Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sunday Classics: Mahler's most characteristically "Mahlerian" symphony is also his least loved


Claudio Abbado conducts the first five minutes of the chamber-music-like fourth movement, the second "Night Music" (yes, with guitar, mandolin, and cowbells!), of Mahler's Seventh Symphony -- at the 2006 Lucerne Festival.

by Ken

We concluded Friday night's "Night Music" preview with a two-minute-plus "glimpse" of "what I think qualifies as the ultimate in Night Music." Here's the complete movement:

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E minor:
ii. Nachtmusik I (Night Music I): Allegro moderato

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

If you wonder about that movement designation "Nachtmusik I," it means just what it says. It's the first of two "Night Music" movements. Here's the other, "Nachtmusik II," from the same recording.

MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E minor:
iv. Nachtmusik II (Night Music II): Andante amoroso

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971


. . . because that's where Mahler started. As it happens, we've already heard his Sixth Symphony ("The Andante of the Sixth Symphony -- the most beautiful movement Mahler ever composed?" and "Is Mahler's Sixth Symphony any more 'tragic' than life itself?," July 2011), so we're starting more or less where he did. And the first ideas that came to him which seemed capable of being developed further were the two Nachtmusik movements. And then he was stuck. He doesn't seem to have lost confidence that his pair of "Night Music"s could be the core of something; he just couldn't figure out what.

In a useful liner note for Otto Klemperer's 1968 EMI recording of the Mahler Seventh, the Austrian-British musicologist-critic Mosco Carner (1904-1985) tells the story of how the composer overcame this creative block:
From a letter written to his wife five years after the completion of the symphony (1905) we learn that it was while being ferried across a lake in the Tyrol that the movements of the oars suddenly released in him the music or, rather, the rhythm and character of the slow introduction, and that in four weeks the first, third and last movements were finished. (This is an excellent illustration of a fact observed in the psychology of the creative process that a quite trivial event may act as a trigger to make conscious what was once stored deep down in the artist's unconscious.)
Here, by the way, is that "slow introduction" to the opening movement of the symphony, first in the really fine Solti recording and then in a performance that happens to be a particular favorite of mine, Otto Klemperer's -- the very recording, as it happens, for which Mosco Carner wrote his liner note.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Georg Solti, cond. Decca, recorded May 1971

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded September 1968


It would be hard to overstate the impact of Leonard Bernstein's first recording of the symphony, as part of his Columbia Masterworks Mahler symphony cycle. Lenny's breadth of musical perspectives and sympathies, and his ability to not only encompass but thrive on quirks and contradictions, was an uncanny match for Mahler's own, and nowhere does this matter more than in the quirk- and contradiction-laden Seventh Symphony. It's interesting that when Lenny was planning his final audio Mahler cycle with DG, there are several symphonies he urgently wished to do with his old orchestra, the New York Philharmonic (which, remember, was at one time Mahler's own orchestra), and in the DG version we can hear why -- it's very much the earlier performance, only more so.

Among our recordings today we're going to hear Lenny's 1985 DG Nachtmusik I. And to suggest how strongly this music is imprinted on the New York Philharmonic, we're also going to hear the three middle movements in an excruciatingly delicious performance with Rafael Kubelik.


The Mahler Seventh Symphony has often been known as Song of the Night -- not the composer's title, but an appropriate one, at least as concerns the three core movements. Once he figured out where to go from the two "Night Music" movements, he had the design, not just for what I think of as the most characteristically "Mahlerian" of his symphonies (never mind the irony that it's the least loved of them), but for his eventual Ninth and (especially) Tenth Symphonies.

A particular advantage of beginning our approach to the Mahler Seventh with just these intimate middle movements is the opportunity to savor the detail. Of course detail always matters with Mahler, but I can't think of any Mahler work before the Seventh Symphony which so ripely rewards the minutest attention to every tic and whisper. (I'm not sure that even such obsessively detailed later works as Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony do.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find just how useful Mosco Carner's liner note for the Klemperer Mahler Seventh is, and I thought we might let him guide us through the middle movemenets today.

ii. Nachtmusik I: Allegro moderato

Mosco Carner writes:
The Nachtmusik I, in C minor, conjurs up a remote forgotten world, the world of Eichendorff's romantic poetry, with its medieval Landsknechte or soldiery and their wistful marching songs. This is also the world of Mahler's Wunderhorn songs, such as "Revelge," "Der Tamboursg'sell," and "Der Schildwache Nachtlied." By the time he wrote the Seventh, he had grown out of this world, yet it still proved potent enough to draw him to memories of it. [We've devoted a fair amount of attention to Mahler's settings of poems from the folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn), with special attention to the military songs, in particular, of course, "Revelge" and "Der Tamboursg'sell," which got a July 2011 post to themselves. -- Ed.]

The piece is in a narrative balladesque vein and is rondo-like, with a main section, two episodes and an introduction which recurs later several times. This introduction anticipates the main theme in a mysterious antiphony between two horns:

part 1: Allegro moderato

Vienna Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Oct 1-4, 1984

The main section is based on a slow march [finally heard in proper form at 1:25 of the "part 1" clip] punctuated by a characteristic rhythmic figure Mahler had used in "Revelge."

part 2: Sempre l'istesso tempo. Nicht eilen, sehr gemächlich
[Always the same tempo. Not to hurry, very leisurely]

The first episode, in A-flat major, introduces on the cello a long-drawn expressive tune recalling Mahler's earlier melodic style in his first four symphonies. The exordium returns [1:41], Mahler now adding cowbells to the orchestra [1:59]. In the Sixth he had used cowbells extensively, explaining that they symbolise the last terrestrial sound one hears in the high mountains. [See note below. -- Ed.]

The second episode, in F minor [3:35], marked by nostalgic sixths and thirds and syncopations, brings back memories of the gypsy music in the "Frère Jacques" movement of the First Symphony. [See note below. -- Ed.] The close of this section is a most exquisite example of Mahler's art of subtle quasi-impressionist scoring.

part 3: Tempo


In the Mahler Sixth post we spotlighted the first appearance of the cowbells in that amazing transformation in the intensely dramatic first movement:

New Philharmonia Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. EMI, recorded 1967

We haven't "done" the Mahler First yet, but in an April 2012 preview post we did hear "the 'Frère Jacques' movement," the third, which also includes Mahler's transformation of his own Wayfarer song "Die zwei blauen Augen." Here, for reference, is the "Frère Jacques" opening of the movement:

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Oct. 10-11, 1962


New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, Nov.-Dec. 1985

Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Hermann Scherchen, cond. Live performance, recorded 1965

iii. [Scherzo] Fliessend, aber nicht schnell (Schattenhaft)
[Flowing, but not fast (Shadowy)]

Mosco Carner writes:
The third movement is a Scherzo (though not called so by Mahler). "Shadowy" is the marking of this D minor piece. It is a true danse macabre transporting us to the fantastical spectral world of E.Th.A. Hoffmann.

part 1: Fliessend, aber nicht schnell (Schattenhaft)
[Flowing, but not fast (Shadowy)]

Vienna Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Oct 1-4, 1984

With its broken-up phrases, shrieking woodwind, stopped horns and string glissandi, the music is a deliberate distortion of the Austrian Ländler and the Viennese waltz. In one place Mahler anticipates the Bartók of the Sixth Quartet in demanding a pizzicato in which the strings are plucked so hard as to rebound from the fingerboard.

part 2: Trio

The only relief from the diabolic mood is provided by a brief Trio in D major which opens with a pastoral tune on the solo oboe.

part 3: Wieder wie zu Anfang (nicht eilen)
[Again as at the beginning (not to hurry)]


Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded live, May 2001

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, cond. EMI, recorded live at the Aldeburgh Festival, June 21-22, 1991

iv. Nachtmusik II: Andante amoroso

Mosco Carner writes:
Nachtmusik II, in F major, is in strongest contrast to the spooky Scherzo and also different from the mood of Nachtmusik I. Mahler calls it an Andante amoroso, whose thematic material and the kind of orchestral colours he applies to it stamp it as a tender, muted Serenade. Significantly he omits here the trumpets and trombones of the Scherzo, and adds to the harp a mandolin and guitar.

part 1: Andante amoroso

Vienna Philharmonic, Lorin Maazel, cond. CBS/Sony, recorded Oct 1-4, 1984

The movement opens with a four-bar phrase for strings whose melody, played by the solo violin "with rapture," is similar to the opening figure in Schumann's Nachtstück Op. 23, No. 4, and, like it, is used as a refrain. The main theme of the final part -- the movement is ternary -- is this enchanting horn strain [at 0:19 of the clip]:

[And Carner quotes the answering oboe tune, at 0:27]

Twice in this movement Mahler seems to be copying a musical joke which Haydn made in his Symphony No. 60, Il distratto. It is the habit of string players constantly checking the tuning of their instruments which Mahler imitates by making the strings, harp, mandolin and guitar move up in three successive semitones.

part 2: B-flat major middle section

The middle part, in B-flat major, is based on a sinuous, swaying cello tune to be played with "big tone." The whole movement is characteristic chamber style and recalls the tender Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony.


New Philharmonia Orchestra, Jascha Horenstein, cond. Recorded live at the Proms (Royal Albert Hall), Aug. 29, 1969

Hallé Orchestra, Sir John Barbirolli, cond. BBC Legends, recorded live, Oct. 20, 1960


MAHLER: Symphony No. 7 in E minor:
ii. Nachtmusik I: Allegro moderato
iii. [Scherzo] Fliessend, aber nicht schnell (Schattenhaft) 

[Flowing, but not fast (Shadowy)]
iv. Nachtmusik II: Andante amoroso

New York Philharmonic, Rafael Kubelik, cond. Live performance, Feb. 28, 1981

Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Maderna, cond. Live performance, May 27, 1967


We take a look at the two big movements Mahler created to frame the three we've focused on this week.

UPDATE: Part 2 of this post actually came the second week following. You'll find it here.

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At 6:54 PM, Anonymous me said...

I've never been able to "get" Mahler. Maybe I will some day. Or maybe his music really is just noise.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I've been thinking about this, me, and would generally file it under the heading "De gustibus non est disputandum."

But in this particular Mahler context I do have to say, having just spent so much pleasurable time in the company of the three astounding middle movements of the Seventh Symphony, it sure doesn't sound like "noise" to me.


At 8:21 AM, Anonymous me said...

De gustibus non est disputandum.

Ha ha, Latin for "There's no accounting for some people's taste."

I've have to spend a little more time with Gustav. Who knows what will result.


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