Mahler’s Seventh Symphony has troubled audiences and critics from its first performance in Prague in 1908. It is often called “Song of the Night,” a title Mahler did not approve. However, the second and fourth movements are labelled Nachtmusik, the Scherzo third movement is labelled Schattenhaft (shadowy or spectral), and Mahler himself described the final fifth movement as depicting “broad daylight.” He completed the initial sketch of the work in 1905 but continued working on it up to and after the 1908 premiere. In between, he had been forced to resign from the Vienna State Opera, his first daughter had died, and he learned that he had an incurable heart problem. It is plausible to think that these factors contributed to the darkening of the mood in his revisions to the symphony. It’s a piece that was long neglected, revived in part due to Bernstein’s attention to Mahler and in particular his dramatic performances of this symphony in the ‘60s. Even Mahler’s protégé and leading exponent, Bruno Walter, declined to perform it, saying that he wanted to present only Mahler’s strongest works to the public. Yet this is the symphony that finally converted Schoenberg to Mahler: “I am now really and entirely yours,” he wrote.
The Seventh is a vast and complex work, typically lasting about 80 minutes. Yesterday’s performance at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre took 78 and was the only piece on the program. It consists of five movements: the first marked allegro risoluto, in sonata form with a slow (Langsam) introduction; next is the first Nachtmusik movement, perhaps picturing a walk at dusk, ending with cowbells and nightfall; the third movement is (usually, but see below) a gloomy and even morbid scherzo, literally the dark center of the symphony; next is the second Nachtmusik, marked andante amoroso, using reduced winds and brass and with serenading guitar and mandolin; the last movement is a riotous introductory rondo leading to the finale, marked by enthusiastic timpani and filled with satirical references, especially to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, ending with a wildly exuberant finish. The finale seemed to many to be excessive and almost ridiculous, although Bernstein noted that it should be viewed as a “document on the end of the great European tradition”: Vienna in those days may have had its waltzes and schlag, but it also had Freud, Mach, Brentano, Klimt, Kokoschka — and the young Gropius. In his pre-concert talk, conductor Benjamin Zander promised finally to solve the problem of the last movement and, as it turned out, he delivered.
Mahler puts his oars in the water (his words) with a soft tutti followed by a plaintive but resolute call from the B-flat tenor horn; a baritone horn, softer and with less of an edge, is often employed instead. (There is much confusion and controversy, to this day, over exactly what instrument Mahler meant.) A tenor tuba was used at this concert, with Nic Orovich performing admirably. The high point of the movement was a wonderfully transcendent moment at the end of the development, leading to the recapitulation. The time flew by and the movement did not seem to last 20-plus minutes.
The three middle movements taken together produced a Faustian atmosphere, a closeness to the world of spirits, seductive and dangerous. The first Nachtmusik movement here had the feeling of an evening stroll, with occasional glimpses of music and dancing enticingly seen through passing windows. The scherzo emphasized the dance-like aspects, downplaying the creepiness one usually hears, except for the nicely ominous tympani playing of Edward Meltzer. The second Nachtmusik movement featured the lovely serenade with guitar and mandolin, played here by Stefan Koim and Sue Faux, respectively. The effect that Mahler wanted seems nearly impossible to achieve in a live concert hall performance, but they were heard rather well and to good effect in this one.
The last movement is what made this performance memorable. The references to Die Meistersinger certainly offer a clue to the meaning, in that it features a critic who is vilified for trying to stifle the great artist’s impulses of the heart. Bernstein’s interpretation argues that artistic imagination is fine, but that there is also much of value in the traditional, and that it too can lead to great art. Zander went further. Rather than the all-out emotion of Bernstein’s reading, this one had the humor tempered by irony, restraint and wit, and brought to mind — of all things — Mozart, both of Cherubino being sent off to war and of the “Jupiter”: not directly, of course, but in the sense that one cannot imagine Mozart being happy to represent the immortal German soul. This finale was a vindication of the Enlightenment, answering the (anti-Semitic) German nationalists by showing the danger in following one’s spirit while denigrating critical thinking. (Bernstein’s Candide relates to Mozart and the Enlightenment in exactly the same way.) The return of the main theme from the first movement would seem to indicate Mahler placing himself squarely in the midst of this alternative, universalist tradition. It was a fine solution to the problem, as good as any I’ve heard.