusiken often served that purpose and served it well. In Prague the reception was more respectful than enthusiastic. Mahler himself conducted the Seventh only once more, in Munich, a few weeks after the concert at Prague. It is still the least known of his symphonies.

The Seventh is a victory symphony, not a personal narrative but a journey from night to day (it is sometimes called Song of the Night). The focus is on nature. If the Seventh is a Romantic symphony, one should add that the “distancing” effect produced by the outward‑pointing, non‑narrative character of the music can also be perceived as Classical.

THE MUSIC The opening is music in which we may hear not only the stroke of oars, but the suggestion of a solemn procession. Here Mahler carries us from a slow introduction into the main body of a sonata‑allegro movement, adhering to the design that afforded symphonists from Haydn through Bruckner a broad range of expressive possibilities. Settling into a new key, he brings in a gorgeous theme, a highly inflected violin melody full of yearning and verve, rising to a tremendous climax, to merge into the music of the second of the three marches we have heard. More such merges lie ahead. At the focal point of the development comes what must be the most enchanted minute in all Mahler, a transformation of the second march from focused to veiled, and an ecstatic vision of the glorious lyric theme. A sudden plunge of violins returns us, shockingly, to the slow introduction. The recapitulation has begun. It is tautly compressed. The coda is fierce and abrupt.

The opening of the first of the Nachtmusiken is a minute of preparation and search. A tremendous skid downwards through five and a half octaves calls the proceedings to order. This artfully stylized version of an orchestra warming up turns into a tidy presentation of the theme that has been adumbrated. The theme itself is part march, part song, given a piquant flavor by that mix of major and minor we find so often in Mahler’s music. In later years, the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg said that in this movement Mahler had been inspired by Rembrandt’s so‑called Night Watch, but the composer Alphons Diepenbrock, also one of Mahler’s Amsterdam friends, both clarified and subtilized the issue: “It is not true that [Mahler] wanted actually to depict The Night Watch. He cited the painting only as a point of comparison. [This movement] is a walk at night, and he said himself that he thought of it as a patrol. Beyond that he said something different every time. What is certain is that it is a march, full of fantastic chiaroscuro—hence the Rembrandt parallel.”

The initial march theme is succeeded by a broadly swinging cello tune. Like many such themes by Mahler, this one, heard casually, seems utterly naïve; closely attended to, it proves to be full of asymmetries and surprises of every kind. Watch for the return of this tune, even more lusciously scored and with a new counter-theme in the woodwind. Distant cowbells become part of the texture, suggesting the Sixth Symphony, in which they play such a prominent part. Suddenly that great tragedy‑in‑music intrudes even more as a fortissimo trumpet chord of C major droops into minor. This sound of major falling into minor is the expressive and sonorous signature of the Sixth. The string figurations collapse, there is a stroke of cymbals and tam-tam, and then nothing is left but a cello harmonic and a ping on the harp.

Mahler’s direction for the next movement, the Scherzo, is “schattenhaft,” literally “like a shadow” but perhaps better rendered as “spectral.” Drums and low strings disagree about what the opening note should be. Notes scurry about, cobwebs brush the face, witches step out in a ghostly parody of a waltz. The Trio is consoling—almost. The Scherzo returns, finally to unravel and disintegrate.

The first Nachtmusik was a nocturnal patrol, the second is a serenade that Mahler marks Andante amoroso. William Ritter, nearly alone in his time in his understanding of Mahler, gives a wonderful description of the way the second Nachtmusik begins: “Heavy with passion, the violin solo falls, like a turtledove aswoon with tenderness, down onto the chords of the harp. For a moment one hears only heartbeats. It is a serenade, voluptuously soft, moist with languor and reverie, pearly with the dew of silvery tears falling drop by drop from guitar and mandolin.” Those instruments, together with the harp, create a magical atmosphere.

After these four so differentiated night scenes comes the brightness of day, with a thunderous tattoo of drums to waken us. Mahler heads the movement “Rondo—Finale,” which sounds like Haydn and is another classical touch. Horns and bassoon are the first instruments to be roused, and they lead the orchestra in a spirited fanfare whose trills put it on the edge of parody. Mahler’s humor gave trouble to many of his first listeners. Sometimes he maneuvers so near the edge of parody or of irony that, unless you know his language and his temperament, it is possible to misunderstand him completely, for example to mistake humor for ineptness. Few listeners here will fail to be reminded of Die Meistersinger.

But what is that about? Again, Ritter understood right away, pointing out that Mahler never quotes Wagner but “re‑begins” the Overture to take it far beyond. The triumphant C major finale is itself a kind of cliché stemming from the Beethoven Fifth and transmitted by way of the Brahms First and, much more significantly for this context, Die Meistersinger. Mahler uses Die Meistersinger as a symbol for a good‑humored victory finale. Other Meistersinger references occur, for instance the chorale to which the prize song is baptized, and even the deceptive cadence to which Wagner frequently resorts to keep the music flowing.

This Finale is a wild and wonderful movement. The Meistersinger idea turns out to be a whole boxful of ideas that, to an adroitly and wittily inventive builder like Mahler, suggest endless possibilities for combining and recombining, shuffling and reshuffling. To the city square music of Mahlerized Meistersinger he adds stomping country music. No part of the harmonic map is untouched, while the rhythms sway in untamed abandon.

Then we hear music we have not heard for a long time­—the fiery march from the first movement. Or rather, we hear a series of attempts to inject it into the proceedings. Just as we think the attempt has been abandoned, the drums stir everything up again, and finally the theme enters in glory.—Michael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media). Learn more at

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(May 2019)

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