The five-movement structure of this remarkable symphony is more arc-like than that of the five movements of the Fifth. In both cases the Scherzo is placed in the center, but in the Seventh, it is flanked by the two Nachtmusiken, and beyond that by two Allegros, whereas in the Fifth the principal sonata-allegro is the second movement. There are, however, other structural analogies to the Fifth Symphony. They end, for example, in Mahler's only Rondo-finales (in D Major and C Major), and both symphonies begin in a key that is a semitone lower than the conclusion (c-sharp minor and b minor). The main Allegro key of the opening movement of the Seventh, however, is e minor; and, as Dika Newlin points out,
"C Major comes with doubly brilliant effect as a strong root-progression from e minor."
In each movement of the Seventh, save perhaps the last, the juxtaposition and antithesis of tonic major and minor is quite prominent. Even the principal "fate" motive of the Sixth, consisting simply of the major tonic triad dissolving into the minor, is again featured, but in a less personalized context, as it were.
The Seventh Symphony does not lack those special unfamiliar instruments through which Mahler strove to penetrate the indolent aural habits of his listeners and explore new areas of tonal expression. The orchestra requires a piccolo, 4 flutes, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets in A, clarinet in E-flat, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, tenor horn in B-flat, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, Rute, glockenspiel, cowbells, 2 harps, guitar, mandolin and strings.
In the introduction to the first movement, Langsam-Allegro, occurs the "tenor horn in B-flat," probably a relic of his military-band memories, which he does not employ elsewhere. At any rate, after the curtain of night mentioned earlier has been laid by the strings, clarinets and bassoons in the opening bars, the tenor horn, with "grosser Ton," is the first instrument to pierce the darkness. The curtain itself is a strange, mystic repeated chord in a hypnotic rhythm, harmonically a b-flat minor chord with added major sixth (G-sharp), and scored with impenetrable heaviness. This mystic opening harmony lays the harmonic basis for much of the first movement, during which, as Deryck Cooke says,
It is a peculiarity of Mahler's sequence of symphonies, up to and including the Eighth, that the first movements of all the odd-numbered symphonies have slow introductions (except that in the Fifth the introduction and the Allegro have been split into two movements), while those of the even-numbered symphonies have none. In the Sixth, however, although the first movement has no slow introduction, the gigantic finale, also in sonata form, does have one. And comparing the transitional accelerando passage in that finale with the one in the first movement of the Seventh, one discovers a certain analogy in the way both suggest the winding up and unleashing of some powerful and perhaps demonic force.
The march-like allegro theme of the Seventh itself, however, has been more likened to that of the first movement of the Sixth. The Sixth Symphony begins with a strong march tread, and the main a minor theme begins at the sixth bar. In the Seventh, the main e minor theme, which Cooke goes so far as to call "a more thrusting version" of the a minor, begins in the horns. With the second subject, Mahler arrives for the first time in the Seventh in the C tonality in which the symphony ends, with an aspiring lyric theme (Mit grossem Schwung) containing a languishing figure. The codetta in G is a march subject taken from the introduction.
The development section handles all the above materials in various keys, first in the minor mode and then in the major. The idyllic second part begins with soft trumpet fanfares in the rhythm of the opening "curtain," over a high violin tremolandi on the dominant, of which Mahler seemed almost as fond as Bruckner for moods of rapt anticipation, and the transformation of the little march into a placid and solemn choraIe.
Before he returns to the slow introduction – as he always does for his reprise – there is an upsweep in the harp, introducing a moonlit B Major episode (Sehr breit) which is virtually unparalleled in Mahler's music for its romantic and sensuous beauty. The original b minor "curtain" harmonies and rhythm then return in the opening Adagio tempo. The tenor horn raises its voice, only to be answered "passionately" by the violins. This protracted exchange moves arduously and without much accelerando toward e minor, so that the main Allegro theme finally bursts out (augmented at first in time-value) with an effect of tremendous emotional release.
Both sections of the reprise are ennobled in expression: the main theme partly by a second and more exalted augmentation, in the tonic major (Grandioso), and the lyric subject (now in G Major) by a harmonic and melodic rephrasing of its opening, which turns the "languishing" phrase into a cadence expressing fulfillment, only to continue from there on an even more ardent and aspiring plane. The coda, returning to the minor, begins with a temporary change of meter to 3/2, which military drum and shrill skirIings of the kind later to be much cultivated by Shostakovich, and culminates in a triumphal march and apotheosis in E Major.
The three inner movements are all ternary in form, the first (Nachtmusik l) being compounded by an introduction and two Trios (middle sections), instead of one. The first Trio occurs again after the second. The introductory passage returns in abbreviated form in the middle of the second Trio (exactly in the center of the movement), and again at the very end. This is the most symmetrical plan devised by Mahler in so many sections; and yet, as usual, scarcely a bar is repeated absolutely literally.
With the opening antiphonal calls of the night-watch, we immediately feel ourselves in the romantic world of the Wunderhorn songs. These horn calls are followed closely by the stylized polyphonic bird-song of the Second Symphony's Finale, together with a characteristic rhythmic figure featured in Revelge, one of the last and finest of the Wunderhorn songs. All this is then combined in a crescendo over a series of dominant trills, like a general awakening (or exhortation of spirits), in which the Rute also takes part. The crescendo explodes in a shower of downward chromatic notes, through which the triadal, major-minor ("fate") motive is heard again.
The movement's main section is marked Andante molto moderato, 4/4, in C Major and minor, with frequent alternations of the modes within the principal melody itself, the "night march" built from the horn calls. The staccato rhythmic figure that punctuates it evokes memories of both Revelge and the Frère Jacques music of the First Symphony. A "prowling" continuation in c minor alternates arco and pizzicato violins and timpani.
The first Trio, in A-flat Major, begins in the cellos, with friendlier anticipations of the strumming of a serenade (Nachtmusik II). It becomes quite merry, with jaunty triangle, and recollections of the F Major march from the Third Symphony. Then the antiphonal horn calls return, and with them the sound of distant cowbells as in the Sixth Symphony.
The second Trio is in the more spectral vein of songs like Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. It begins in f minor, with weird trills on the open fifth on the dominant (i.e., D - G). Its plaintive melody for two oboes in parallel thirds is repeated, after the interruption, in c minor by the two cellos. The transition from this section back to the main subject (principal reprise) is one of the most distinguished and imaginative bits in the movement, with an anticipation of the prowling theme heard under pale, ghostly fanfares "fleetingly" scored for solo flute. The return of the first Trio is merrier than before, with glockenspiel, triangle, and cowbells. The "fate" motive erupts again in the final pages, with muted trumpets dissolving into chilly flutes and clarinets; then the whole evocation vanishes in the faintest glimmer.
In d minor and 3/4 time, the Scherzo is, in part, as sinister as the corresponding movement of the Sixth Symphony, but in a light-footed and more subtly diabolical fashion. Its main section, marked "shadowy," alternates a muttering, shrieking "spook-piece" in d minor with the grotesque gaiety of a farcical and distorted valse macabre in D Major. There are long plunging string glissandos which almost seem to thumb their nose at Viennese Gemütlichkeit. And in place of the skeleton dance of the xylophone featured in the Sixth, there are spectral muted or stopped horns carrying the waltz beat along. The three-note dotted rhythm noted at the beginning of the symphony is pressed willy-nilly into the infernal dance, with an obsessive feeling.
About four-fifths of the way through, the timpani and pizzicato bass repeat the military flam, or "fall-in," which set the Scherzo of the Second Symphony in motion, but more expressionistically scored than with the timpani alone. At this point the concerted cellos and string basses execute a "snap" pizzicato (the strings plucked hard so as to "rebound from the wood"). Puccini used this device, undoubtedly of popular dance origin, in 1904 (Madama Butterfly), one year before Mahler.
The little Trio, also in the key of D Major, is the briefest of respites from all this, but such relief as can be found is provided by its tender folk-like melody in the oboes, of the type to be found in the second Trio of the Fifth or the song Nicht wiedersehen. Even that is mocked by being transformed into a hollow cadence-theme for the waltz section, twice in the cellos and once raucously announced by the trombones and tuba (Wild). The movement is a masterpiece of diabolical humor.
The second Nachtmusik, headed Andante amoroso, is in F Major and 2/4 time. This serenade, as it is sometimes called, utilizes, in addition to the string choir, a chamber-orchestra sized contingent of winds (without trumpets, trombones, or percussion), and a semi-concertante consort of guitar, mandolin and harp. Solo bowed strings are also frequently employed, numbering in all two violins, three violas, one cello and one bass.
The very opening figure of the serenade is a possibly deliberate evocation of Schumann's Reverie in the solo violin. This too is Mahleresque spoof, since it keeps turning up again as a humorously short cadence figure (once moved down an octave to the cello) throughout the long-drawn-out statement of the main theme, a much- interrupted love song for the solo horn whose individual lines are always preluded by a soft but busy strumming of the guitar. Just as Haydn, in his symphony entitled Il distratto (No. 60), made an audible joke about the constant retunings of violinists, so here Mahler makes a joke about the necessary retunings of serenaders. In the middle of the first main section, and again just before the Trio, there is a passage consisting merely of a few low notes moving in parallel fifths, suggesting the tuning up in turn of harp, guitar, and mandolin. Yet the dark poetry of the orchestration in which this little joke is embedded is such that one may be quite unaware of it, hearing only its strangeness and mystery. Similarly, the mandolin part itself is semi-humorous throughout, yet never less than charming and poignant. In the Trio, its employment over a dreamy solo violin has a remote and wistful charm. The guitar is silent in the Trio, and the mandolin nearly so. It begins in B-flat Major, where its long cantabile theme is shared and alternated by solo and tutti cellos and solo horn. The die-away is accompanied by harp arpeggios which recall the poignancy of Bruckner's only usage of the harp (for the inner movements of his Eighth Symphony). The varied repeat of the main section also has an added poignancy. The end of the coda subsides in four slowly descending notes for the guitar, and a long murmuring trill in the low clarinet.
The Rondo Finale in C Major is conceived and realized con bravura, a joyful sound for the ideal morning of the imagination. After several bars of introductory fanfares (Allegro ordinario) which, like the Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach, begin with the timpani, the brass, led by the first trumpet, announce the principal rondo theme (the first main clause of the complete ritornello), which has a family relationship to the e minor theme of the first movement. The chief point of resemblance is the emphatic falling fourth with which each begins. When the earlier theme itself has returned much later on, in cyclic fashion, and both have been set side by side, it is the commonly shared falling fourth that enables them to blend into the joyous ringing of bells that was their long-range destiny and underlying potentiality.
The second clause turns the falling fourth into a witty quote from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The close of the ritornello is ushered in by amusing reference to the "tuning-up" sequence of the preceding movement, and this becomes itself an important thematic complex later on. The conclusion returns to the initial fanfares, and works them up into a brilliant peroration and full cadence. In these fanfares there is also a certain resemblance to the hustle-and-bustle and royal greeting which bring down the curtain on the first act of Tristan und Isolde.
But with all its allusions, musically this ritornello hangs together as a single joyous shout, spanning 51 bars as in a single breath. In expressive and connotative terms, it is not so much a random "pastiche" as an integrated "collage" of the kind which was then being independently cultivated by Charles Ives.
It is in the various related episodes that Mahler conducts us through a world of fantastic imagery, seeming to explore a fresh harmonic subtlety or tone-color on almost every page. The first episode is in A-flat Major, a tonality which is announced simply by juxtaposing the A-flat tonic chord to the previous C Major chord. At one point, a quote from Lehár's Die lustige Witwe in the horns is followed by flutter-tonguing flutes and saltando (bouncing) violin bows in "something" which narrowly eludes the rational grasp. Another passage noisily satirizes "Turkish music" a la seraglio, and there are other pleasant parodies of Wagnerian tunes and Mendelssohn's Wedding March.
The ritornello is twice reintroduced by a furious, discordant crescendo in which the falling interval of its opening is repeatedly extended and distorted in bellowing brass, until the caricature is dispelled as by a lightning bolt and thunderclap. After the first return of the theme from the opening movement, there is an extensive modulating section featuring the kind of bewildering and perpetual "round of dominants" celebrated in the Rondo of the Fifth. All the bells on hand (including cowbells) are rung for the final apotheosis, while the first movement theme is altered from the minor to the major mode a la Bruckner. The two final bars bring an intriguing switch on the chord alternation from the close of the first ritornello, but the final chord is the tonic.
— Jack Diether
Recorded December, 1964 in the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah
Producer: Seymour Solomon
Engineer: Ed Friedner
Originally release: Vanguard VSD 71141-2 (2 LPs)