Too Much Tchaikovsky

Eine kleine zuviele Nachtmusik

This is about Mahler and his Seventh Symphony.

Which means, I guess, that it’s about everything. More than anyone else, Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) set out to depict huge chunks of the universe in his music. He said:

A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.

Yet when it comes to the Seventh, even people who think they love and understand Mahler have often come a cropper. What’s going on in there? It’s not exactly a straightforward narrative in the manner of his other works. Perhaps that’s because (1) he wrote the symphony’s three middle movements first; and (2) he wrote them while finishing up a more linear work, his 1904 Sixth Symphony. Beethoven may have been better at this kind of multi-tasking; he created his Fifth and Sixth symphonies more or less simultaneously. One is an abstract story (not a contradiction in terms!) in which the hero shakes his fist at the heavens and eventually triumphs over Fate in C Minor. The other is more of a travelogue: our hero takes a weekend off and spends it in the country—also a narrative, just a bit more unbuttoned.

Mahler’s Sixth was indeed a real fist-shaker, although it ended not in triumph but with the hero’s tragic demise. We can empathize with the composer’s need for a break from all that, so it makes psychological sense for him to have delivered the middle movements of No. 7 prematurely, as it were. In a letter to Swiss critic William Ritter, he called them “three night pieces” (hence the title of this column). Each is a largely self-contained character study. Mahler then found it much more difficult to compose an opening movement and a closer, which he put off until the following summer. Even so, inspiration eluded him; a hiking trip in the Dolomites did nothing to lift his gloom. Only the sound of oars dipping into the waters of the Wörthersee finally calmed him, suggesting a rhythm—perhaps also an atmosphere—for the first movement.

It remains one of the more emotionally elusive openings in all Mahler:

What is this place? Why are we here? Veiled fanfares in the strings scarcely prepare us for the entrance of a tenor horn, its mournful song neither a lament nor a call to arms. It is, as Michael Steinberg said, both “protest and resignation, graspable and strange.” Eventually, and after a tempo change or two, we gather it’s a march. It, too, seems to be Nachtmusik. At any rate it, its severity and mystery continue even as it gains energy. The music doesn’t offer any relief—which it should do, since it soon becomes obvious that we’re caught in a sonata-allegro form worthy of Haydn or Mozart—until about nine minutes in, when we hear first this:

and then, at about 12’, a full-fledged lyric closing theme:

All to little avail, as the mysterious opening returns, followed by a violently compressed recapitulation. At least the first movement manages to get itself worked into a good frenzy! That helps it seem like recognizable Mahler.

Also, that sets up the second movement (first of the “night pieces”) as long-range relief. Do you know Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”? (See the pic below.) Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg liked to say that this movement had been inspired by it. Another Amsterdam friend of Mahler’s added clarification:

It is not true that [Mahler] wanted actually to depict The Night Watch. He cited [it] only as a point of comparison. [It’s] 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.

I want to keep that Rembrandt in mind. For one thing, it suggests the music’s roiling energy, not to mention its motley fellowship of gestures, subtle and un-subtle. There’s more than a little bumptious, bumbling humor in Mahler’s brushstrokes:

As Klemperer said, “The style of the whole is far from reality.” Remember that when you hear those distant cowbells. As a farm boy, I can tell you that cows shouldn’t wander about in the night, and certainly not in Amsterdam’s deserted streets. Henry-Louis de La Grange got it right: “It seems as though Mahler were quoting at random from [his] recollections . . . in the manner of a Joycean ‘stream of consciousness.’”

Mahler marked the third movement schattenhaft, meaning shadowy or spectral. It’s a scherzo, but a spooky one.

Feel free to make comparisons with other Mahler scherzos, where all manner of witches, devils, and arrogantly misbehaving fish have their fun.

The next movement provides more musical substance: it’s a true “serenade,” which would have been the literal translation of Nachtmusik in Mahler’s time (and Mozart’s too). This one features sound effects—guitar, mandolin, harp—we remember from Don Giovanni and Boccherini and other 18th-century masters of the nocturnal. Listen:

Fifth movement, Rondo-Finale. At long last, the sun rises. And not gently: we’re ushered blinking and stumbling into the light, much as if all that night-musicking had left us with a champagne (or psilocybin) hangover:

This finale has produced more than its share of confusion over the years. It abounds in quotations of the sort that suggest pointed, extreme parody. There’s an ironic tinge to the proceedings, and it doesn’t diminish the merriment one little bit. Is that the Meistersinger Prelude, as seen through a fun-house mirror? It is. Is that a certain little descending sequence-y sub-theme from an earlier movement? It certainly is—barely noticed before, it’s now everywhere, just as banal as in its first appearance, but presently contributing to sporadic attacks of “Turkish Music” and slick C-major movie clichés and country dancing. Just when you think it’s safe to come out again, Mahler brings back some Big Tunes from the first movement. Or at least his brass players attempt it.

And then bells ring out. Oh, the bells. I can almost hear the composer snarling at his audience: “You want a happy ending? You want triumphant, inclusive, C-major joy? Ha! I’ll give you such a happy ending! Your brains will hurt for a week.”

In short: the finale is impossible to take seriously, and that makes it absolutely wonderful, in the only way exalted art can reach us now. We must weep and laugh all at once. (Really want to weep? Try slogging through de La Grange’s 17-page analytical summary of this movement.)

We have been listening to a new recording from Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestral (Channel Classics). By my count, Fischer has now recorded all but one of the Mahler symphonies. It’s good he saved the hardest nut (No. 7) and the most high-minded one (No. 8) for last. I wish him well. This release is well-recorded and extremely well played; it probably helps that Fischer believes in it in a less mediated way than I can—but then the greatest comedians have always been deadly serious about their craft.

Collect ‘em all, folks.


(Definitely not Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, but fun anyway.)

For this essay I drew upon Michael Steinberg’s marvelous The Symphony (1995). I also consulted vol. 3 of Henry-Louis de La Grange’s Mahler biography, Vienna: Triumph and Disillusion (1999). All the attempted humor is mine, though.