Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony may be his most fascinating study of the dialectical opposition of order and disorder. The overall architecture is the most symmetrical of any of his compositions. Like the fifth symphony, the seventh is in five movements with the middle movement serving as a central axis point. Thus, both symphonies can be seen in terms of a 2+1+2 organization. However, in the seventh symphony each of the final two movements reflects the opening two in reverse order. Furthermore, the seventh takes a distinctively different approach to the allocation of durations.
Considering the symphony from the inside out, the third movement scherzo is the shortest, feeling almost instantaneous within the full scope of the symphony. (This also contrasts with the fifth, where the middle scherzo movement is the longest one.) On either side of the scherzo in the seventh are two movements called “Nachtmusik” (night music), the former a march and the latter a serenade (complete with accompaniment from both a mandolin and a guitar). The opening and closing movements are the two longest in the symphony, the first an almost bizarre prolongation of sonata form and the last an equally bizarre rondo.
Within this strictly symmetric framework, however, there is an approach to tonality that Mahler called “progressive” but could just as easily be called “wandering.” The opening movement is in E minor, but it has a B minor introduction. The first “Nachtmusik” is in C (both major and minor). The scherzo is in D minor, followed by the second “Nachtmusik” in F major. The final movement then wraps things up in C major. The overall mood of the symphony is as restless as its sense of tonality; and, when we realize that this symphony was completed in 1905, it is easy to believe some of the anecdotes that Mahler listened to the music Arnold Schoenberg was making very seriously.
Both that restlessness and its possible “Schoenberg connection” may have contributed to the general lack of enthusiasm for this particular symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), on the other hand, has been an enthusiastic advocate for the piece. Unless I am mistaken, I have been able to listen to this particular symphony more than any other work in the Mahler canon during MTT’s tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Since the seventh is one of the first Mahler symphonies I got to know (thanks to a distant relative who wanted to get rid of his recording), I share MTT’s enthusiasm and always end up appreciating each time he returns to the symphony for reexamination.
This season he is not only reexamining the symphony but also taking it on the road. It will be performed at three of the nine concerts to be given during next month’s seven-city tour of states east of the Mississippi River. This week SFS presented the first “tour preview” program with three performances of the Mahler seventh beginning last night at Davies Symphony Hall. If the symphony still has any reputation for being unwieldy and/or unpopular, you would never know it from last night’s performance.
That reputation may be attributed in part to the symphony’s length, which tends to be on the order of about 80 minutes. However, it also demands extensive instrumental resources, for which that mandolin and guitar are but the tip of the iceberg. The opening theme is introduced by a Tenorhorn, which should not be confused with what the British call a “tenor horn” (which Americans call an “alto horn”), the Euphonium used in band music, or the Wagner tuba. (Both the British and the Americans call the Tenorhorn a baritone horn.) The wind section covers everything from the piccolo to the contrabassoon, while the strings are enhanced by not only the mandolin and guitar but also two harps. Then, of course, there is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink percussion section, which we are used to encountering in Mahler.
What made last night’s performance particularly interesting (not to mention exciting) was MTT’s awareness of every one of these instrumental lines and his determination to make sure that all of us on audience side were aware of them, too. Thus, his direction of the ensemble often amounted to a survey of an extensive diversity of sonorities, rather in the way that the eye surveys a large canvas, always making sure that each shift in sonority registered appropriately and effectively. Through that attentiveness, he could maintain edge-of-your-seat suspense over the full duration (which last night seemed to be about 90 minutes). As a result, when he had finally advanced to the concluding measures, which felt as if every one of those instruments was now holding forth with full force (including four pitched cowbells), it was hard not to feel the exhilaration that comes at the completion of a long journey.
There are now abundant opportunities to listen to Mahler’s seventh symphony on recording (including one made by MTT and SFS). These can be very helpful in familiarizing the listener with the thematic material. However, none of them can prepare the listener for the full force of in-the-moment excitement that comes from a performance as effectively executed as the one the Davies audience experienced last night.