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Perhaps, just once in a while, music is able to pause the headlong rush of history, even if only for a brief moment. Perhaps that's just what happened one afternoon in Prague in September, 1908.
The Seventh Symphony of Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler is seen as the least popular1 of the set of nine symphonies that the composer completed in his shortened lifetime – he died at the age of only 50 – yet it remains a great, if enigmatic work. It is the last of the trio of purely instrumental symphonies that lie between the Wunderhorn symphonies (numbers two to four) and the late period Eighth and Ninth, and the unfinished Tenth.
Conceived in the creational outpouring of the summer of 1904, this five-movement symphony was completed the following year in another furious period of composing. Its two inner Nachtmusik (literally Night Music) movements were certainly completed in 1904, the same year that saw the completion of the song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), and the Sixth Symphony. Mahler accidentally left the manuscripts for the Seventh at the Maiernigg villa2 over the winter, and was concerned when he could not find them at home in Vienna before returning to Maiernigg in mid-June 1905 for his summer holiday. It is likely that the structural plans for the remainder of the symphony were also in place by the time Mahler resumed its composition that year. The last section to be sketched was the long first movement with its slow introduction, said to derive rhythmically from the sound that Mahler heard made by the oars, as he was rowed across the lake from Krumpendorf to the Maiernigg villa. There is documentary evidence that the symphony was completed, at least to plan and sketch level, by mid-August 1905.
Background to the Première
The symphony received its first performance on 19 September, 1908 in Prague, at the Concert Pavilion built in the grounds of the Exhibition to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the accession of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef I – also the King of Bohemia. The Exhibition, organised by the Prague Chamber of Commerce and Industry, ran from May to September. The old Empire was by this time in its death throes – it would of course finally collapse in 1914 – and Slavic nationalism was on the rise. Although intended to be bipartisan and to showcase both the (Austrian-) German and Czech elements of Prague business, most German businesses boycotted the event – of the 2,300 exhibitors, only 300 were German.
In the summer of 1908, Mahler had completed his first season as conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and returned to Europe for his summer holiday, to be taken at the rented villa at Toblach3. The choice (or more likely lack of choice) of Prague as the location for the première, was not without its problems, as we shall see. Mahler himself would probably have liked to have first performed the work in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but that was out of the question; the terms of his severance from the Hofoper (Royal Opera House) there in 1907 stipulated that he would not perform in public in Vienna.
Mahler and Prague
Mahler was no stranger either to Prague or to the Slavic region. After brief appointments in 1882 and 1883 at theatres in Laibach (now Ljubljana) in Slovenia, and Olmütz (now Olomouc) in Moravia, in 1885 he applied for, and was appointed as, chief conductor at the Neues Stadttheater (New Municipal Theatre) in Leipzig, where he would replace the legendary conductor, Arthur Nikisch.
Unfortunately, that appointment would not begin until the start of the 1886-87 season, so Mahler needed work in the interim. Writing to a number of theatre directors, he was offered the post of second conductor at the Königliches deutsches Landestheater (Royal German National Theatre) in Prague – today called The Estates Theatre. Here he greatly impressed the Director, Angelo Neumann, and was very successful – the sudden departure of the first conductor, Anton Seidl, gave Mahler the opportunity to conduct, among many other works, the Prague premières of the first two parts of Richard Wagner's music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.
He would certainly have stayed longer at Prague, but ultimately was unable to extricate himself from the contract he had signed with Leipzig. He returned to the city in August 1888, to conduct the local première of his celebrated completion of Carl Maria von Weber's unfinished opera, Die drei Pintos (The three Pintos)4. Ten years later, he conducted his own First Symphony in the city in 1898, and his Third in 1904.
Czech Versus German
At the opening of the 20th Century, Prague, the capital of Bohemia, was – as it had been since the Middle Ages – a city of dual nationality, culture and language. However, with the migration of Czech rural workers into the city in the second half of the 19th Century, the previously German-speaking majority has become instead the minority. Around the mid-1850s, almost half the population was German-speaking; by the first decade of the 20th Century, the proportion was down to less than 20%. However, that minority still carried substantial wealth and influence.
A sense of Czech identity was a growing issue, and in many aspects of Prague society partisan groups were established, as exemplified by the (Czech) National Theatre, on which construction started in 1868, and the Neues deutsches Theater (New German Theatre – now the Prague State Opera), which only included the word 'German' in its name after the establishment of the National Theatre. These institutions, as well as others, acted as focus points for the differing national, cultural and linguistic identities.
The Exhibition Orchestra
An 'Exhibition Orchestra' was put together to perform a season of 157 concerts throughout the Exhibition, comprising the 50 players of the Czech Philharmonic, augmented by about 16 players from the New German Theatre orchestra. Mahler would conduct both the opening and closing concerts, the latter being offered to stage the world première of the composer's Seventh Symphony. The first concert, on 23 May, 1908, was a great success. Mahler was satisfied with the orchestra and made up his mind to accept the offer to stage the première.
For this, Mahler insisted on a complement of 100 players, so more German players would need to be drafted, in addition to those already augmenting the Czech Philharmonic. Now the two sides would be represented roughly 50-50 in the orchestra. The idea of the feuding players being brought together to perform a work by a German-speaking Jew – albeit that Mahler was himself a Bohemian5 – added further fuel to the powder keg. Mahler knew he would have his work cut out keeping the lid on it.
Given both the situation and the difficulty of the work, Mahler insisted on two complete weeks of rehearsals prior to the performance. He left Toblach on 4 September, stopped off briefly en route in Vienna, and arrived in Prague the next day. For the first time, a Mahler symphony was receiving its première prior to being published, so the musicians were playing from orchestral parts hand-written by copyists. Mahler spent most of every evening during the first week furiously correcting the parts in readiness for the next day.
The situation in Prague was chaos; people were rushing around all over the place, the jubilee exhibition was drawing to a close, and the various peripheral activities going on were running out of their allotted time. Even the Concert Pavilion was not completely dedicated to performances; internally it was a restaurant with a large, sloped stage at one end; for concerts it was capable of seating 1,500 people. Mahler frequently ended up trying to rehearse while waiters were scurrying around laying up tables – on one occasion Mahler was turfed out so a banquet could take place; he was forced to take the players into town to use a small hall.
Staunch Mahler supporters Artur Bodansky6, Otto Klemperer7, Bruno Walter and others, as well as Vilém Zemánek, the conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra who had prepared the orchestra prior to Mahler's arrival, were present during rehearsals, ready and willing to assist in any way they could. They offered to help with the corrections to the parts, but Mahler insisted on doing them all himself.
The first week was given over to rehearsals for the separate orchestra sections: strings, wind and percussion, before the first full orchestra rehearsals the week after. By the end of the sectional rehearsals, Mahler was clearly tired and wrote in a letter to his wife, Alma: I have absolutely no mental energy left... I have parts to correct, meanwhile wondering how to change a cauldron into a timpani, rusty watering-cans into trumpets and a public bar into a concert hall. A contributing factor to his tiredness was the fact that the occupant of the room next to Mahler's at the Hotel Blauer Stern woke him up several times each night with loud snoring. Mahler eventually resorted to renting that room as well to keep it empty.
Alma herself arrived in Prague early in the second week of rehearsals, which by now were going much better. Mahler, who up until now had been concentrating on the earlier movements of the symphony, realised that his wife, seated behind, but almost in with the orchestra, had not yet heard the last movement. Addressing the orchestra, Mahler said: Straight through, yes? For the first time! The orchestra played gloriously, completely won over by the music. At its conclusion, they burst into spontaneous applause, the violinists tapping their instruments with their bows; Mahler had conquered them – victory was his!
As the week progressed, Europe's musical establishment began to assemble in Prague; friends, colleagues and critics from all the major music review newspapers and journals: four alone from Vienna – a Mahler première was a major event. Composer Arnold Schönberg, who had planned to attend the première, was unable to do so, it being so soon after his wife Mathilde had run away with the artist Richard Gerstl8. One of Schönberg's disciples, Alban Berg, did attend however, as did composer Alexander Zemlinsky, and Mahler's friend, the conductor Oskar Fried.
The première began at 7pm on Saturday, 19 September. Mahler had requested, and had his wish granted, that the trams running from the festival grounds into town stop for the duration of the performance. According to one critic, the first movement was politely applauded, the second better received, the applause spasmodic for the third, while that for the fourth was firm but unforced. However, at the end of the finale, there was a demonstration of conviction that a man who could compose like this deserved applause. The critics in general were, for once, objective about a new symphony that explored unfamiliar territories and soundscapes.
After a second performance in Munich on 27 October, Mahler conducted the symphony on three further occasions, all in Holland: in The Hague on 2 October, 1909, repeated the following night at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, and again at the Concertgebouw on 7 October – his final performance in Holland. At the beginning of the fifth movement, the Rondo-Finale, Mahler makes overt reference to the Prelude to Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. As if to reinforce the association, he included the Prelude in the concert programme of that last performance.
Musical Form and Outline
The first thing to notice is the absence of a key in the title, the only one of Mahler's symphonies to omit one. It is sometimes described as being in the key of E minor, a principal key of the Allegro section of the first movement, or even occasionally as being in B minor, the key of the slow Introduction. In his book Gustav Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, Theodor Adorno argues that the work should be considered as being in the key of C major – certainly the principal key of the finale – in which case the E minor can be seen as the relative minor key of G major, itself the dominant of the scale of C major.
This absence of a clear home key also explains in part why some writers on Mahler's symphonies find the Seventh the least satisfying of the set; although it is highly symmetrical, it doesn't have a grand architectural plan. As we saw earlier, the two Nachtmusik movements were composed during one year, almost as stand alone pieces. The remaining three movements were composed the following summer, the first movement probably being completed last. Although Mahler had long since abandoned the provision of thematic programmes for his music – he regarded these as inhibiting musical crutches for the listening audience – when asked privately by a friend about the plan, Mahler said: Three night pieces, then bright sunlight in the finale. The first movement as a base for all the rest.
Nonetheless, the symphony structurally resembles a Russian doll of symmetries – the large outer movements surrounding the inner intermezzi, which themselves comprise two Nachtmusik movements with a Scherzo between, the musical forms of which in turn have thematic symmetry.
The five movements are:
- 1st movement: Langsam – Allegro risoluto
- 2nd movement: Nachtmusik I
- 3rd movement: Scherzo
- 4th movement: Nachmusik II
- 5th movement: Rondo-Finale
By the standards of a Mahler symphony, the requirements of the Seventh are fairly normal: four flutes, two piccolos, three oboes, cor anglais, four clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two harps, percussion, violins, violas, cellos and double-basses. The percussion section comprises timpani and bass drum, tambourine, tamtam, triangle, cymbals, cowbells, low-pitched bells and glockenspiel. The unusual elements are guitar and mandolin, used to provide particular tone colour in the second Nachtmusik movement, and the very unusual tenor horn9, heard to good effect at the very opening of the symphony – in modern performances, the part is sometimes taken by the euphonium. Even so, the total requirement is close to 100 players.
Mahler's 'base' for his symphony is composed essentially of just three ingredients, but like a master chef, he combines these ingredients in different combinations and with a variety of flavourings to produce an endless procession of dishes. First there is the motto of the slow-march introduction, the one said to have been suggested by the rhythm of the oars: dum-da-da-dum-da-da-dummm. Then there is the quicker march of the main theme of the Allegro section of the movement, presented in E minor. The third ingredient, which follows a brief pause in the Allegro, is a rich, lyrical theme in C major (which prefigures the main key of the finale), taken initially by the violins and horns against broken chords in the cellos. Throughout, this 20-minute movement is shot through with woodwind trills and birdcalls, fanfares and chorales in the brass, and the all-pervading character of the interval of a fourth which occurs everywhere, both melodically and harmonically. To add further variety to his dishes, Mahler serves them up in an enormous number of related and unrelated keys, before finally concluding the movement in E major.
The first of the two Nachtmusik movements is a slow military march in the symmetrical form: Introduction–March–Trio 1–March–Trio 2–March–Trio 1-March–Coda; the keys are C minor and C major, with the two Trios in A flat major and F minor respectively. The Introduction may sound familiar to UK listeners who remember a television advertisement from the 1970s for a certain brand of motor oil. Despite the military march, the feeling of the movement is rural, perhaps a barracks in a forest clearing, with birdsong and cowbells.
The Scherzo, with its central Trio, is a ghostly spectral dance, but quite different in character from that in the last movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, or of the Saint-Saens Danse Macabre. Being a Scherzo, it has a symmetrical A-B-A form, with a central Trio. The Scherzo takes the form of a wild Ländler10-Waltz, the key flitting between D minor and D major. Musical figures materialize briefly, then just as quickly evaporate.
Just like the first, the second Nachtmusik has a symmetrical form, although this time with a little more complex structure. The principal key is F major, although for about 100 bars of the centre section, a number of other keys appear. The presence of the guitar and mandolin, the dynamic marking Andante amoroso, the rhythm and the 2/4 time signature, and the very title, Nachtmusik – suggesting a warm evening – all spell out this movement as a serenade; the only thing missing is the young man courting his heart's desire beneath her window. Originally the guitar part was more extensive, until it was cut back and the mandolin part inserted. This almost certainly happened after the first performance, but before the performances in Holland in 1909.
The much-maligned 18-minute Rondo-Finale movement is a positive tour de force for the listener, but its complexity precludes a detailed description here. Ideas come at us from all directions, and encompass styles ranging from 18th Century dance forms to 20th Century chromaticism. Apart from the Wagner quotation, there are also possible hints at music by Franz Lehar (The Merry Widow) and Mozart. The primary tonality is C major, although during the course of the movement, Mahler makes use of no less than 14 different keys!
It opens with a powerful rhythmic figure on the timpani, soon picked up by the brass and followed by an unmistakable reference to the Prelude to Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The connectivity between Wagner's opera and Mahler's symphony cannot be coincidence – there is just so much of it; Mahler must be telling us something here. One of the most striking is the importance attached to the interval of a fourth. In Wagner's opera, it is an essential building block throughout the whole work – the very first two notes of the Prelude, C down to G, are a fourth apart – and we have already seen the importance of this interval in the first movement of Mahler's symphony.
The Wagner Prelude opens in C major, the primary key of this fifth movement. The character Beckmesser, portrayed in Wagner's opera as a pedant for detail in the Master Singer's art form, is a thinly-veiled parody of the music critic Eduard Hanslick. In the competition to compose and sing a new song that conforms to the incredibly rigid rules of the Master Singer's Guild, Beckmesser sings a Serenade, accompanying himself on the lute. The second Nachtmusik movement of Mahler's symphony is a Serenade that features guitar and mandolin. The list goes on. Wagner's opera was written as a discourse on rigid conventions in vocal music; is Mahler's symphony a discourse on anachronism in symphonic music?
Returning to the fifth movement of this symphony, the various elements are ultimately resolved. At its conclusion, and following an unexpected interruption, the Meistersinger-inspired theme returns as a Coda. Amid pealing bells and braying brass a final climax is reached, leading to a helter-skelter of semiquavers, which is itself interrupted by a tonic chord with an augmented fifth, immediately followed by the final C major tonic chord. Maligned as it has been in the past, this movement is now being seen in a new light by a new generation of music analysts.
Only six days after the première of Mahler's Seventh Symphony, German deputies were singing the nationalistic Die Wacht am Rhein in the Assembly to antagonise Czech members and to disrupt proceedings. Parliament was suspended in mid-October. Rioting on the streets in front of the German casino led to the imposition of martial law in Prague on 2 December, 1908, the actual 60th anniversary of the Emperor's reign.
Although many of the fine Exhibition buildings remain, the Concert Pavilion itself has been demolished.
On 19 September, 2008 a commemorative centennial performance of the Seventh Symphony was given in Prague by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jirì Belohlávek, formerly a Chief Conductor of the orchestra, who is now Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.