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Gustav Mahler's Seventh Symphony was written in 1904-05 (scoring repeatedly revised). It is sometimes referred to by the title Song of the Night (German: Lied der Nacht), though this does not derive from Mahler and was not approved by him.


In 1904, Mahler was enjoying great international success as a conductor, but he was also, at last, beginning to enjoy international success as a composer. His second daughter was born that June, and during his customary summer break away from Viennamarker in his lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in the Carinthianmarker Mountains, he finished the Sixth Symphony and sketched the second and fourth movements (the two Nachtmusik movements) for the Seventh Symphony while mapping out much of the rest of the work. He then worked on the Seventh intensively the following summer, claiming to take just four weeks to complete the first, third and fifth movements.

The completed score was dated 15 August 1905, and the orchestration was finished in 1906; he laid the Seventh aside to make small changes to the orchestration of the Sixth, while rehearsing for its premiere in May 1906. The Seventh had its premiere on 19 September 1908, in Praguemarker, at the festival marking the Diamond Jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The three years which elapsed between the completion of the score and the symphony's premiere witnessed dramatic changes in Mahler's life and career. In March 1907 he had resigned his conductorship of the Vienna State Operamarker, as the musical community in Vienna turned against him (which was why he chose Prague for the work's debut); on 12 July his first daughter died of scarlet fever; and, even as she lay on her deathbed, Mahler learnt that he was suffering from an incurable heart condition. Musicologists surmise that this is why the optimism and cheerfulness of the symphony was subsequently tempered by the small but significant revisions Mahler made in the years leading up to its premiere.


The symphony is scored for the following orchestra. As in some of his other symphonies (particularly his 5th, 6th symphonies), Mahler's interest in unconventional instruments in the orchestra is clearly shown in the scoring in this work, with usage of a tenor horn, cowbells, mandolin, and guitar.

4 Flutes (4th doubling Piccolo 2)
3 Oboes
English Horn
Clarinet in E-flat
3 Clarinets in A and B
Bass Clarinet in A and B
3 Bassoons

4 Horn in F
'Tenorhorn' in B
3 Trumpets in B and F
3 Trombones

Bass Drum
Snare Drum
Tubular bells

2 Harps

Violins I, II
Double Basses

Mahler's specification of a 'Tenorhorn' in the scoring of this work has often caused confusion. In Britain, the name 'Tenor Horn' is often given to the instrument that in the US is called the Alto Horn (in E or F); in Germany this (a contralto saxhorn) is known as the Althorn in Es or F, and is not the instrument requested by Mahler. Nor does Mahler intend a Euphonium, which in German is called either Euphonium or 'Baryton'. The German 'Tenorhorn' is actually a B baritone-pitch saxhorn—the instrument known in Britain and the USA as the 'baritone'.


The work is in five movements:

  1. Langsam – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo (E minor, beginning B minor);
  2. Nachtmusik (I): Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante) (C minor);
  3. Scherzo: Schattenhaft. Fließend aber nicht zu schnell (D minor) - The German marking means Shadowy. Flowing but not fast;
  4. Nachtmusik (II): Andante amoroso (F major)
  5. Rondo-Finale (C major).

The duration of the symphony is around 80 minutes. There is, however, an exceptionally lengthy recording by Otto Klemperer, which is 100 minutes long, as well as a recording by Hermann Scherchen with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that is 68 minutes long.

The music

1st movement

The movement is in sonata form. It begins with a slow introduction, launched by a dark melody played by a baritone horn (German Tenorhorn). The accompanimental rhythm was said to have been suggested to Mahler by the rowing of the oarsman on the lake at Maiernigg. Bitter and anguished cries emerge from various members of the woodwind and brass families and lead to a passionate climax. (The principal trumpet in the orchestra for the work's première even confronted Mahler, saying "I'd just like to know what's beautiful about blowing away at a trumpet stopped up to high C-sharp" Mahler had no answer, but later pointed out to Alma that the man did not understand the agony of his own existence.) The pace quickens and the music launches into a strangely confuseddance—part Viennese waltz, part grotesque stomp, and part militaristic march—which yields to a lyrical theme introduced by a pair of horns. The swaying and swooping of the violins in this section was inspired by the wildlife and scenery of the Carinthian Mountains in summer. An abrupt return to the double basses heralds an inexorable build-up of passion which only finds its final resolution in the brisk and robust—but curiously bitter-sweet—march with which the movement ends.

2nd movement

The second movement opens with horns calling to each other across the mountain valleys in the gathering dusk. The first of the two "Nachtmusik" ("Night Music") movements, this is said to represent a "walk by night", and could represent a musical recreation of Rembrandt’s Night Watch, which impressed Mahler; he had spent considerable time at the Rijksmuseum on his first trip to the Netherlandsmarker in 1904. Mahler, however, described the movement in more vague terms . Scampering woodwind pass off into the distance as the horns introduce a rich, somewhat bucolic theme, surrounded by dancing strings. The rural mood is heightened by a gentle, rustic dance - typical of Mahler at his most carefree and childlike - as well as by high fluttering woodwind bird-calls and the gentle clanking of distant cow-bells. At the end, themovement gradually descends into silence. Night has finally fallen.

3rd movement

There is an undercurrent of night about the spooky third movement; while Scherzo means 'joke', this movement is remarkably gloomy and even grim. Eerie timpani and low wind instruments set off on a threatening waltz, complete with unearthly woodwind shrieks and ghostly shimmerings from the basses. At one point, the strings are instructed to play pizzicato with the volume fffff, with the footnote, pluck so hard that the strings hit the wood. Curious instrumental effects give this movement a strongly nightmarish quality.

4th movement

The fourth movement (the second "Nachtmusik"), with its "amorous" marking and reduced instrumentation—trombones, tuba and trumpets are silent and woodwind reduced by half—has been described as "a long stretch of chamber music set amidst this huge orchestral work". A solo violin introduces the movement, while a horn solo above the gentle tones of a guitar and mandolin create a magical serenade character.

5th movement

Boisterous timpani, joined in the fray by blazing brass, set the scene for the riotous fifth movement. Here is quasi-film music, pomp and pageantry and great dramatic gestures all rolled into a piece that demands intense orchestral display. Formally, the movement is a rondo that acts as the theme for a set of eight variations, capped off by a dramatic coda. There are parodies of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow, as well as of Mahler's own Fifth Symphony and the famous Lutheran Hymn "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott", not to mention other ironic and sarcastic references. Little wonder that of all the Symphony's movements this has come in for the greatest amount of criticism and puzzlement (it has been seen by many as something of a let-down and somewhat superficial, dodging questions set by the previous movements): its virtually unrelenting mood of celebration seems quite at odds with the dark character of the earlier movements - "a vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy", is how Michael Kennedy describes it. For his part Mahler described it simply as a depiction of "broad daylight" and the outrageously exuberant ending, with passing references to the very opening theme, seems to encapsulate the blazing brilliance of the noonday sun.

Critical analysis

The harmonic and stylistic structure of the piece may be viewed as a depiction of the journey from dusk till dawn. The piece evolves from uncertain and hesitant beginnings to an unequivocal C major finale, with its echoes of Wagner's Die Meistersinger: indeed, at the premiere the overture to this opera was performed after the symphony.

This journey from night to day proceeds via an extraordinary third movement scherzo, marked schattenhaft (shadowy), which may have been what prompted Arnold Schoenberg to become a particular champion of the work. There are certainly expressionistic features, notably harmonic instability and melodic neuroses, which prefigure Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, written only two years later. The abundance of themes based upon the interval of a fourth likewise has parallels with the First Chamber Symphony.

The piece has several motifs in common with the Sixth Symphony, notably the juxtaposition of major with minor chords, the march figure of the first movement, and the use of cowbells within certain "pastoral" episodes.


Mahler conducted the premiere of his Seventh Symphony in Praguemarker in 1908. A few weeks later he conducted it in Munichmarker and the Netherlandsmarker. Both the audience and the performers at the premiere were confused by the work, and it was not well received. It remained for a while as one of Mahler's least appreciated works, often accused of incoherence. More recently, scholars and conductors have experienced the range of interpretations of the work, especially the tempo of the finale, and the work has thrilled more audiences worldwide and has since become more popular.




Further reading

  • David Hurwitz, The Mahler Symphonies: An Owner's Manual (includes 1 CD), Amadeus Press (2004), ISBN 1574670999

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