Mahler’s Symphony No. 7

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I have always been puzzled by the negative comments on the finale of Mahler 7. Perhaps it is the obvious Meistersinger quote or bits that are alleged to sound like the Merry Widow that rub people up the wrong way. More likely to me is the fact that in the wrong hands it can seem episodic. It all needs to go with tremendous gusto. Bernstein in his Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft recording and Solti on Decca come across in this way. Abbado and Haitink (his 1985 Christmas Day CD) have the measure of the work. Best performance live I’ve ever heard was Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Barbican a year or two back.

However, I don’t think there is much doubt that the finale works on a much lower level of inspiration than the preceding movements. It’s all relative, of course. Second-rate Mahler is still better than many composers at their best.

Deryck Cooke famously referred to it as “Kapellmeistermusik”, i.e. Mahler knew how to orchestrate and how to round off a large symphonic work, but the desertion of his muse is evident. It’s as if he has struck on a good tune and decides to milk it for all that it is worth, with a ländler or two thrown in for good measure and a fairly arbitrary everything-including-the-kitchen-sink finale. It was a very real creative crisis for Mahler, and was only lifted when the Eighth began to take shape.

The German title of the work, hardly used in Britain, is “Song of the Night”, and the construction of the symphony implies going from daylight into the night – a nightmare – dawn – followed by bright sunshine.

Although some of the passages of the finale look rather vulgar, the thematic interconnections with the opening movements are all there. It’s difficult to realize as it must be exuberant without becoming vulgar, and must be part of the overall “day-night-day” scheme.

It is not the very best music Mahler ever wrote, but it is not a bad piece of music (many a minor composer would be over the moon with such a work).

By the way, George Szell was not a fan of this movement describing it as “hypertrophic”.

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